#250 Tom King is Wrong

I drafted this post a few weeks ago and never got around to finishing it. Now it’s about to encompass a couple things that Tom King is wrong about.

Do we need archaeologists?

It all started with a podcast interview I recorded with Tom a couple months ago. The interview is for a podcast that isn’t quite ready yet so I have no link for it. We were talking about archaeology and archaeologists and the idea of professional licensing. I asked Tom why we don’t have licensing for archaeologists. He told me it’s because we don’t actually need archaeologists. We need plumbers and electricians so we have licensing for them. He apparently thinks we need nail and hair salons too since they also require licensing.

Was Tom King right? Do we not have a NEED for archaeologists? I guess it depends on your definition of “need”. If you take it to the absolute reductionist view of my friend, Dave, then we don’t really “need” anything beyond a cave to sleep in and some food to eat. However, most of us have more extensive needs.

We need archaeologists the way we need science, medicine, and space travel. These things help us live in this world in a better way than our ancestors did. They help us live healthier lives and learn from our past. Archaeology teaches us what has and has not worked in the past. It shows us what’s been tried and how we can proceed. More than that, archaeology is a record of human achievement. Whether we need that or not, again, depends on your definition. I think we do need archaeology and I think the world would be worse off if our heritage were not recorded for descendent generations to learn from.

Consider this, everything from farming to chemistry to physics to industrialization is recorded by archaeologists. ALL HUMAN ACHIEVEMENT is part of history and archaeologists record that history.

Do we need licensing?

The follow-on question is, of course, should we license archaeologists? What would that get us? What is the benefit to the public and what is the benefit to the archaeologist?

The public benefit is the secure knowledge that someone with sufficient training is recording their precious history. We’ve all heard of, and have possibly seen or been party to, those excavations where someone blew through a feature. We’ve seen people blow off sites while on survey. Would licensing prevent those things from happening? Maybe. With licensing would come the need to maintain that license. We would have to go through regular training and continuing education. We could bring in an ethical component too, and, harsh penalties for violating those ethics. It wouldn’t happen overnight, but, in the end I think there would be a huge benefit.

Archaeologists would benefit as well. Aside from the continuing training, archaeologists would likely get paid more and would have a higher credibility amongst the other field sciences. Maybe these things don’t mean much to some, but, from questions asked on the Profiles in CRM podcast it’s clear that pay and respect are high on most archaeologist’s lists.

Do you have to publish to be an archaeologist?

The other thing Tom King is wrong about is that you don’t have to publish to be an archaeologist. Let me explain.

I shared a link on my Facebook page to a podcast from Joe Schuldenrein:

On that episode Joe interviewed a couple of grad students and asked them about their program and what their plans are. The show was completely from a grad student perspective.

Along with the post on Facebook I commented that it was a good episode but ignored the fact that most archaeologists don’t have a graduate degree. Then Tom started commenting.

Basically, Tom said that the industry standard for getting hired at a museum or university is that you have to publish. Sure, I’ll buy that. The problem is that most archaeologists in the United States work in Cultural Resource Management (CRM). Most CRM archaeologists (Tom is cringing at that term right now) are field technicians. Most field technicians have a BA/BS in anthropology or archaeology. So, most archaeologists do not have graduate degrees.

I explained this and the conversation turned to whether field technicians are archaeologists at all. Just because they dig holes and walk lines doesn’t make them archaeologists, according to Tom. If they don’t do research and they don’t publish, then they just aren’t archaeologists.

Wow. What they hell do we call them, then?

What is an archaeologist?

An archaeologist is someone that studies the material remains of human activity. The papers and reports that are written about archaeological topics are based on data from the field. Those data are collected by field technicians. Field technicians need to be able to identify artifacts and sometimes assess the condition of sites. They need to have a knowledge of many different types of artifacts and features in order to do their jobs. Anyone can dig a hole, but, not everyone can determine the soil horizons they’re digging in and what they mean. Not everyone can look at a piece of glass and know that it’s from 1970 so we shouldn’t waste our time there. Of course these things just take training, but, it’s that training, on top of a degree, that makes a person an archaeologist.

Do you need a degree to be an archaeologist?

Yes. You want more? Fine. You need a degree because going through college gives you a perspective that people that don’t go through college just don’t have. Over the course of an anthropology or archaeology BA/BS you’ll be exposed to writing, research, and analysis. The quality of those activities is variable, but, you’re exposed nonetheless.

When I was a field technician I freely called myself a scientist. I encouraged others to do the same, even though they saw themselves as shovelbums. In fact, I want to do away with the label “shovelbum”. It’s derogatory and in no way describes the fantastic people that I’ve had the privilege of working with. At my CRM firm I don’t hire shovelbums. I hire archaeologists. Shovelbums can go look for work at Home Depot.

So Tom King is wrong, in my opinion. Archaeology IS important. We SHOULD be licensed. You DON’T have to publish to be an archaeologist.

Eviscerate me in the comments…

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the field!!