The Grand Challenges for Archaeology: A Blogging Carnival


A few years ago I participated in a Blogging Archaeology Carnival organized by Doug Rocks-Macqueen, a man whose surname manages to combine aspects of both lithic analysis and 1970s British rock. The carnival tasked participants with answering one question per month, beginning in November 2013 and culminating with a “Blogging Archaeology” session at the 2014 SAAs. It also launched an associated edited volume, which is open access and available here. The questions posed in 2013/2014 were as follows (with my own answers linked):

  1. Why blogging? – Why did you start a blog? Why are you still blogging?
  2.  What do you consider to be the good, the bad and the ugly of blogging?
  3. What are your best and worst post(s), and why? 
  4.  Where are you going with blogging, or where would you it like to go?


This year Doug decided kickstart a more focused one-month blogging carnival, revolving around the theme of “Grand Challenges for Archaeology”. The idea stems from a forum in the January 2014 issue of American Antiquity. The forum tasked fifteen archaeologists with refining crowd-sourced survey data to determine the 25 “grand challenges” of archaeology as a discipline. Importantly, the project was intended to “to inform decisions on infrastructure investments for archaeology. Our premise is that the highest priority investments should enable us to address the most important questions.”

The American Antiquity survey sparked some debate online due to the low response rate it garnered from younger archaeologists (see SEAC Underground for the most holistic coverage of the issue, and my own ” The Grand Challenge of Archaeology: Getting young people to respond to a survey, apparently” for a snarkier perspective). Doug is now taking the carnival opportunity to solicit feedback from a wider range of voices. This month, he posed the question: What are the grand challenges facing YOUR archaeology?going on to specify that “it is up to you to define what ‘your archaeology’ is. It can be highly specific to time and place. It can be the grand challenges for the archaeology of Aberdeen-shire between 1723-1746. Or it can be as broad as you want i.e. the looting of archaeology around the world. It can be about the profession i.e. pay, job prospects, etc. It can be as many or as few grand challenges as you want. It is all up to you.”

There have been some great posts of late that have been focused on contemporary archaeological problems, from Jake Lulewicz’s piece on the ethics of social media and archaeology, to Sian Halcrow’s descriptions of the obstacles specific to women in archaeology (particularly mothers), and Andy White’s persistent tenacity in combatting pseudoarchaeology and pseudoscience in a very public fashion.

However, what first leapt to my mind when thinking about the challenges facing archaeology was diversity. Even the word itself is divisive; some scholars reject it outright because of its ability to gloss over deeply entrenched structural racism in favor of a feel-good mentality propped up with buzz-words like “inclusivity” and vague promises of “celebrating cultural difference”. In using it here, I am referring to the fact that in North America and the UK, archaeology is an incredibly homogenous field, and archaeologists have remarkably homogeneous identities when it comes to their race, gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities.

Salon – Diversity is for white people

Ellen Berrey,  the sociology professor who penned the aforementioned “Diversity is for white people” for, dislikes the term diversity because “it’s how we talk when we can’t talk about race.” Archaeology in the U.S. does have a widespread and undeniable race problem –as Doug Rocks-Macqueen has pointed out “archaeology [is] disproportionately white.” He notes that “our audiences are not very diverse either, they tend to be middle class, older, and white.

This pattern was made abundantly clear in the results of the 1994 Society for American Archaeology census, now over 20 years old. Melinda Zeder, who analyzed the results of the survey, writes “for a discipline dedicated to the study of human diversity over the ages, American archaeology is starkly homogeneous in its own ethnic makeup (Figure 2.7). Of the 1,644 individuals who responded to this part of the Census, 1,470 (89 percent) reported that they were of European ancestry, two were African American, 4 were of Asian heritage, 15 were Hispanic (with 5 coming from Latin American countries) and 10 people classified themselves as Native Americans. One hundred and forty-two individuals (9 percent) classified their ethnic heritage as “Other,” and most of these were Canadians who objected, reasonably, to being classified as “European American,” … Eliminating this “Other” group from our sample, we see then that a full 98% of the respondents claim European heritage“(Zeder 1997:13).

Figure 2.7 from Zeder 1997

Aside from the amusingly offended Canadians, the census painted a troubling picture of a discipline that is almost entirely white. The SAA has yet to conduct another census on the 1994 level, but its 2010 Needs Assessment Survey suggested that the number of minority archaeologists is slowly growing, with respondents identifying as members of groups  other than “non-Hispanic white” having increased to sixteen percent. However, Diane Gifford-Gonzalez and Anna Agbe-Davies underscore that “absent significant new recruitment, 10 years from now, the membership of the society will probably still be predominantly white, with even higher proportions of this ethnic group among its senior leadership. Viewed in the context of the 2010 demographic profile for U.S. K-12 students, the disparity between SAA membership and societal composition may become more pronounced in two decades“(Gifford-Gonzalez and Agbe-Davies 2012:12).

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 9.56.17 PM

Writing about his experience as an African-American archaeologist working in the U.S., Bill White notes that the number of black archaeologists has increased since 1994, but only slightly – “Today…I personally know at least nine African American archaeologists – five of whom are PhD students…There were at least 13 black archaeologists in attendance at [the Society for Black Archaeologists meeting] in Baltimore, so I guess our numbers are so large I don’t personally know all of us anymore.” That White expected that he would personally know all of the black archaeologists in America is jarring, particularly for anyone who has witnessed the hordes of practitioners (84% of whom are “non-Hispanic white” archaeologists) congregating at the SAAs every year.

To bring my discussion back to Berrey’s point about diversity, I’m not using the term here to deny differential access to professional archaeology that is clearly based on race. Unfortunately, I feel the need to use the term “diversity” because there are also other identities, and often overlapping identities, that are poorly represented in professional archaeology including women, LGBTQ individuals, and people with disabilities. This is not an archaeological iteration of “all lives matter” – academics who are people of color face a slew of unique and terrible obstacles within the academy. For eloquent and eye-opening descriptions of these sorts of battles, I recommend following Chanda Prescod-Weinstein on twitter (@IBJIYONGI), reading  Kiese Laymon’s “My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK“, and Ta Nehisi Coates’ “Acting French” (and really reading anything that Coates has ever written). My point is that archaeology still needs to do better at incorporating a number of identities that differ from the “middle class, older and white” disciplinary norm.


I’ll touch upon some of these here. Women have been consistently underrepresented in archaeology since its beginnings (see Mike Pitts’ defensive post describing publishing statistics in British Archaeology in 2008/2009, and the results of the AAA survey in 1998). Recent anthropological research has underscored that this may be partially related to the dangers of sexual harassment, particularly in field-based contexts (see the famous SAFE survey, or the SEAC sexual harassment survey, both published in the last two years). In his 2014 series of posts on disability in archaeology, Doug Rocks-Macqueen covers the low number of professional archaeologists with disabilities (2%), and the many reasons archaeologists may be reluctant to disclose such disabilities, touching upon his own experience with speech issues and dyslexia.  Alison Atkin has written four thought-provoking posts titled “Silence in the Cemetery” (Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV) that center on her experiences navigating academic archaeology with hearing loss.

I was unable to find any statistics on LGBTQ representation in American archaeology, though the SAA has recently developed QAIG, the Queer Archaeology Interest Group, and Chelsea Blackmore and Dawn Rutecki cite a need to “[bring] together individuals interested in sexuality studies and other forms of queer research, [highlight] the problems experienced by members of our community, and [address] pedagogical issues important to LGBTQI students” (2014:18). In this vein it’s worth mentioning that Sarah Bess has a great recent post on her first experience of attending an archaeological conference as an out trans womanlgbtq_ally
So, several hundred words later, my answer to Doug’s question is that diversity, or perhaps more appropriately homogeneity, is one of the grand challenges currently facing archaeology. As anthropologists, understanding what it means to be human from a variety of perspectives is part and parcel to our disciplinary mission statement. It’s hard to see how we can achieve an informed understanding of human behavior without scholars representing the scope of human variability. This is not a problem with quick, simple, or cheap solutions. However, a key first step is being aware that the challenge exists and working to develop strategies to overcome it. Recent SAA initiatives like the Historically Underrepresented Groups Scholarship Fund and QAIG suggest that it is a challenge that archaeologists are at least beginning  to address.

I want to conclude with the words of the far more eloquent Bess, who writes:

Those of us with the power to speak out and the privilege to be heard need to speak out, but we also need to listen. As much as the academy has conditioned us to love the sounds of our own voices, as hard as it may be for an anthropologist to shut up, we need to listen. We need to amplify those voices that might not be heard on their own. We need to make sure that this dialogue resounds at all levels: at field sites and in labs, in the classroom, in barrooms, at SEAC, at SAA, at AAA”.

Image Credits: Blogging Archaeology header found here. Cat on computer found here. Figure 2.7 is a screenshot from Zeder 1997. Banner from the Society of Black Archaeologists from their website, here. Banner from TrowelBlazers from their website, here.

Blackmore, C., and D. Rutecki. (2014). Introducing the Queer Archaeology Interest Group: Who We Are and Why We Need Your Support. The SAA Archaeological Record 14(5):18-19. — full issue available online here. LGBTQ ally banner found here.

Gifford-Gonzalez, D., and A. S. Agbe-Davies (with assistance from T. Tung). (2012). The SAA’s Historically Underrepresented Groups Scholarship Fund. The SAA Archaeological Record. 12 (5):11-16). — full issue available online here.

Zeder, M. (1997). The American Archaeologist: A Profile. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira.

This entry was posted in Archaeology, Blogging and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Grand Challenges for Archaeology: A Blogging Carnival

  1. Pingback: What do we, archaeologists, see as our grand challenges | Doug's Archaeology

  2. Excellent and thought-provoking post Jess, this post definitely deserves a wide distribution.


  3. Pingback: A Quick Look: The Face of Academic Copyright & Sci-Hub, Open Access Button, Academia, ResearchGate | These Bones Of Mine

  4. Pingback: Bone Broke Year in Review 2016 | Bone Broke

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