Sorry, guys, no October SHPO Shout-Out this month – but I have a good reason!
I’m off talking to everyone in north-central and north-west PA at our statewide plan Open Houses this week so PA SHPO staffer Kira Heinrich offered to fill in and wrap up Archaeology Month with a reflection on why archaeology matters. I promise we’ll have a great Shout Out for November!
Reflections on the value of archaeology on the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act…
Why is archaeology important? 50 years after the signing of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in 1966, which officially codified the consideration of archaeological sites in the federal planning process, this remains a common question. When you are in graduate school studying archaeology or just starting out as a Field Director in a Cultural Resource Management firm everyone tells you to tell others archaeology is important because “it’s the law”.
As a review archaeologist at the SHPO, I know the facts of this answer as well as any practicing professional in American archaeology today. I explain the law, the regulations, and answer the “Why should I care about archaeology?” questions every day. I also know based on hundreds of conversations, with other archaeologists, engineers, developers, environmental scientists, federal/state agency reviewers, land owners, and many other regular folks that the easy answer of “it’s the law” really doesn’t satisfy. The people who call my office and want to know why they should care already know it’s the law. Why is it the law? Why are archaeological sites something we should spend our time and money caring for? What is this archaeology stuff all about anyway? More often than not the people who call me are looking for better answer. A bigger picture reason. The real answer.
So, what is the real answer? Archaeologists the world over have a very difficult time coming up with that answer. For most archaeologists, reason and emotion regarding the importance of archaeology are mixed together. It’s important because we feel it is. We just KNOW it is. Ask an archaeologist why you should care about archaeology and you will likely hear a confusing ramble about forgetting history and repeating the past, or getting to facts untarnished by the winners who write history. I have given these high-minded, low-content speeches myself and watched eyes glaze over and attention wander in my listeners. Like all those other archaeologists, for me it has been difficult to drill down through the emotion of my calling to the logic and fact that the questioners are looking for.
So, the question remains: why is archaeology important? In my years attempting to answer this question for others, I have arrived at something of an answer for myself. I think the answer is: archaeology is important for the same reason art, literature, philosophy, and history are important. Archaeology is important simply because many people like to know, to understand, and to reflect. The study of archaeology satisfies the basic human need to know where we came from, and possibly understand our own human nature. Some people even believe the study of archaeology allows for cultural self-refection that will provide for a better foundation for our collective future.
What I have also come to realize is that the real answer to “why is archaeology important?” is different for everyone. In the same way no two people interpret the meaning of a painting or a poem exactly the same way, archaeology and the information it tells us is thought of, interpreted, and used by different groups of people in different ways. That is why the consideration of archaeology under the National Historic Preservation act is so critical. Not everyone has to know why archaeology is important. Not everyone who knows its value has to agree on why it’s important.
We can all continue the debate about the value of archaeological research indefinitely BECAUSE considering impacts to archaeological sites under the NHPA IS the law. We may never know the real answer to why archaeology is important – and that’s ok. So, here’s looking forward to the next 50 years of debate!