Thoughts on a WSU Archaeological Perspective

Pioneering WSU archaeologist Richard Daugherty instructs students on the beach at Ozette, late 1960s. Source: WSU.

Washington State University (WSU) has one of the oldest and most notable programs in Northwestern North American archaeology, with pioneers such as Richard Daugherty and William Ackerman leading the way.  The WSU magazine has a nice interview with a number of their distinguished alumni and faculty, including William Andrefsky, Dale Croes, Colin Grier, and Gary Wessen.  There are some interesting quotes in it, notably, to my mind – and perhaps yours, if you are a university nerd like me:

In the summer of 1974, a year after he (Gary Wessen) came West, drawn by the promise of Ozette, there were four different field schools operated by WSU, all in Washington. The University of Washington had already shifted its archaeological focus elsewhere.  Following high-profile digs such as Ozette and Hoko River, which was directed by Croes, large-scale Northwest archaeology, along with public and academic interest, has nearly disappeared.

What bothers Wessen most is that so much archaeology is going undone—and so much knowledge of our past is being lost.

“I understand that it’s cool go off somewhere far away,” he says. “But the reality is, the University of New Mexico does not send archaeologists to the Puget Sound Basin.”

Andrefsky acknowledges that shift in focus by both the University of Washington (UW) and WSU away from the Northwest.

“I don’t think UW is interested in developing their strengths in that way. Their faculty are all over the map,” he says. “They don’t have a Northwest focus any more, and in some sense we don’t either. We need to tap into that.”

WSU has traditionally had a regional strength, he continues. But for various reasons we’ve lost the emphasis of the regional past. Again, the reasons are many, including not-so-subtle pressures within academe.

“One thing people are afraid of is becoming identified as a regional university,” says Andrefsky. “A lot of faculty think we should not hire based on region. Most big schools don’t do that, because they don’t want to be labeled as regional institutions. Many feel we should hire based on theoretical perspective.

But Andrefsky hopes for more.

“We can hire someone with a theoretical perspective as well as a Northwest regional emphasis.”

Well, this extract is a target rich environment!  It is worth reading the whole thing.  I like that Andrefsky calls out the University of Washington for abandoning the NW Coast, their own backyard you could say.  And its true, in the sense that they have no real identity as a department, which, considering their size and prestige, is surprising.  Meanwhile, WSU has reloaded on the NW Coast by hiring Colin Grier, who does have a theoretical perspective, as well as a NW regional emphasis.  But for many years finding NW archaeologists interested in archaeological theory was pretty hard – Maschner and Fagan described the NW Coast in about 1991 as being “fundamentally atheoretical”.  I agreed with that when it suited me for my Ph.D., but now I think that even then it was questionable: the dominant theory has been a kind of ecologically-informed culture history: think Graham Clarke & Starr Carr ca. 1950, and not Binford ca. 1965.   That’s changed even more with hires like Andrew Martindale at UBC.

Anyway, the problem wasn’t just universities wanting to  be “not regional” (though I think SFU went through that phase and is only now regaining a NW identity), it was that NW archaeology was something of a parochial backwater as a generation of archaeologists drowned under the wave of data which shell middens, with their superb preservation, unleash.  Ironically enough, this meant that archaeologists had their own version of Suttles’ characterization of NW traditional cultures: archaeologists were “coping with [data] abundance”.  Emphasis on coping!  And only now are we seeing that theory, rather than being an optional extra, is actually the very means by which archaeologists will cut through the data overload and be able to focus on what, exactly, they are trying to find out.  So I agree completely with Andrefsky that hiring for theoretical sophistication coupled to NW Coast research problems will be essential, and is increasingly possible.   In this respect, a couple of thoughts:

1.  We need to dig smarter, not more.  Modern excavation is very expensive and should be targeted very closely to specific goals.  Goals like “how old is the site” and even basic questions of site function and change through time may require much less excavation than previously thought.  So, smart sampling and the use of auger and other minimally invasive techniques as research tools and not just evaluative conveniences must come to the foreground.  Aubrey Cannon has showed the potential of this approach in the Namu area, where is auger approach has resulted in regional studies which are theoretically interesting and lay a baseline for long term culture history as well.

2.  Geophysical tools should be standard operating procedure!  If we want to dig smarter, then a tool like Ground Penetrating Radar is essential.  I’d like to see it become the norm for site assessments, and then used to guide both academic projects and impact mitigation work.  Its expensive, yes, but then so is finding things by accident (cf. Tse-whit-zen).

3.  We need to do a much better job of integrating and synthesizing the results of Cultural Resource Management projects than we have to date.  The Province is littered with small excavation units, the results of which need to be integrated.  Requiring top and bottom radiocarbon dates for all sites which see an evaluative test or a one by one would be very helpful in establishing the basic space-time grid, and this will then feed back into better management.  In this regard, the new remote access to the site report library is possibly the greatest development in BC Archaeology in a decade.

4. This focusing of the mind and technique will likely be done in conjunction with First Nations.  As Dale Croes notes in the WSU magazine article: “The Indians around here take great notice that [the Japanese]  will put a billion dollars a year into doing archaeology, and it’s not their ancestry.”  A priority therefore should be finding a way to engage the majority population in archaeologies that they might not automatically think of as “theirs” – namely, to find a common ground and shared interest with First Nations in the preservation and, yes, publicization, of their archaeological heritage. Protection through respectful education, you could say. In this, the local universities have a leading role to play if, and only if, they make it a priority to engage with the local nations on whose land their institutions sit.  That, needless to say, requires local archaeologists to be a strategic priority for the universities, and for the discipline.

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6 responses to “Thoughts on a WSU Archaeological Perspective

  1. What caught my attention in that article is Dale Croes’ lamentations that wet-site archaeology on the NWC is caught in a backwater (so to speak) and that wet-site methods are no longer being taught.

    It has been my unscientific observation in BC that wet sites are found and worked on most often by archaeologists with wet site experience (a diminishing cohort). Wet sites can be hard to recognize if not approached with hydraulic excavation or wet screening methods and some small amount of knowledge so as to recognize the most common detritus that is not highly visible (such as withe fragments). It is deeply worrying that wet sites might (no, probably) have been missed during impact assessments and consequently destroyed by development.

    The BC Archaeology Branch seems to be trying to ensure that permit applications include wet site methods where appropriate, but with spotty knowledge in the consulting community to apply these methods properly the effort might be a bit futile. However, the BC Association of Professional Archaeologists, to which many CRM professionals belong, does offer professional development courses from time to time, one or two of which have included aspects of wet site archaeology.

    This leads me to the fairly common complaint that by and large universities are not, or are no longer, graduating people that are ready for field work. Since most archaeologists end up employed in CRM companies in the general area that they went to university (such as BC, or Washington/Oregon), there can be a big gap between ideas and implementation where there is a weak regional focus. Its all very well to know how to test a theory in a Roman town, but this is likely to have little direct utility to excavating a low density lithic scatter in the boreal forest.

    This is something that universities must keep in mind where there is a shift towards theoretical archaeology as the gap is probably made wider by a loss of regional focus. Good theories cannot be well tested via bad fieldwork. Most fieldwork is conducted in a CRM environment in an effort to preserve information from the diminishing inventory of sites (Your point 3 is a place the academic community could make both a useful contribution back to CRM, and benefit very much from data collected during CRM projects).

    Thus there is a responsibility in academia to produce archaeologists that can both frame good questions and do quality field work in pursuit of answers to those questions.

    There is a responsibility with the regulators to see that work is framed within good questions and conducted by competent field workers.

    There is a responsibility in the CRM community for continued education and professional development combined with a commitment to finding good questions to ask in salvage archaeology.

    I don’ t think any one of these responsibilities can be satisfactorily addressed in isolation from the others. Deeply theoretical archaeology without regional foci can ensure isolation. This is because there is a much diminished dialogue between an academic archaeologist whose fieldwork is outside the region and the CRM archaeologists in the region were the academic lives and teaches (especially those archaeologists working outside of the theoretical framework of the academic).

    This blog is actually a very useful tool in reducing isolation between different parts of the NWC professional community. And, I think such communications are less likely to be generated by someone whose academic interests are concentrated outside of the region in which they live. I have no data to support this, but at least it is a testable proposition :).

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    • “Good theories cannot be well tested via bad fieldwork.”

      Yeah — in a nutshell. And I say that as someone who is theory-heavy and relatively unskilled in the field. I think there has to be some convergence between the dominant field practices and academia. While university is not a training school, nor is it magically removed from reality. I think we can do our part by

      1. doing a better, more consistent job of offering fieldschools which enable a diversity of real-world skills to be developed. This may mean lessening the traditional research focus of field schools, but can be useful, community-based and methodologically innovative exercises nonetheless. I hear UVIC is about to announce the start of what they hope is a multi-year fieldschool along these lines.

      2. doing a much better job of public education (necessarily in many instances this will be in consultation with First Nations)

      3. Imparting ethical backbone to students, which they will need in academia of course, but also they will need if they go into the fraught world of consulting archaeology, which, in BC, is almost guaranteed to produce some apparent conflicts of interest or the temptation of same.

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  2. Here, here!! (to you both).

    And Quentin, yesw this blog is perhaps the most entertaining and thought-provoking thing to happen for a long time. I just discovered it a few weeks ago after the ASBC posted a link; and I’ve heard from two other archaeologists that work for non-academic institutions that they have just found it and are enthralled, though neither has posted comments yet to my knowledge. So I suspect your influence is becoming quite significant! I really don’t know how you manage to troll through the web and pick up your content almost every day, as well as respond to comments and do follow-ups. Well done!

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    • Hi Morley, thanks for the kind words. Since I think my very first exposure to archaeology was waaay back at Hope on your project, I figure you can take some of the credit! As for influence — well, I hold a little sway over the 11 readers of the blog and enormous, unspeakable sway over my similar number of graduate students. If you hear differently, it’s a lie.

      As to how it is done — well, for years I was aimlessly bookmarking stuff and so I have a huge reservoir of sites already found, and a purpose to put them to. Technically this isn’t in my job description but maybe it should be!

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  3. Well, I don’t know about “enormous, unspeakable sway”……….
    but I agree that your blog is fantastic. I’m intrigued by this debate about regionality, particularly as someone who’s never lived in a single location for longer than a few years, and as someone who is interested in, as you say, non-traditional, ethically-engaged, methodologically-innovative exercises which might take place in venues beyond the archaeological site.

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    • Hi saraperry,

      Thanks! And tell me more about the venues beyond the archaeological site.

      One of the things that the academic world can bring is the marriage of theory to practice — the imaginative space of the university allows ideas to percolate that might never get off the ground elsewhere. For example, I am thinking of how we “think visually” in archaeology for example, and some of the blunt force (mastodons!) and much more subtle (floor plans!) ways our conventions of representation influence our very structures of thinking. Something you’re at forefront of and which one day will pay off in better field methods via more thoughtful visual anthropology.

      So, “methods” are not just rigorous trowel use or auger sampling design: they can be which direction you point the camera and how we marry maps, photos and experiences into a compelling visual narrative of the past – more compelling than the words we write, often enough.

      Talking to people is archaeological method, drawing rocks is also, handling a trowel is, and so is the selecting of pictures for a conference talk.

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