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.