Friday, September 14, 2007

NAGPRA. Again. Archaeology is a necessary science
These enthusiastic visitors, and more than 1,000 students in local schools who every year visit the campus archaeology center or are visited by graduate students committed to serving the public, would be surprised to learn, as Corbin Collins' asserted ("Who owns the past?" Open Forum, Sept. 5) that archaeology is "luxury endeavor for a limited audience." They might even question whether the most relevant standard is whether the pursuit of knowledge will "cure disease, prevent global warming or solve other problems of vital consequence," a standard that would rule out all but utilitarian research.

And if they did agree with this characterization, they would be completely wrong, because archaeology today makes a profound emotional impact on the public.

It's an Op-Ed piece, apparently in response to this Op-Ed piece (note to newspapers: PROVIDE LINKS). The latter is largely polemical, so I won't comment on it (much).

Archaeology has generally had a touch time justifying its existence. True, we haven't traditionally had a lot of immediate relevance and the examples provided are only a few of the relatively slim pickings available. It's been changing though, what with increasing genetic and biochemical tests that are now available on ancient remains, be they human or other. Archaeologists are probably on much firmer ground when they adopt a rigourous scientific methodology as their primary explanatory model, since logical and empirical falsifiability remains one of the great equalizers in civil discourse.

We ought to be careful what we wish for. I don't think anyone wants North American archaeology to be so politically involved that we end up like a bunch of Israelis and Palestinians trading charges of conducting bad archaeology for political purposes. Again, maintaining rigorous scientific standards will go a long way towards alleviating those sorts of concerns.