Anthropology Matters! – But does Archaeology?

I recently read Shirley Fedorak’s new book Anthropology Matters! It is about the relevance of anthropology in our everyday lives as human beings in the Western world.

The best chapters discuss questions such as these:

  • Of What Use is Anthropology to the Business World?

  • Is Female Circumcision a Violation of Human Rights or a Cherished Cultural Tradition?
  • What Does it Mean to Grow Old?
  • What Impact Has Missionism Had on Indigenous Cultures?
  • Is the Practice of Purdah and Wearing the Hijab Oppressive to Women or an Expression of Their Identity?
  • How Do Anthropologists View Same-Sex Marriages and Changing Family Structure?
  • Has the Medium of Television Changed Human Behaviour and World Views?
  • Having read these eye-opening discussions, nobody will doubt the relevance of anthropology to our own everyday lives.

    But I wonder what a book entitled Archaeology Matters! may look like and even whether it could be written (yet). It strikes me that volumes like Barbara Little’s Public Benefits of Archaeology do not address similarly bold questions in a similarly candid way.

    We welcome comments which address this issue, suggest important questions archaeologists can answer (like the anthropological ones above), or which simply wish to draw attention to papers or books that do in fact successfully discuss the relevance of archaeology in our everyday lives in the present!

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    3 Responses to Anthropology Matters! – But does Archaeology?

    1. Martin R says:

      I argue e.g. in this paper that archaeology does not matter to most people. It is a form of middle-class entertainment on a par with astronomy and theatre, and thus great fun for those who are culturally conditioned to care. Agriculture and health care are things that really matter.

    2. Jelmer W. Eerkens says:

      A couple of things I thought of as to why archaeology matters:

      1) Fuels the tourism industry. This serves to redistribute capital around the world.

      2) Formation of identity. This is where I think Martin R is wrong. When I travel to Peru, Greece, Germany, and even the UK, working class people know about the prehistory of their country, AND they take pride in it. It gives them a sense of who they are.

      3) In some cases it can allow a people who have been dispossessed of their land a means to reclaim it.

      4) It creates jobs. This is especially true in the USA where federal and state laws protect archaeological resources and an industry has sprung up around the enforcement of these laws.

      5) It provides the opportunity to correct or augment “history.” History is written by people. So is prehistory. But two independent viewpoints on the same subject can often provide a more accurate perspective than one.

      6) It informs on human variation beyond what we see in the world today.

      7) It offers a unique long-term perspective on human and cultural evolution that no other discipline can offer.

      There is the old cliche that we can learn from history and not repeat the same mistakes. However, I think that’s a bogus claim. We never learn.

      I don’t know if these are on par with the anthropological examples given, but I think so. Then again, as an archaeologist, I’m biased!

    3. Astolfo Araujo says:

      A book whose title could be “Archaeology Matters” was written by Jared Diamond under the title “Collapse”. Since Diamond is not an archaeologist, and since archaeology is lost in mumble-jumble issues, the book was not very well received, but I belive it is the finest example of archaeological data being turned into something meaningful for society at large. There is another book, called “The Collapse of Complex Societies” by Joseph Tainter (this time, an archaeologist) that deserves the title, also.