Whenever I tell people I’m studying archaeology, I get one of several responses:
1) “I always wanted to do something like that! I dug up my whole backyard one summer as a kid trying to be Indiana Jones!”
2) “Oh, so you dig up dinosaurs and stuff?!” (Le sigh…)
3) “Archaeology…so, what exactly do you plan to do with that?”
The last is a fair question with several potential answers. And it goes beyond simply asking how I plan to support myself in years to come. People want to know why I would choose archaeology. What good does it do? How do I justify spending my time and education money on archaeology rather than something obviously beneficial like engineering or medicine?
I won’t lie…I’ve asked myself that question, too. It always comes to the forefront when I talk about the usefulness of Anthropology as a field. I find myself using examples of my peers in cultural, medical, or biological anthropology as performing necessary research that will benefit the greater good. But where is the archaeology in all of this? What good are we doing? (More to the immediate point for those of us in the field, why should we continue to get funding?!)
It’s a question that I think we as archaeologists should be trying to answer. It’s obvious that people find archaeology fascinating, or there wouldn’t be movies and museum exhibits devoted to it. But I think it’s increasingly important that we devote at least a little bit of our time to explaining just why archaeology is important for everyday people’s lives today. Yes, we think it’s awesome (and deserving of funding), but why should they?
Unfortunately, it’s a big question, and the answer varies depending on the geographic region, culture, and subject being studied. But that’s all the more reason why it should be addressed by each archaeologist.
Personally, I study cooking features and their connection to domestic and ritual life in a remote region of Fiji. Nothing could seem further removed from my home base in Birmingham, Alabama! Yet, I find it has a purpose. People are fascinated by the exotic, and even more so when I can get them to realize that it’s not really as strange as it seems at first glance. Drawing a parallel between gender roles regarding the Fijian earth oven and the American BBQ grill is a great way to get people thinking about things in a slightly different context.
Archaeology can also be a vehicle for sparking discussion about contemporary issues like the environment. From my neck of the research woods, Rapanui (Easter Island) is a fantastic example of over exploitation of environmental resources that had disastrous consequences. Many archaeologists are incorporating outreach programs that emphasize the connection between people and their environments in the past, and the lessons we can learn for today.
With a little creativity, I think any archaeological project can be shown to be beneficial to the general public. And with a focus on STEM research and a general decrease in funding across the board, it has never been more important to show people just how useful we can be!