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common ground

Reaching the Public
Spring 1998, vol. 3(1)

Online Archive

*  Perhaps We May Hear Voices

(photo) Students reconstruct a 1000 year old Mississippian house.

"I am simply astounded that there is virtually no scholarly literature which addresses the role of North American archeology in the contemporary world. "

Brian Fagan

by Brian Fagan

Ten years ago, I stood at sunset atop a deep shell midden on a low cliff overlooking the Santa Barbara Channel. The setting sun painted the Pacific a deep pink, the ocean like a mirror in the calm evening. I closed my eyes, listened to the lapping of the surf on the sand below. For a moment, the past flooded into my consciousness—a Chumash canoe easing through the surf, men and women grasping the gunwales with soft cries of welcome. Dogs barked, wood smoke drifted in the air, children played, as a shaman chanted softly . . . Just for a moment, the voices of the past drifted across the centuries into my consciousness.

That evening, I realized once again why I was an archeologist, and why people are so fascinated by our discipline. The great Finnish paleontologist Bjorn Kurten once wrote: "None of the dead can rise up and answer our questions. But from all they have left behind, their imperishable or slowly dissolving gear, we may perhaps hear voices, which are only now able to whisper, when everything else has become silent."1

A month ago, I visited the same spot on another gleaming summer's evening, hoping to relive the moment. All I found was a scarred battlefield of looters' pits and shredded spoil heaps. The voices had vanished into oblivion. It was then I finally realized that my grandchildren and great grandchildren may never listen to the voices of the past.

Archeology—glittering gold and fabulous treasure, spectacular royal tombs, lost civilizations dimly visible through swirling mists. Unexplained mysteries, mother goddesses, the fabled power of ancient Pyramids. Projectile points littering the surface of a plowed field picked up on a hot summer's day. Mimbres bowls gleaming seductively in a New York dealer's showroom. Spectacular discoveries made by pith-helmeted professors in distant lands, by men and women more adventurers than archeologists. Scientists in white coats peering through microscopes looking at tiny seeds and discoursing wisely about artifacts and food remains.

Today's public is more sophisticated, better educated, and far more inquisitive than in the past. Yet the old stereotypes of archeology and archeologists linger. We are still seen as romantic adventurers as much as scientists. And many people still consider the rapidly vanishing archeological record as some kind of private game reserve to be exploited and destroyed for fun and profit. The future of the past depends on changing these enduring attitudes. But I think we need to ponder a very fundamental question, too. Why are archeology and the remote past important to humankind? Why should we care about the voices of the past? Astonishing although it may seem, there is virtually no academic literature on this most basic of questions. One of the best statements on the subject was written in 1937!2 Much of this academic debate will revolve around different perspectives on the past.

Science tells us that the human past extends back more than 2.5 million years, into a world unimaginably different from our own. We scientists have a linear view of time, of human existence. To us, archeological sites are a unique record of human achievement in every corner of the globe. They are the archives of the past, to be preserved as part of the collective cultural legacy of all humankind.

But many people define the world in very different terms. Many believe in the literal historical truth of Genesis, chapter 1, as a matter of Christian faith. Others, including many Native Americans, look at human existence in cyclical terms, participating in a spiritual world defined by the eternal verities of life and death, planting and harvest, sunset and sunrise.They believe that archeology has no redeeming value, that the world of the ancestors is sacred, and to be left alone. Many Native Americans consider archeology unnecessary, an unwarranted intrusion into their lives, their world, their history. But they have common cause with archeologists in preserving sacred places, burial sites, and the settlements of the ancestors intact.

A few years ago, I spent two days at Wanuskewin, Canada, where archeologists and Native Americans have cooperated in developing a magnificent interpretive center close to the North Saskatchewan River. The symbolic teepees of the center stand atop a small, pristine valley, where you explore the Plains environment of centuries, millennia ago. I walked through the valley, experiencing the subtle diversity of the local environment, learning how ancient visitors exploited its changing resources throughout the year. I talked with the Blackfoot and Cree men and women who run the center, explored exhibits so realistic the computerized soundtrack evokes the savagery of a thunderstorm, the calm serenity of a snow-clad landscape.

Wanuskewin is not about archeology, although archeology is very much part of the picture. It is about respect for other cultures, ancient and modern. Wanuskewin tells of others' world views and cultural values.

Archeology is important because it inculcates respect for other cultures, other people. The Canadians call this "heritage." I think we American archeologists need to spend a lot of time thinking about the issue of heritage, about cultural diversity, and respect. The reasons why many Americans do not respect the archeological record go far beyond mere greed and the lust to own artifacts. They do not consider it part of their history, a history perceived to begin with Christopher Columbus and the Pilgrim Fathers. What utter, ethnocentric nonsense! The world has moved on, our nation changed beyond all recognition. But our social attitudes toward the first chapter of our collective history are often fossilized in the historical attitudes of the 1950s. It is not enough to make people interested in archeology. What we must inculcate in them is a respect for other cultures, their achievements and values. In this way the Paleoindian projectile point, the Pueblo painted pot, and the Hopewell mica ornament achieve a meaning far more than merely one of dollars and cents, of personal gain. All too often, even archeologists themselves call such objects just "artifacts." We have forgotten they are the voices of the past, voices with an important message of respect to tell.

We talk about changing public attitudes to archeology and the past, but we have hardly begun. I am simply astounded that there is virtually no scholarly literature which addresses the role of North American archeology in the contemporary world. How can we change fundamental social attitudes to archeology without serious scholarly consideration of the basics? How can we talk about the right of people to preserve their past, when we archeologists have barely considered these issues in our own scholarly deliberations?

Make no mistake: the stakes are high. The future of archeology is at issue. One hears of cutbacks on every side. I wager many of them result from sheer ignorance, from perceptions that archeology is an idle luxury.

What nonsense! What myopia! And it is largely our fault if people believe archeology is disposable. The 1990s are the moment of truth, the dawning of a fundamental sea change in the way in which archeologists think and go about their business. No longer can one draw a line between academic researchers, subject to the stringent, narrow-minded "publish or perish" value system, and "professionals," concerned with management and conservation of the past. We are all in the same archeological ark, adrift on stormy and uncertain seas, simply because our finite archives are vanishing before our eyes.

The archeology of 2010 will be very different from that of 1998, one in which the conservation ethic, the issue of stewardship, will be all-pervasive. Yet we are unprepared:

  • How many undergraduate and graduate archeology curricula place conservation, ethics, and the value of the past at the very center of their curricula? How much attention have we given in our teaching to the notion that conservation begins with local communities, local people feeling strongly about their environment and the people who once lived in it?3
  • How many graduate programs combine rigorous academics with professional training in stewardship and public education? How many are preparing the next generations of archeologists for the realities of a new archeological world, where preservation of the finite resource on a global basis is our overwhelming priority?
  • How can a genuinely new archeology concerned with conservation and stewardship above all else flourish in an educational environment that values "publish or perish"? Is archeology unique as an academic discipline in its urgent need to make conservation and related activities as high a priority as conventional research? Does the Society for American Archaeology need to take a leading role in convincing academic institutions that their reward system is not necessarily appropriate for all academic archeologists?
  • How are we going to train scholars to research such fundamental issues as the psychology of collecting, the dynamics of the antiquities trade, and archeological tourism?
  • How are we going to expand the domain of archeology to embrace the important lessons given us by Native American culture, oral traditions, and legend, so that all of us, professional and lay person alike, truly learn to respect the early American past?
  • Above all, how do we convince people the archeological record is important for more than just its value as a curiosity and for the tourist dollars it brings in?

There are those among you who claim that we have convinced our colleagues that public awareness is important. Maybe we have—at a superficial level. But where are the lasting curricular changes and shifts in research priorities which are a tangible reflection of a changing concern? Only a few institutions and archeologists have begun to look a generation ahead. These issues are as important to archeology as the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun or the radiocarbon dating of maize in the Mississippi Valley, simply because the future of the past depends on how we resolve them.

The preservation of this past will not come easily. We face the seductive lures of material gain, of untold riches wrested from the artifacts of the past. We face entrenched academic values, which steer the careers of many young and talented archeologists along sterile, already too specialized paths. In our arrogance, we also assume that everyone has a latent interest in the past. They do not, but we should at least give them respect for the lessons and perspectives that come to us from our ancestors.

And everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the past as we have. I remember the soft Greek spring light bathing the great amphitheater in a pink-brown light. Epidauros was quiet, the afternoon wind hushed, a faint scent of pine resin on the air. I sat high in the tiered seats, gazing down on the paved, circular stage far below. A gray-haired German Classics professor ushered a small group of elderly tourists to seats in the stalls. He stood at center stage, transformed himself into an actor of long-gone days, recited an immortal passage from Euripides' Ion. The ancient stanzas eddied and whirled across the vast theater, echoing high in the still air. No microphones, no amplifiers, just the brilliant acoustics of Classical times. Just for a moment, I was transported back in time to the days when Athens flowered with lustrous civilization.

Like all of you, I want my grandchildren to enjoy the delicious, provocative experience of the past. Let's do all we can to bequeath them a new archeological world.

Brian Fagan teaches anthropology and archeology at the University of California-Santa Barbara. For more information, contact him at Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106, (805) 893-2163, fax (805) 893-2404, e-mail bfagan@west.net.


1. Kurten, B., How to Deep Freeze a Mammoth, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

2. Clark, J. G. D., Archaeology and Society, London: Methuen, 1937.

3. Marquardt, W. H., "The Role of Archaeology in Raising Environmental Consciousness: An Example from Southwest Florida," pp. 203-.