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Brief notes on archaeology’s “Grand Challenges”

February 12, 2014

Two papers came out at the end of January — one in American Antiquity and the other a two-page Opinion in PNAS explaining the rationale for the first — with the goal of laying out “grand challenges” for future archaeological work.  Many bloggers much more widely read than myself have already written about them, but I have a few comments, as well.

1) The authors claim that these grand challenges were the result of a “crowd-sourcing” effort.  It’s unclear to me why you would call this crowd-sourcing, though, unless you refer to the results of any survey as “crowd-sourced.”  The crowd-sourcing projects I’m more familiar with — for example Galaxy Zoo or the Valley of the Khans Project — rely on non-specialist interest and effort to accomplish something a) too time-consuming (and tedious) for specialists to work through alone and b) too complex for computers to do automatically.  The grand challenges, on the other hand, resulted from a survey sent to several professional associations of archaeologists.  That’s a sensible group to survey if you only want responses from archaeologists, but I don’t see what it has to do with the “crowd,” beyond the fact that “crowd-sourced” is a trendy buzzword, while “based on the results of a survey of professional archaeologists” is not.

2) In the American Antiquity paper, the authors state:

The main demographic disappointment was the sparse response from younger archaeologists and students (2 percent). We have no explanation for the low response; this age group was simply not as likely to respond to the request. (7)

As a member of the under 30 age group in question, I actually have a fairly good explanation for why I didn’t respond to their request: I had no idea the survey had been conducted until I read the Opinion piece in PNAS.  I suspect (especially considering Nicolas Laracuente’s comment on Bill Caraher’s post) that this was the case for many, if not most, young archaeologists.  I don’t think the problem was that archaeologists under 30 didn’t want to respond, but that the survey wasn’t successful in reaching us to begin with.  This might also explain why archaeologists over 50 responded by far the most frequently.

3) I actually like this paper more than I thought I would.  I’m generally skeptical of “design by committee”, and reading the summary in PNAS left me a bit worried, but I think they do a good job in the American Antiquity paper of arguing for the continuing relevance of the challenges they identify, and including a fairly wide range of interests.  Certainly I can see my own research as broadly fitting into a number of these categories.  What I found strange, though, was the unevenness of the bibliographies provided for each challenge.  The bibliography for Challenge A3 (“Why do market systems emerge, persist, evolve and, on occasion, fail?”), for example, includes citations going back to Polanyi.  That makes sense to me, because people have been investigating markets for a while.  But the oldest citation for Challenge A1 (“How do leaders emerge, maintain themselves, and transform society?”) is Clark and Blake (1994).  Perhaps the authors saw Polanyi as still relevant, but older literature on the emergence of leadership less so?

4) Under Challenge C3 in the Am. Ant. paper (“How do humans occupy extreme environments, and what cultural and biological adaptations emerge as a result?”) the authors note,

These are difficult and expensive places to work, and it is unsurprising that archaeologists are still developing basic culture-historical sequences in many of these areas. (13)

That definitely sounds familiar.  It’s good to hear that it’s not just southern Jordan.

As a closing note, this seems like it will definitely have implications for funding, so it’s probably something everyone should read, regardless of whether it sounds like something you would agree with.

Works Cited:

Kintigh, Keith W., Altschul, Jeffrey H., Beaudry, Mary C., Drennan, Robert D., Kinzig, Ann P., Kohler, Timothy A., Limp, W. Fredrick, Maschner, Herbert D. G., Michener, William K., Pauketat, Timothy R., Peregrine, Peter, Sabloff, Jeremy A., Wilkinson, Tony J., Wright, Henry T., & Zeder, Melinda A. (2014). Grand Challenges for Archaeology. American Antiquity., 79 (1), 5-24 DOI: 10.7183/0002-7316.79.1.5

Kintigh, Keith W., Altschul, Jeffrey H., Beaudry, Mary C., Drennan, Robert D., Kinzig, Ann P., Kohler, Timothy A., Limp, W. Fredrick, Maschner, Herbert D.G., Michener, William K., Pauketat, Timothy R., Peregrine, Peter, Sabloff, Jeremy A., Wilkinson, Tony J., Wright, Henry T., & Zeder, Melinda A. (2014). Grand challenges for archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (3), 879-80 PMID: 24449827

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2014 6:41 pm

    Nice post. I didn’t receive an invitation to contribute to the “Grand challenges” effort, either. Keith Kintigh told me that messages were sent to the entire SAA, but many of us didn’t get them. And you are right about the bibliographies. Some are good and to the point, and others are strange or even worthless. But it’s a pretty good job of archaeology by committee. Too bad the committee wasn’t more diverse, and the survey didn’t get to all the interested people. At this point, I am curious about where (if anywhere) this will go.

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