Archaeology as an elevator pitch

On my first day at the SAA annual meeting in Albuquerque I attended a forum with archaeologists and consultants who work to influence members of congress. Most of the participants worked in Washington and were in positions where lobbying was part of their job. The central question of the forum was: how do we make sure archaeologists get a seat at the table when political decisions are taken? Aside from practical tips such as donating a small sum to the congress members you want to influence to get their attention and try to forge a personal bond with them, the key message was that:

– We need better stories to “sell” archaeology – We need to take advantage of the romanticism of archaeology and the current genealogy hype to boost interest (including trends such as DNA-testing) – Academics need to be educated about heritage politics

While I agree with the last point, the combination of the first and second scares me. Because they were not talking about solid, nuanced and well-researched stories. They were talking about things that would work in an “elevator pitch”. Romanticism, the search for influence, and superficial storytelling are things that [critical] archaeologists has tried to move away from for decades now. They are part of what drove archaeology’s entanglement with colonialist and nationalist regimes in the 19th and early 20th century. And considering that archaeology’s reason for being, its greater societal relevance, is still closely tied to nation building and capital in some form, the question is how far we are willing to go to sell archaeology? Is the reward of more influence worth the moral cost? And are we ready to live with the potential consequences of rehashing stories of national golden ages?

Personally, I don’t think archaeology is worth pursuing as a societal project if we just re-pitch and re-package it to suit the needs of potential “buyers”. I.e. if we are not ready to apply criticism in interactions with politicians and funders (even if it costs us our jobs). Instead of delivering what others order, we need to start “pitching” archaeology as a discipline of intellectual depth and rigor. What other field of scholarship defines itself base on what is in demand or whatever works?

In line with this reasoning, one way to get a place at the decision making table would be to advocate for more critical, unexpected and diverse societal relevance(s) of archaeology (for cultural policy and diplomacy for instance). I think many feel the need to argue for one single archaeology to be heard in political settings. To get away from the idea that archaeology is mainly good for identity building and tourism we need to change the expectations of what archaeology can bring to the table.

Anyway, when it comes to why archaeologists are not invited to “the table” in political settings I would say it is less about stories and more related to the risk it means to involve us (just as when inviting environmentalists to the table). At least for market-oriented politicians. Archaeologists and heritage professionals are not really known for their willingness to compromise when it comes to balancing development versus preservation. While this is not always true, the image of the hard-line preservationist is difficult to get rid of.

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