Significance vs. Value in Archaeology

Vergil E. Noble

There was a time in America--and it was not so long ago--when archaeologists were accountable to almost no one but our fellow academics.  Our job was to teach college courses, or perhaps curate museum collections, and perform basic research.  We had many questions about the human past to fuel our research efforts, so we spent our summers seeking out and excavating those sites that we believed would provide the answers.  We did so usually with small grants and student labor, but with all the time in the world and with the absolute assurance in our own minds that what we were doing was important.  After all, each of us was contributing, measure by measure, to an ever-growing body of knowledge.  At summer's end, we prepared to share the findings of our research with each other in obscure journals and at conferences a great deal smaller than the one we attend today, and no one else paid us much notice.

Then things began to change.  In the 1960s and '70s a suite of new laws emerged from Congress, particularly the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, calling upon us to look much farther afield at sites threatened by development undertakings--often sites that we never would have investigated on our own initiative.  But because Federal law mandated such studies, archaeologists suddenly became accountable to the people.  Some of us were then forced to take a hard look at what we were doing and justify it to others.  There suddenly was more money flowing into archaeology than ever before, but we had been smoked out of the ivory tower at last.  We were now obliged to do archaeology in the public interest and not for ourselves alone.

It is sometimes forgotten that Congress perceives some public purpose in its laws, and historic preservation laws are no different.  Indeed, the first book published on the subject that we now call "cultural resource management" was Bob McGimsey's aptly titled Public Archaeology.  Today the thrust of CRM is principally protection of properties and sites deemed significant to our national heritage.  The intent of those laws, however, was not simply to save endangered cultural sites for their own sake.  Rather, the laws were meant to provide something of value to the American people.

Over the past quarter-century that purpose has been obscured by countless practitioners who seem to have lost sight of legislative intent, if they ever saw it in the first place.  Most archaeological effort today seems to be focused on but one goal, determining whether a particular site found to be in harms way is potentially “significant.”  Never mind the explanation of past lives and adaptive strategies through the study of material remains.  We apparently don't need to know whether a site is truly significant through demonstration.  We need only argue that we could learn something from it if we were to make the attempt.  In other words, if an archaeologist has rendered a studied opinion about a site couched only in terms of potential significance, he or she apparently has done the public a great and lasting service.

But in order to determine if a site truly has potentially significance, we must first know how to define that basic term.  What is significance, and what is it that imparts that quality to an archaeological site?  Many have attempted to address that slippery issue over the past few decades, and yet one can perceive no emerging consensus.  Most archaeologists in the United States know all too well that the law casts the concept of "significance" in terms of eligibility of a site to the National Register of Historic Places.  In fact, many of you can probably recite National Register Criterion D, which is almost invariably used as the sole justification for listing archaeological sites on the Register.  It says roughly that a site is eligible to the National Register if it has yielded or is likely to yield information important to the understanding of history or prehistory.  In other words, a site is significant if it can tell us something that is important, and each of us is left to interpret that wonderful tautology by our own lights.

The late John Cotter once observed that a sufficient amount of hot air could elevate practically any archaeological site to the National Register.  If that is so, and all evidence seems to point to the truth of it, one could readily conclude that every site is equal in its ability to further our understanding of the past and, therefore, equally significant.  If we think about it, however, we know that simply cannot be the case.  But because we speak of site significance only to other professionals like ourselves, who for the most part understand both our language and our interests, we tend to be quite successful in making our arguments convincing.  But would the public at large agree with us?

Significance is an ascribed quality, simply put, that denotes something that matters.  What matters to archaeologists, of course, is the information that an archaeological site contains.  Further, what we consider to be significant can and does change frequently over time, as our knowledge, our priorities, and our available technology changes.  What is significant to one person or group may not be important to another, however, and we cannot expect others not of our company to share our perspective.  Values, on the other hand, relate to the cultural core.  Not only are they more universally held, they are slow to change.

It should come as no surprise that the American public has a very different view of archaeology from that which we hold as insiders.  Indeed, a recent study of public perceptions and attitudes about archaeology provides some interesting insights.  That telephone survey of over 1,000 adults across the United States, revealed that almost every American has an interest in archaeology.  What seemed to capture the interest of those surveyed, however, was not the "science" of archaeology, nor even the results of our research.

Rather, what most excites the public’s collective imagination are those sites with ruins or other readily recognizable elements you can see and touch:  classical sites of Europe, the pyramids of Egypt, Biblical cities of the Middle East, and the dramatic cliff dwellings and prehistoric mounds that can be found much closer to home.  Indeed, heritage tourism has probably done more to inspire public support for archaeology than anything else has, since those are the types of sites typically open to visitation.  Almost everyone--99 out of every 100 polled--agrees that archaeological sites have both educational and scientific value, but relatively few Americans seem to have an appreciation for what can be learned from the archaeological record.  Nor do many seem to think that the study of archaeology has any real impact on their own lives in the modern world.

When it comes to cultural resources, then, most people seem to care about what they can see:  old buildings; older ruins; and perhaps landscapes, such as battlefields.  Apparently the public finds intrinsic worth in the experience of being among the things that can physically connect contemporary society with the past.  We value those connections as a people.  By turns, we can admire the fortitude of our forebears against hardship, long for the simple clarity of their lives, or perhaps marvel at the march of progress that has brought us to modern luxury.  No matter what impression we take away for such sites, that hour or so of vicarious immersion in the past makes us feel good about ourselves.  A site that lies hidden from view in a fallow Nebraska cornfield, however important it might be for understanding the past, is of little real consequence to the public.  How, then, can we get the mass of Americans to see through our eyes?

In recent years, education has been championed as the key to rallying public support for archaeology.  If we would only reach out to them, we are repeatedly told, the average citizen taxpayers will come to see things as we do.  But after nearly a decade of increasingly energetic public outreach efforts, can we yet perceive any substantive change for the better?  To what extent, and how soon, can we expect to sway public opinion in favor of ideas instead of things?

The evolution of American concern for our natural resources has unfolded slowly for more than a century, and it may be instructive to look briefly at that process to gain insights into our own struggle in the realm of cultural resources.  The roots of the environmental movement may be traced at least as far back as 1872, when Congress established Yellowstone as the world’s first national park.  The public interest in those early years was motivated principally by a desire to set aside wilderness lands to protect their obvious aesthetic qualities.  In essence, we sought to preserve parklands so tourists could enjoy spectacular views of unspoiled scenic beauty, just as those who were polled in the recent survey seem to value the dramatic visual quality of certain archaeological sites.

Around the start of the 20th century, as human and environmental pressures increasingly threatened game species, sportsmen were to become staunch activists for wildlife conservation.  They realized then, much as archaeologists do today, that such resources had to be managed wisely or they soon would be lost.  Not only did they work the system to establish new laws that would regulate the taking of game, sportsmen also fought tirelessly to preserve the dwindling natural habitats that supported their quarry.  And they were extremely fortunate to count among their number a powerful U.S. president and renowned big-game hunter, Theodore Roosevelt.

Finally, in the years following World War II, run-away development and widespread industrial pollution led to modern concerns for environmental quality.  It was no longer simply a mater of spoiled scenery or poor hunting and fishing, as our nation’s water and air became increasingly poisoned.  The health of our environment literally had become a matter of life and death, not only for the forest creatures, but also for humanity.  People still value scenic beauty today, of course, and a sizeable segment of society still cares passionately about preserving game species, but now most Americans at last have come to recognize the interconnections of ecosystems and our own connections with the world around us.

This awareness has given rise to countless grassroots organizations devoted to ecological causes of all kinds and at all levels of political organization.  Relatively few citizens’ groups, however, make historic preservation their cause.  There is the formidable National Trust for Historic Preservation, but its membership pales in comparison with that of a Sierra Club.  Further, the Trust principally advocates for the preservation, restoration, and adaptive reuse of historic architectural properties.  Other groups founded expressly for the purpose of archaeological preservation, such as the Archaeological Conservancy, have only a small fraction of the Trust’s membership and, as a result, only meager operating budgets for directed action.

            We can perhaps be consoled in the realization that public involvement with the natural environment began many years ago with a concern for the visual, much in the same way that the public today favors archaeological ruins and burial mounds over sites with greater research substance.  But the fact that it took so long for environmentalism to evolve to its current state cannot be encouraging.  Let’s face it, the prospect of losing a few hundred archaeological sites is not near as frightening to the public as the poisoning of our planet.

            So how do we go about effecting a sea change in American culture toward our point of view when all evidence suggests that contemporary society is blind to our concern with the past?  After all, we are an extremely small segment of society--our numbers being about 1 to every 26,000 Americans, and it is virtually impossible for a minority to affect the values of an overwhelming majority.

            Indeed, it is said that one is powerless to change anyone else, let alone a society, but one can change oneself and how one deals with others.   So, if we are to make substantial strides in converting the public, we must first make substantial changes in how we do archaeology and how we convey the results of our work to society at large.

            There is not sufficient time remaining to give more than the broad outlines of a strategy, but the list of critical steps is brief.  First, we have to do more than perpetuate a preservation process.  We must keep our eyes on the real prize, which is explaining the past and how it relates to the present.  And in order to do that we cannot stop short at the level of potential; we must continue the march toward its realization.  Nor should we stop at the edge of the narrowly defined zone of potential impact in project areas if it appears that additional excavation will provide a better context for understanding.  All too often in archeological compliance we are peeking through keyholes at the past, but we cannot comprehend the past unless we open the doors.

            We must exploit the archaeological record to its fullest, not simply preserve it in the hope that someday someone else will use it, and we need to make much better use of the data already at our disposal.  More than 30 years of public archaeology have produced a staggering amount of data, yet most of it languishes in repositories all across this nation.  In the catacombs of the Midwest Archeological Center alone there are over 3 million catalogued items, but few researchers ever avail themselves of that bounty.  It is high time that we begin to synthesize the findings from countless isolated projects into a more coherent, comprehensive, and meaningful whole.

            Not only must we remind ourselves that archeological site data cannot be understood in isolation, we must also tell the public that sites are integral parts of broader systems linked in space and time.  The monumental sites that they admire, such as Monk’s Mound at Cahokia, cannot be fully understood without examining the less spectacular village sites spread across the landscape.

            More important, though, we must do a better job of conveying the substance and results of our work to the public that pays for it.  Technical reports and even scholarly summaries published by university presses simply are not enough.  We must also write and speak to the public in terms they understand and about issues they find meaningful.  Some of us have tried to do that, of course, but even those archaeologists seem to devote more time to explaining how we do archaeology and what we found, rather than why we do archaeology and what we found out.  And if we cannot somehow make the critical connection between the past and today, then our discipline will forever remain a haven for dilettantes, and our results will continue to be mere curiosities.

In short, we must ask ourselves the fundamental question: what is worth knowing?  For if archaeology can't tell society something worth knowing, then it shouldn't be worth doing.  That one question is central to archaeology done in the public interest and should serve as the basis for all we do.