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.  That was about it.  We had almost endless questions about the human past to fuel our research fires, and so we cheerfully spent our summers seeking out and excavating those particular archaeological sites that we believed would provide the answers.  We did so usually with small grants and student labor, but with virtually 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 in our own way, measure-by-measure, to an ever-growing body of knowledge.  Then, at summer's end, we made ready to share the findings of our research with each other in rather esoteric journals and at scholarly conferences a great deal smaller than this, and no one else paid us much notice.

Then things began to change.  In the 1960s and '70s a suite of new laws, including the important National Historic Preservation Act, emerged from Congress.  Those laws called upon archaeologists as a group to inventory and evaluate all cultural sites threatened by Federal undertakings and, consequently, to look much farther afield than our particular research interests.  Indeed, since construction specifications rather than research design would now dictate where we looked, the sites we examined often were ones we never would have investigated of our own initiative.  At the same time, 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.  Suddenly more money came flowing into archaeology than ever, 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, I think, 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 the 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.  The laws also were meant to provide something of value to the American people.

Over the past quarter-century countless practitioners who seem to have lost sight of legislative intent have obscured that larger purpose.  Most archaeological effort today seems to be focused on but one goal, determining whether a particular site found to lie in harms way is potentially “significant.”  Never mind the explanation of past lives and adaptive strategies through the study of material remains.  We apparently do not need to know through demonstration whether a site is truly significant.  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.  What would ordinarily be the necessary first step in problem-oriented research has become an end in the world of CRM.

But in order to determine if a site truly has significance, we must 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, we are told that 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.

Significance, simply put, is an ascribed quality denoting something that matters.  What matters to archaeologists, as Criterion D implies, is the information that an archaeological site contains and how that information enhances our understanding of the past.   Of course, what archaeologists consider to be significant can and does change frequently in the course of time, in response to changes in our knowledge, our priorities, and our available technology.  Things that are significant to one person or group may not be important to another, however, and we cannot expect others not of our immediate company to share our perspective.

Values, on the other hand, can be said to relate to the cultural core.  Not only are they more universally held among a people, they are extremely slow to change.  What we value follows tradition, whereas what we find significant follows trends.

The late John Cotter--one of our great pioneers in historical archaeology--observed in a symposium Bill Lees and I organized for the 1987 SHA meetings that a sufficient amount of hot air could elevate practically any archaeological site to the National Register.  If that is so, and there is ample evidence pointing to the basic 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, though, we know that this cannot possibly be the case.  But because those SHPO staff charged with Section 106 review and compliance are cultural resource professionals like ourselves, who for the most part understand both our language and our interests, we tend to be quite successful in verbalizing our point of view on site significance.  We must ask ourselves, then, the more compelling question as to whether the paying public would agree with our professional judgments.

It should come as no surprise that the masses hold a very different view of archaeology from what 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 sampled from across the United States--sponsored in part by the SHA--revealed that almost every American has a keen interest in archaeology.  What seemed to appeal most to 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 that contain ruins or other readily recognizable elements you can see and touch.  They are the classical sites of Europe, the pyramids of Egypt, Biblical cities of the Middle East, and the spectacular cliff dwellings and prehistoric mounds that can be found much closer to home.  Few respondents indicated any broad interest in how people lived in the past, but all were familiar with at least some of the monumental sites at various locations around the world.

Almost everyone--99 out of every 100 questioned in the survey--appears to agree that archaeological sites have both educational and scientific value, but relatively few Americans seem to have any appreciation for what can be learned from the archaeological record.  Nor do many Americans 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 the things they can see: old buildings; older ruins; and perhaps some of things we now call cultural landscapes, such as battlefields.   So it would seem that heritage tourism, which is so often associated with historical archaeology, has the power to engage people more than any other medium.

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' daily struggle against hardship, long for the simple clarity of their lives, or perhaps marvel at the march of progress that has brought us happily to modern comfort and ease.

Edward Bruner wrote a 1994 American Anthropologist article about this very subject.  It is entitled "Abraham Lincoln as Authentic Reproduction: A Critique of Postmodernism," and I recommend to you.  He found, in his study of visitors to Lincoln's New Salem--a reconstructed town site west of Springfield, Illinois, that typical visitors on a family outing did not really care whether the historic reconstruction was meticulously researched and authentic in its detail.  They were there to spend an hour or two in pleasant diversion--not to learn anything about the past, nor even to pay homage to our revered 16th president.  Rather, it was those basic sentiments I just mentioned that they expressed time and again when asked what it was that impressed them most about the site.

No matter what impression we take away from such reconstructed sites--whether it be, as Bruner observed, a sense of identity, meaning, attachment, or stability--that fleeting and vicarious immersion in the past has a profound impact; it makes us feel good about ourselves.  On the other hand, an archaeological site that lies hidden from view in a fallow Nebraska cornfield, however important it might be for understanding the human 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 touted as the key to rallying public support for archaeology.  Indeed, education is the organizing theme for this first SHA conference of the new century.  If we would only reach out to them, we are repeatedly told, the average citizen will come to see things as we do, and our interests will become theirs.  But after a decade or more of increasingly energetic public outreach efforts, can we yet perceive any substantive change for the better?  How soon, and to what extent, can we expect to sway public opinion in favor of ideas instead of things?

American concern for our natural resources has unfolded slowly for more than a century, and it may be instructive to look briefly at that evolutionary process to gain insights into our own efforts for the sake 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, however, was principally 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 polled in our recent survey seem to value the dramatic visual quality possessed by certain archaeological sites with ruins and monumental architecture.

People still greatly value scenic beauty, of course, though perhaps not in the same way as those who enjoyed Yellowstone National Park in the 19th century.  Environmentalist John Miller, in his 1997 book Egotopia: Narcissism and the New American Landscape (University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa), points out that more than 250 million visitors enter our national parks each year, but this by no means indicates that today we are a nation of environmentalists.  On the contrary, modern visitors tend to experience the wilderness as detached observers, rather than as participants interacting with it.  In Miller's view, our insulation from the environment of our parks is so complete that today's wilderness experience is more akin to watching TV or going to the neighborhood shopping mall.  Indeed, in support of that observation, a recent National Park Service study reports the rather surprising statistic that average park visitors spend only about 10 minutes outside their cars!

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 natural resources had to be managed wisely or they soon would be lost forever.  Not only did they work the legislative system to establish new laws that would regulate the taking of game, avid 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, who proved to be a great champion the conservation cause.

This is not to say, of course, that most sportsmen fully grasped the biological bases for animal population dynamics, carrying capacities of the environment, or any other such concept.  Nor did they always agree with what the "experts" might say about balancing nature, especially when it meant less liberal bag limits during hunting season.  Rapid depletion of game species, however, was something they could readily see and understand when hunting and fishing was carried out unchecked.  Moreover, the many success stories of active game management have reinforced their faith in the system.

Finally, in the years following World War II, run-away development and widespread industrial pollution led to contemporary concerns for environmental quality.  It was no longer simply a matter of spoiled scenery or poor hunting and fishing prospects, 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.   That does not mean, of course, that the average citizen has been tutored in the particulars of environmental science or public policy.  Nevertheless, most Americans have come to recognize at some level the interconnections of ecosystems and our own connections with the natural world in which we live.

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, have been organized with historic preservation as their cause.  There is the formidable National Trust for Historic Preservation, to be sure, 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, with archaeological sites being only a minor concern.  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.  As a result, they have 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 ruins and burial mounds over sites with much greater research substance.  But the fact that it took so long for the cause of environmentalism to evolve to its current state cannot be encouraging.  Let’s face it, the prospect of losing a few hundred or even thousands of archaeological sites is not near as frightening to the public as the poisoning of our planet.  We must recognize the fact that to most the past of our forefathers simply is not as crucial as the future of our children.

            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 concerns with the past?  After all, we archaeologists represent an extremely small segment of society--our numbers being about 1 to every 25,000 Americans, and it is virtually impossible for a small minority to affect the values of an overwhelming majority.

            Indeed, it is said that one is powerless to change anyone else, let alone an entire society, but you can change yourself and how you deal with others.   So, if we are to make substantial strides in converting the public to our point of view, I believe we must first make substantial changes in how we do archaeology and how we convey the results of our work to society at large.  Allow me now to outline a few modest proposals concerning what those changes might be.

First, we have to do more than perpetuate a preservation process.  As archaeologists, 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 a 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.  We cannot comprehend the past unless we open the doors.

            Second, 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 staggering amounts of data, yet most of it languishes in repositories all across this nation.  In the collections of the Midwest Archeological Center, where I work, there are over three million catalogued items, but few researchers outside our offices ever avail themselves of that bounty.  Nationwide, at museums, universities, and other public curation repositories, the quantity of archaeological materials must be astronomical indeed .  We need to set ourselves the goal of synthesizing the data from countless isolated projects into a more coherent, comprehensive, and meaningful whole.

Academics have often avoided involvement with cultural resource management, which many have viewed as a low-level, descriptive undertaking performed at a frantic pace in the face of unreasonable deadlines.  Our discipline would profit greatly, however, if more professors and their students would put those data to good use.  Of course, in order for them to do so, the agencies involved with collecting the data must do a better job of alerting archaeological colleagues to their substance and availability.  Limited-distribution reports, minimally circulated to meet the legal requirements, simply do not provide sufficient impetus to promote broader inquiries.

            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 justifiably admire, such as Monk’s Mound at Cahokia, cannot be fully understood without examining the more mundane village sites that are 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 of compliance projects published by university presses 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 often seem to devote more time to explaining how we do archaeology and what interesting things we found, rather than why we do archaeology and what we found out about ourselves.  As a discipline, we are much too bogged down in method and technique, much of which even we find dry and boring--no wonder the public should find it so.

            The average person does not want to be an archaeologist, any more than he or she wants to be a biologist or any other kind of "ologist," and we should not try to make them one of us by prattling on about stratified sampling strategies and cubic meters of fill.  It is wasted effort.  But 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 closing, I believe the most critical step is this: We must engage in some serious self-analysis as a profession and ask ourselves the fundamental question, “What is worth knowing?”  That question is central to archaeology done in the public interest and should serve as the basis for all we do--certainly if we are working in Federally mandated research and even in pure research.  For if archaeology can't tell society something worth knowing, then it shouldn't be worth doing.  James Deetz--one of the very few of us who could connect past and present in a way that engaged the public, and whose talents are now sadly lost--wrote a decade ago that "historical archaeology is the most expensive way there is to learn something we already know."  It logically follows, then, that it is a profoundly regrettable waste to learn something we don't need to know.