Conflict Archaeology in North America: The Grand Challenges

So, it’s been a while since I posted anything here, but I was asked to contribute to the Blog Carnival (#blogarch), so here we go. There may not be candy, but at least there aren’t clowns.

Other contributors have defined their area of expertise on which to comment. See Lisa-Marie Shillito on geoarchaeology, Lucy Shipley on Etruscan archaeology and Alice Gorman on space age archaeology. I’m writing about conflict archaeology in North America, as that’s what I know best… but it immediately opens up some challenges. So, let’s start there.

What is This Thing?

When reading works on the archaeology of groups-of-people-doing-violent-things-to-other-groups-of-people, you are presented with a multitude of ways to describe this focus. We see the archaeology of warfare, conflict archaeology, archaeology of violence, archaeology of trauma, combat archaeology, battlefield archaeology, military sites archaeology, and a host of others. Some of these were run up a flag pole once, and no one saluted, so they didn’t stick. Amongst those that remain, pre-contact specialists seem to like to talk about the “archaeology of war” (see Arkush and Allen 2006; Rice and LeBlanc 2001), which post-contact archaeologists use along with “military sites archaeology” and, increasingly, “conflict archaeology.” “Conflict archaeology” appears in Europe associated commonly with modern and ongoing conflicts (see Saunders), and contrasted with “battlefield archaeology” of pre-modern conflicts… otherwise known as that which conflict archaeology in North America focuses on. This jumble of words is both confusing and makes it difficult to centralize discussion into fruitful cross-disciplinary collaborations.

This is a really grand challenge in that we should be collaborating. Pre-contact studies work well with landscape and regional-level data for site distribution and recognizing the archaeologically-recognizable long-term effect of warfare and conflict on societies. Post-contact archaeologists need to do better with this, as our interest to study conflict must go far beyond the battlefield and look at the cumulative effect of warfare on post-contact societies, something we have not done well (though, with great hubris, I might point you towards my dissertation [Drexler 2013]). This is not to mean only looking at U.S. society (which is a massive need), but on post-contact indigenous societies as well. In this last, I mean not just sites where there are recognizable traces of fighting, but site location, as well. I live and work in southwest Arkansas, where we have a handful of Cherokee, Delaware, and Shawnee sites. The only reason for their being is their connection to both white-Indian and intratribal conflicts in the 19th century. The movements of people as connected to conflict (mapped to capitalism, colonialism, and modernity) should be better-served within our scholarship.

Looking forward from the very violent 19th and 20th centuries, we can and must connect conflict archaeology to studies of modern warfare, as the former presages and gives foundation to the latter. The technology of war has changed, but the structures that support it, the philosophies that drive it, and the ends to which it has been put have not changed that dramatically in the post-contact era.

Which brings me to another issue. How many books on archaeology and capitalism, modernity, etc. are out there? A lot, right? How many of them treat warfare and conflict as an integral part of their interpretive strategy? Yep, that’s right, it’s just about none of them. The best that we might hope for at present is a nod to Saitta’s work on the Ludlow Massacre, where the links between conflict and capitalism are undeniable. This must change for American archaeology to do its job right, and it may fall to conflict archaeologists to lead on this. To do that, we need the expansive understanding of conflict and its role that comes from working with pre-contact studies, modern conflict studies, sociological work on militarism and the military, grand histories, and cultural anthropologists working on conflict.

Call of Duty: Trowel Edition

But, of course, there are barriers to getting to that point. One of the other grand challenges, and one that creates a hurdle, is dealing with militarism and its opponents within anthropology. I have to go into anecdotal data here, but when I mention that I do conflict archaeology to someone else, I get one of two replies. Amongst the general public, I tend to get a lot of enthusiasm and a recitation of their or their family’s connection to the war under study.  As the descendant of two German-American Yankees living and working in southern Arkansas, discussions of the Civil War often get weird. More important to this post, however, is the response I get from academics. It tends to be some form of rejection or revulsion, basically that “war-is-icky.”

I get that it is not palatable, but the fellow-traveler to this response is the patronizing air of superiority or maturity that comes with it. To not be into warfare and conflict is to be either cleaner or more balanced of an individual. Conversations often lead to the intimation that I, personally, am really excited about war and fighting (spoiler: I’m not… thank you, Quakerism), and that what I do is some kind of academic equivalent of one of the host of ultra-violent war-based video games, such as the Call of Duty series.

This comes from two things, one of which we cannot control. The uncontrollable end is that anthropology turned pretty hard against warfare in the 1960s and created a stigma against research that has been a brake on the development of conflict research. This has received a jolt in the past decade with the (quite justified) concerns about Human Terrain Teams and other engagements between anthropologists and the military. Yet, to study something is not to endorse it, and shutting off interest weakens the ability of scholars to critique and amend, if that’s your thing. That’s not really something we can deal with right now (though in the long term…).

The other contributing factor, however, is something that comes out of our present state of research. We are getting very good at focusing on single sites (usually, single battlefields). But, until we get to synthetic understandings of conflict-making and do better at drawing links between warfare, one the one hand, and capitalism, gender, race, modernity, and the other topics that lie at the heart of post-contact archaeology in North America, we are not going to dispel the illusion that we are not war-obsessed wanna-be soldiers. Viewing it from the inside, I will tell you that this area of research is far from being the archaeological equivalent of the Call of Duty video game series, but we are fighting a perception that feels very, very real.

So, who cares if we look like we’re playing soldier? I do, for one, because that’s not how I see what I do. The larger concern is that the Call of Duty conflict archaeology is not one that will encourage diversity within the research community. The SAA was 36% female back in 1994, and SEAC’s recent survey of its membership found that 71% of archaeology students are female. Looking at the conflict sessions at recent conferences, it’s a pretty masculine room. We are fortunate in having a number of female archaeologists doing very good and important work within the research area (look up work by Michelle Sivilich or Allison Young, for instance), but the disparity is marked. Does anyone want to even get into race? It’s always a nearly-exclusively white room, which is not necessarily that different from the rest of post-conflict archaeology in the U.S., but it’s still a thing. I think this is tied to a kind of deeply culturally-ingrained kind of violent masculinity associated with making war in the U.S. that is brought heavily into conflict archaeology by a focus on battlefield research.

Structuring Conflict Archaeology

The final grand challenge facing us is… who’s going to teach and guide this field? The places in the U.S. where one could go to get training in conflict archaeology were never numerous, but we’re losing them quickly. The places where we could go consisted significantly of the University of Nebraska (home of Doug Scott, of Little Bighorn fame, and some others), East Carolina (Larry Babits), Temple (Dave Orr), and South Carolina (Steve Smith). Of these, Scott and Babits have retired, and Orr and Smith are getting there. What academic program is poised to take this up now? Heidelberg College has a nice program with Dave Bush, but it lacks a grad program. A lot of the more active members of the younger crowd within the field are working in CRM or some agency or other. While they are producing good work, it doesn’t produce the next group of students, who need to be schooled in doing conflict archaeology. Conflict research is not simply historical archaeology with different documents. It requires a lot of specific areas of expertise that arise best from an institution who is willing to make conflict research its thing. We’re a handful of retirements away from not having that in the U.S., and that’s a terrible thing. Compare this to the UK, where the University of Glasgow has a program steeped in conflict research that is producing students trained in the field. A number of other schools in the UK teach conflict archaeology, even if they don’t make it their focus. We have no analog here.

Finally, we are going to have to roll out a specialist group; some kind of association for conflict archaeology. Not only for promoting and developing the field, but to represent our collective voice to colleagues and the public. Regarding the public, the birth, growth, and refusal to die of metal detecting shows, such as Nazi War Diggers, should push us to create such an association. While I applaud the SAA’s condemnation of the resurrection of NWD, a professional organization dedicated to conflict studies would carry a different and valuable kind of impact in the fight to have the people and sites associated with past conflicts treated with dignity, instead of some treasure trove.

So, that’s my take on what conflict archaeology in North America is facing in the coming decades. It’s my view, based on about 15 years working in this area. We’ve come a long way since the 1980s, but we’ve got a long road ahead.


2 thoughts on “Conflict Archaeology in North America: The Grand Challenges

  1. Libby Rodriguez says:

    Hi! I am reading all of the blog carnival posts! To me, conflict archaeology sounds really important… How will we ever and warfare (if that is indeed possible) if we do not understand its history and all of its myriad causes.

    I’m actually an urban planner. I’m trying to educate myself about archaeology because I think that The way to create a good environment for humans is to study human history, especially human origins.

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