The Red Scare (?) at the Picric Acid Plant, 1918

So, I’ve done some historical work on the Little Rock Picric Acid Plant. This was a major munitions factory that stood where the Interstate 440 and Bankhead Drive now meet. During World War I, it made a high explosive called picric acid (bet you didn’t guess that), which was used in American shells sent to Europe.

Some months back, I found a listing in the National Archives online catalogs for two records groups relating to the facility. This was a potential boon, since I’ve been using primarily newspaper accounts up to this point. I requested copies, and hoped that they contained at least some photographs or drawing of the facility, which I haven’t found to date. I was, frankly, surprised by what popped up.

The documents are actually from the office of the Director of Military Intelligence, Brigadier General Marlborough Churchill. They allege that the International Workers of the World were active and “influential” around Little Rock, and may be implicated in two deaths at the Little Rock Picric Acid Plant.

Whoa. That’s an entirely different aspect of the plant than has popped up in the papers…

We’ve known from newspaper accounts that a worker died during construction. This man, W.E. Woodard of Faulkner County, apparently fell to his death from the roof of one of the buildings. The NARA documents give more of the circumstances about the death. Apparently, on the night of June 3, 1918, about 10:35, Woodard and some others were working on one of the buildings when a channel iron slipped its guide rope and struck Woodard in the head, knocking him from the building. He fell 35 feet and landed on an I-beam, breaking both legs and causing massive internal injuries. One hour later (why did they wait an hour?), someone called for emergency services, but Woodard passed away soon thereafter.

Apparently, one of the foremen thought that this was no accident. He reported it to Churchill’s office, believing that International Workers of the World saboteurs had infiltrated the plant and were causing accidents. Woodard’s death was one, but apparently someone shut off the water supply to the fire extinguishers at around the same time. This foreman blamed the IWW.

Ultimately, the Military Intelligence officers sent to investigate decided that both incidents were accidental, not sabotage. Still, the hasty response to purported infiltration bespeaks the importance of military production at the time and the fear of anti-war IWW agitation present in Arkansas.

Carl Drexler
Magnolia, Arkansas

Summer research abroad… Well, at least in a different corner of Arkansas

It’s mid-June, and my summer’s research and field schedule is in full swing. I’m on the road this month, whiling away the hours in a different corner of Arkansas than my usual.

I am currently assisting my old boss and current colleague at the UAF Station, Dr. Jamie Brandon, with the 2017 University of Arkansas Field School at Pea Ridge National Military Park, near Pea Ridge, Arkansas. We are working with 10 students from the UofA, as well as Jerry Hilliard, Jared Pebworth, and Lydia Rees to figure out the exact footprint, size, orientation, and antiquity of the village of Leetown, which figured prominently in the battle (probably the most important one fought west of the Mississippi River).

As we are operating out of Fayetteville, I am taking time on weekends to delve into the prodigious stacks at the University of Arkansas’s Mullins Library to advance some writing projects. I owe the Encyclopedia of Arkansas Online and the Pulaski County Historical Review each an article on the Little Rock Picric Acid Plant (LRPAP). The LRPAP was a munitions factory that, during World War I, produced a high explosive for the U.S. military. It’s also feeding into a longer work on World War I production that will be presented at the Old Statehouse Museum this fall. On top of all that, I have been doing some additional groundwork for expanding out a recent SHA paper into a book chapter for an edited volume on place and historical archaeology in the West, focusing on the construction of place through archaeology and history associated with the Camden Expedition of 1864. That’s got an October due date, though, so it’s not feeling the front-burner flames as keenly as the other things.

Being alone in the evenings is also great for productivity, and I’ve finished two books that I have wanted to polish off for some time. Ian Hope’s A Scientific Way of War: Antebellum Military Science, West Point, and the Origins of American Military Thought and Gary Pinkerton’s Trammel’s Trace: The First Road to Texas from the North, which I am reviewing for the Journal of Southern History (the other [for myself and other historical archaeologists] SHA). There’s some work for the Society for Historical Archaeology (the real [for myself and other historical archaeologists] SHA) that needs doing, too.

Stay out of academia, kids, or else this is what your “holidays” will start to look like…

On Trigger Warnings and Conflict Archaeology

My Twitter feed is blowing up with stories trolling University College-London students who are taking Gabe Moshenka’s modern conflict archaeology class. Apparently, consistent with UCL policy, students were told if they were feeling overwhelmed by the material, they could step out of class without penalty. Much of the backlash has been laced with derision assuming that students are basically coddled softies that can’t cope with reading books and journal articles. Too whatever extent that caricature reflects reality… okay. But, here’s the thing. People seem to be assuming that all students are of the same demographic with similarly sheltered upbringings.

And that’s where I think they lost some perspective.

See, we’ve got these wars going on, which means we have a new generation of veterans coming back and transitioning to civilian life. Some of them are going to college, and some of them are going to college. If you’re a veteran in a class on modern conflict studies, and the course material is dealing with subject matter that brings out something you’re still dealing with from Iraq or Afghanistan (or the various other conflicts we’re embroiled in that don’t rise to the level of a declared war), then I would much prefer you be able to step out without penalty than feel like you have to sit there and have your situation get worse.

Also, if your childhood involved enduring genocide or political terror in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, or You-Name-It-Because-It-Happens-Too-Much-These-Days, and the class starts talking about excavating mass graves of people you knew as a child, please God step out if you need to. The people who seem to be gleefully castigating students who might need to step out from class assume that no one’s life has actually involved the modern conflict that these classes focus on.

Check. that. privilege.

EDIT: Alix at The People’s Republic of Mortimer took more time with this, thinking along the same lines. Give her a read.

Archaeology is Anthropology or It is Nothing

Gordon Willey and Philip Phillips (1958) memorably wrote that “archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing,” and thereby laid the groundwork for a generation or more of archeological work. I am reminded today that this maxim has great force, but not always in the way it was intended. The Survey (by which I mean half a dozen or more of us, current and former, from stations around the state) has been working with the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Arkansas Archeological Society, Delta Cultural Center, and dozens of people in Helena-West Helena, Poplar Bluff, and many other towns around east Arkansas, plus people in Chicago, Atlanta, and elsewhere to locate a small battlefield lost to official history. We’re spiraling in on the site, and today was yet one more step closer to it, thanks to a great lunch meeting. That’s not why I’m taking this moment to reflect, though.

Willey and Phillips said that archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing because they felt that the aims of archaeology should be anthropological, and geared towards answering questions about humans, culture, and society. We should do archaeology to do [cultural] anthropology on the past. Working in historical archaeology, though, particularly on recent(ish) sites, often happens because we bring the interviewing techniques of the cultural anthropologist to the table. Without the connections to the living community (without anthropology), our work proceeds at a snail’s pace, if at all. Without these connections to the community, work simply does not progress. Without anthropology, archaeology is nothing… as it never gets anywhere fast.

Of course, Phillips knew this well, as his foundational work Archaeological Survey in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, 1940-1947 relied heavily on talking with local farmers and others about where they were finding artifacts and where they saw mounds. As was the case then, so it is today that we progress in consultation with non-archaeologists. Arkansas has always been great for this. Let’s hope Arkansans remain so willing to be a part of the process.


Phillips, Philip, James A. Ford, and James B. Griffin. 1951. Archaeological Survey in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, 1940-1947. Peabody Museum Papers, vol. 25. Harvard University, Cambridge

Willey, Gordon and Philip Phillips (1958) Method and Theory in American Archeology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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.

The Death of Captain Jonas Frederik Lembke

I’ve been working through the compiled service records of the U.S. Colored Troops, as black units in the U.S. Army were known. One of the records I was able to track down was that of Captain Jonas Frederik Lembke, commander of Battery E, 2nd U.S. Colored Artillery (Light). Capt. Lembke is of interest to my research in that he was one of the men who fought and died at Wallace’s Ferry, a battlefield I am attempting to locate on behalf of the Arkansas Archeological Survey for the people of Arkansas.

The service records shed a little more light on Capt. Lembke’s life and death than the after-action reports filed by U.S. officers following the engagement, which tersely note that Capt. Lembke died during the engagement. I’d like to share a little bit about what more I know about this man.

First, we know that Capt. Lembke was a Swedish immigrant who settled in Chicago before the war. He stood 5′ 11″ tall, had a light complexion and light hair, and had blue eyes (I’ve heard Swedes tend to have those attributes). In 1861, he joined Battery B of the 1st Illinois Artillery. As a member of that unit, he would have fought at several major battles in the Western Theater, including Shiloh, Arkansas Post, Jackson, Champion’s Hill, and the Siege of Vicksburg. In the fall of 1863, then-corporal Lembke, an experienced artilleryman, put in for command of an African-American unit, when it formed. He was given the task of organizing and commanding a black artillery unit, to be formed in Helena, Arkansas. He took with him a fellow member of Battery B, 1st Illinois, named Edwin Bancroft. Bancroft made the leap from private to Lieutenant, and we can suggest that the two men had some level of rapport or friendship to be making this move together.

Captain Lembke recruited, trained, and equipped Battery E (originally known as the 3rd Battery, Louisiana Colored Infantry), and was for a time commander of Fort Curtis, one of the installations built in Helena to defend it from Confederate attack [since reconstructed near the original site].

On the day before the battle, Capt. Lembke took one section (two guns) of his unit to accompany Col. W.S. Brooks’ expedition towards Trenton. This expedition wound up with the Action at Wallace’s Ferry, where Lembke met his end. We know from the report of Lieutenant H.T. Chappell, who took command of the artillery after Lembke died, that the captain was killed instantly by a bullet through the forehead.

Lieutenant Bancroft drew up an inventory of Capt. Lembke’s effects after the battle, which show us the kinds of things a battery commander had with him. In addition to the expected clothes, and personal items (shaving kit, mirror, watch), Capt. Lembke carried a clock, copies of books on military law and heavy artillery tactics, a birch broom, and a music stand and book (no instrument listed).

Lembke Signature

While much of the documentation is the usual Army bureaucracy, there is one extremely poignant aspect to it. Capt. Lembke’s effects were sent to Chicago, and the last document in the file carries an acknowledgement of the receipt of them, signed by his widow. Her signature, written a few weeks after Capt. Lembke’s death, looks as though it were written by an almost-uncontrollably shaking hand.

Rank and the Service Records

It also strikes me that part of why we have learned so much about the life and death of Capt. Lembke is that as a white officer, his death entailed much greater levels of documentation than did those of the men who served under him. I have also been working to find information about the enlisted men in the unit, particularly looking for references to being wounded or killed at Wallace’s Ferry, because we don’t have a good casualty list.

Not surprisingly, the information available on the enlisted men is much less rich. We know names, birthplaces, and the barest of information about service records. Where men died (mostly of disease), there was a simple form filled out and filed with the government. Several men were noted as having “no effects.”

There are hints at stories that offer a tantalizing, though maddeningly incomplete stories about the men in the ranks. Private Harrison Beal, for instance, was recruited for another regiment in September of 1863, but within the space of a month was in serious trouble. On October 25, he shot a man named Peter Young. Two days later, he cut off “the forefinger of his right hand” [trigger finger] “to be discharged,” and deserted the following day. The severance of the offending figure speaks of guilt as much as it does of disloyalty.

Most of the stories are, based on these records, fairly mundane. The vast majority performed their duties with no ill marks recorded against them. A few deserted, a few died, and a few transferred or were promoted. It does strike me as interesting that a large number of them list Virginia as their place of nativity. Within African American history, the forced movement of people of color from the eastern seaboard to the western states in the antebellum period is a harrowing time often referred to as “The Second Middle Passage.” These Virginians who showed up in Helena to serve are mostly ex-slaves from the area around the Mississippi River. Their enlistment in Arkansas bears quiet testimony to the reality of this traumatic pilgrimage.

These happy notes are just some of the loose threads that tie into our ongoing archaeological work at Wallace’s Ferry.

Why Conflict Archaeology Matters

The response to Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith’s attacks on social science funding in the NSF continues to build. Paul Mullins, president of the SHA, put out a letter today on the subject, as have a number of bloggers. As such things are wont to do, the message discipline has suffered a little bit, changing from a focus on the NSF and social science to a more generalized defense of the necessity of the field. That’s OK, as it’s something that archaeologists should always keep foremost in their mind, particularly those of us whose livelihoods depend on public funding (which is, largely, ALL of us).

Various historical archaeologists have weighed in, but I can shed a little light on my own special research area, conflict archaeology. This includes battlefield archaeology, the archaeology of earthworks and fortifications (sometimes battlefields, sometimes not), POW camps, other military sites, and civilian sites with some kind of discernible imprint of conflict on them. As a set, these various conflict sites are some of the most emotionally-evocative in the discipline. The link to recent wars makes these sites intimately valuable to many within the regional and national communities in which they live. The fact that the American Civil War, fought 150 years ago, remains with us in many popular (and some unpopular) forms, is testament to the power that such conflicts may have.

Conflict archaeology can contribute to the process of commemorating and celebrating past conflicts through several means. First, our ability to commemorate a battle requires us to know where it actually is. A surprising number of these have been, well, not exactly lost, but our understanding of where and how extensive they are may not be as sharp as we would like. For example, I am currently working at nailing down the location of the Action at Wallace’s Ferry, in Phillips County, Arkansas. We *think* we have a good idea of where it is, but we need archaeological evidence of the battle to be sure. Knowing allows us to mark it (like, literally with iron markers saying “The Action at Wallace’s Ferry occurred here”), which lets us commemorate and celebrate the men who fought and, for an unfortunate few, died there. Ditto for better-known fields, such as Jenkin’s Ferry and Poison Spring (as mentioned and depicted in the opening of Lincoln). Arkansas alone had over 700 battles, sieges, actions, skirmishes, etc., during the Civil War. There’s a lot of work to do here.

Aiding in such commemoration serves many purposes. First, the soldiers who fought in these battles, regardless of why they fought, deserve to be remembered for their service, and we can do that and pay honor to their sacrifice and loss through maintaining in our collective conscience the places of their most trying times.

Second, ours is a history of war-making, for aims we hold as noble as well as those that we were and are less united on. Battlefields, as places to remember (Pierre Nora refers to these as les lieux de memoire), offer an opportunity for us to recall the issues and personalities that led to, and resulted from, such conflicts. People who visit Civil War sites cannot do so without confronting, on some level, the issues we perceive to be the reason such battlefields exist. Expunging these from our collective consciences helps us lose the memory of those debates. I have often wondered how our approach to modern foreign interventionism could have been different had some portion of the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898 been fought on American soil. I have been to San Juan Hill, and can tell you that the legacy of that conflict, as told through its monuments, is very fresh for its Cuban visitors. That we don’t have such a durable sign of that conflict on our own soil contributes to its loss from our common discourse.

Finally (for why commemorate battlefields), heritage tourism is a growing industry, and its patrons tend to be bigger spenders than other kinds of tourists. If you only can measure something in dollars and cents, there you go.

Archaeology can put all of these processes in motion. However, it has purposes beyond that of simply commemorating the field. It adds a personal, emotive dimension that no other kind of study can deliver. Sure, historians can offer the letter home after a battle, the diary account, or the memoir. Archaeology can offer you the finger bone found encircled with a wedding band (found at the Little Bighorn), testament to the husband who never came home. I have held in my hands bullets covered with the waffle-print impressions of a surgeon’s forceps, betokening the pain of broken bones and torn flesh and the hope that the man survived (why else would they be removing it on the battlefield?). Buttons recovered on numerous fields have been interpreted as marking the spots where soldiers’ bodies laid after the battle, their unburied corpses swelling with gasses, popping the buttons off, or men (still-living) tearing at their clothes, trying to see where they were shot. These tangible signs of the terrifying short hours of combat confront us with a view of the battle very different from the distanced general’s view of the conflict we generally get from history books.

Many conflict archaeologists have looked to drawing lessons from our work that feeds into modern military science. Several of us have developed tours, staff rides, and learning modules for the modern armed forces (some of which uses the modern KOCOA approach used widely in the U.S. Army), or completed work on fortifications and other military sites that have fed into training opportunities for today’s soldiers. Our ability to locate units on the landscape based on the detritus of conflict, and show how groups moved about and either maintained or loss cohesion offer a window onto the flow of the battle unavailable in historical documents.

Finally, conflict archaeology gives us a material means to study the growth and elaboration of the military-industrial complex, a sector of our life and economy greatly expanded since World War II. The technologies of war, our preparations for it, and the scientific and human resources put towards perpetuating and growing it in service to national, racial, and other aims, is a subject desperately needs an archaeologist’s input. Here in Arkansas, the Southwest Proving Grounds re-wrote the road network around Hope, and the Shumaker Naval Ammunition Depot lives on as Southern Arkansas University Tech, host to a rocket industry that is basically a holdover of its previous military existence. Wars are the signposts on this long, firey road, and conflict sites among the most durable tangible avenues to its study.

Archaeologists, Conflict, and the NSF

The Facebook and Twitter worlds have spent the past few weeks exploding over comments made by Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith on September 30. The congressmen suggested that spending money on the social sciences via the National Science Foundation was a waste of federal dollars and unjustifiable when we could be using the money for medical research. Others have since written some elaborate blog posts refuting Cantor and Smith’s arguments (I like Rosemary Joyce’s and Sturt Manning’s). This afternoon (October 8), the Society for American Archaeology weighed in with a letter containing counterarguments. Mostly, they’re OK… mostly.

Today’s letter makes three arguments for maintaining funding for archaeology by the NSF. The latter two are basically that 2) archaeology adds greatly to quality-of-life and pride-of-place and 3) knocking out funding for archaeology would make an infinitesimal difference to our budget woes given how hilariously-underfunded (my interpretation) the social sciences are. I have zero to argue with in either of these points. Indeed, archaeology is a significant component of a growing heritage tourism industry in Arkansas, and I am extremely glad that I am able to help, in a very modesty way, in that effort and to help Arkansans learn about their rich, complex, and varied past.

I have a HUGE bone to pick with their first point, however. They write:

The US has spent more than a trillion dollars and thousands of Americans have lost their lives engaging with tribal societies. The military’s new counterinsurgency doctrine stresses the importance of understanding local cultures and histories—exactly the kinds of things that we learn from social science research. Beyond the potential military significance of social science research, our increasingly globalized economy and the delicate nature of diplomacy in an era when non-Western countries are becoming major players in the balance of world power make the social sciences critical to our national interest.

“Tribal societies?” Really?

Unfortunate word choice aside, I want to take issue with substance of the first part of this argument, that archaeology can contribute to the war-making process through the writing of sociocultural knowledge in the vein of the counterinsurgency manual. The modern counterinsurgency manual was written essentially as a response to what turned out to be a waist deep, big muddy quagmire in Iraq (new version on the way). It was supposed to be the academic 2×4 that you throw under the tires to get the truck out (I live in rural Arkansas, so this metaphor is apt). Adding cultural knowledge would make the war work and our warfighters could come home sooner, or so the story went.

The success or failure of that enterprise is open to debate. The Human Terrain Teams saga is, well, of checkered reputation. The much larger and more significant intelligence/sociocultural analysis efforts by DoD and its contractors, which have drawn in many people with advanced degrees in anthropology [full disclosure: this includes me, for a brief period] has come under scrutiny for its lack of control and focus (Priest and Allen 2010). It has not been a careful, systematic development of scientific knowledge.

The glib way that the SAA offers this primary justification suggests that the authors don’t  have a good grasp on the enormity of the world of intelligence research and the disturbingly creative applications to which their research might be put. By leading with military/intelligence applications for archaeological research, the authors offer a justification that immediately opens a number of questions about our ethical responsibilities to descendant communities that have been burning through the American Anthropological Association for the past few years, often resulting in conclusions at variance with what the SAA leads with. As the SAA’s ethics statement really doesn’t define our obligations to descendant communities in wartime. We have yet to have this conversation, though we should. Moreover, the ethics statement (Principal Number 8) does enjoin us from engaging in research for which we are not prepared. By and large, we are not prepared for this research world, and we should not try to wade into it in such a cavalier fashion.

As I was writing this, it occurred to me that the letter makes no mention of a much more important justification than any of those listed. Climate change. Seriously, there is no mention of our biggest global concern, which the long time scales of and material orientation of archaeology is well-poised to make a major contribution to. We, unlike any other discipline, can look at how humans have coped (or not) with climatic shifts through time. This has applicability all over the place, including military ones, if you’re so hot-to-trot to engage with DoD’s research sector. Why not put that out there first, if you want to demonstrate relevance?

I’m not going to say that archaeologists aren’t involved with war-making, either now or in the past. I know we are and have been. I am similarly not saying that we should not be. There is much that archaeology can bring to international relations (military and civilian) in general that has great relevance from the standpoint of simple knowledge and mutual appreciation, and on a budget that wouldn’t get other disciplines to the airport.