Bias is pervasive, but rarely made explicit, in North American archaeology. I think it would serve archaeology well if archaeologists at least occasionally “outed” their biases.

All archaeologists, I’m sure, are aware of a plethora of biases that govern their work. There is the bias of what people in the past chose to discard or abandon; the bias of differential preservation; contemporary government agendas; the age, gender, ethnicity, and education of archaeologists; preferences of funding agencies; theoretical biases in deciding on what is important, research design, interpretation, and more.

There is also the bias of time and place, in which events of our everyday lives influence our research, sometimes without us even being aware of it. Until recently I believed most archaeologists were aware of how current events influence archaeology, but a recent blog post now leads me to think otherwise.

A Christmas Day, 2012 post titled Archaeology Should Resist Newswire Relevance on the well-known archaeology blog Aardvarchaeology reads, in part:

In recent years there’s been increasing numbers of archaeological research projects that reference climate change as part of what they want to study…. If archaeologists’ interpretations of ancient societies vary with whatever occupies our interest today, then I think we should pack it in as a scientific discipline ….”

I interpret the statement and the rest of the blog post to mean that archaeologists should somehow not be governed in their research by current events and concerns, such as climate change. While I do not suggest that all or even most archaeology is, or should be, influenced by contemporary interests in societies, it is important to recognize we are biased by what goes on around us.

One of my favorite pieces of archaeological writing is the 1985 article by Richard Wilk , The Ancient Maya and the Political Present (Journal of Anthropological Research 41: 307-326), in which topical interests of American archaeologists studying the ancient Maya are correlated with current events in the United States. He shows, for example, how scholarship on ancient Mayan warfare, ecology, and ideology are correlated in time with what was going on in the United States. Scholarship on Mayan warfare peaked during the Vietnam war; interest in Mayan ecology correlates with the rise of environmental movement in the 1970s; and interests in Mayan ideology correlate with the political agenda of religious fundamentalists in the U.S. during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

I recall some archaeologists (but for the life of me can’t remember the source) followed up on Wilk’s work in the 1990s and concluded that an emergent interest in ancient Maya economies during the late 1980s and early 1990s correlated with the global movements towards globalization and international trade (reasoning, I recall, that the collapse of Maya civilization may have been due to their failure to maintain trading networks with neighboring regions).

 A few months following 9/11  I mentioned to my  students that given the recent concern with terrorism in the United States, it would be likely that we will see an increasing number of archaeological studies on the ancient Maya by American archaeologists focusing on conflict. I followed up with a brief study a few years later that showed, at least in mainstream U.S. media, there was indeed an increase in archaeology stories about the Maya that focused on conflict. It was, however, difficult to determine if the increase in stories on Maya conflict in mainstream media was the result of more focus on warfare by archaeologists or simply the choice of editors in deciding what to print.

Given the current interest in climate change it makes perfect sense to me that many archaeologists are now incorporating the study of climate change into their research projects and using climate change in their interpretations. It is hard to imagine archaeologists are immune to the gamut of daily media reports on climate change. In short, many are being biased by a major area of popular interest (ie. climate change) because of time and place (ie. North America in the early 21st century). I see nothing wrong with that.

I have long been troubled by the generally absent or minimal explicit acknowledgement of biases in archaeology. I think it would serve the discipline well if more archaeologists would follow the lead of cultural anthropologists whose biases are increasingly being made explicit in their writings. If nothing else, an explicit recognition of biases would help ease confusion for non-archaeologists about variability in archaeological explanation.

Robert Muckle has been practicing, teaching, and writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. He has had his own CRM firm, worked extensively with Indigenous peoples, and directed many field projects. Publications include Introducing Archaeology, Reading Archaeology and The Indigenous Peoples of North America, all published by the University of Toronto Press. He has archaeological field experience in both the United States and Canada, continues to direct field projects in the summer months, and is based at Capilano University. He may be followed on Twitter at @bobmuckle or contacted at bmuckle@capilanou.ca

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3 Comments

  1. Posted January 23, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    seems important to me that ‘bias’ in interpretation of archaeological information is very different from than the influence of contemporary (and personal) events on the subject(s) of archaeological research

    • Posted February 27, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      I agree, Iain! The first to me is some sort of divergence from objective truth; the latter accepts that influence is necessary and inescapable– and perhaps not a bad thing! What does archaeology matter to anyone anyway, if we intentionally divorce it from having any present relevance?

  2. Posted January 23, 2013 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Hey there Robert,

    Thanks for linking! I’ll put in a back link.

    I agree with you that scientists should try to make explicit their biases in order to home in better on the truth about whatever they’re studying.

    I’m not happy though with your implication that I might somehow be unaware of the fact that scientists suffer from bias. I was a PhD student during the 1990s peak of post-modernist interest in these issues. My blog entry was a complaint about colleagues that I find to be heavily biased and not aware of it.

    As I wrote, I’m fine with scientists choosing their subjects according to whatever’s trendy, as you mention regarding Maya studies over the decades. What bothers me is when their results co-vary with what’s on the front page of the morning paper. I submit that this is an important distinction.

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