Inuksuk Point, Foxe Peninsula, Nunavut, Canada. Photo courtesy Ansgar Walk and wikicommons

A recent article in a major newspaper by two members of the US House of Representatives has led to many archaeologists defending their profession, especially regarding funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).  The article, by Lamar Smith, chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and Eric Cantor,  majority leader in the US House of Representatives, appeared in USA Today under the heading “Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith: Rethinking Science Funding.”

Cantor and Smith suggest that while on the whole, NSF funding is good, many of the grants in the social, behavioral and economic sciences are questionable, and the money distributed in those areas would be better spent elsewhere. Highlighted grants deemed questionable include those with archaeological flavors. They state, for example, “Congress is right to ask why NSF chooses to fund research on Mayan architecture over projects that could help our wounded warriors or save lives.” They frame their reasoning as being common sense and in the public interest.

Reaction in the archaeological community was swift. Berkeley archaeologist Rosemary Joyce in a blog post titled “Why Fund Studies of Maya Architecture instead of Saving Lives?” deconstructs the misleading arguments, shows how Cantor and Smith set up a false choice between projects that save lives vs. archaeology, describes how archaeology contributes to the quality of life, and refutes the claim that the rationale for the projects is not available to the public. She reasons “So what do the congress members really want? They want to intrude on the process of peer review. They want to have politicians decide on what is worth funding, rather than using the free labor of the best minds in the country as advisors helping NSF develop science in the public interest….This is about inserting politicians into decision-making about who gets Federal support,…. There is no particular reason to think that replacing expert opinion, offered for free, with political bias, will lead to better science.”

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, a Savage Minds blog post titled “Cantor and Smith: Social Science Witch Hunt” also deconstructs the article by Cantor and Smith, calling it “little more than a disingenuous, ideologically-based attack on the social sciences”, contextualizes it as “part of a longstanding effort on the part of some politicians…to attack and discredit the social science” and describes it as an “ideological war framed in the benign terms of public interest.”

Representatives of professional organizations were also quick to comment.  The current and several past presidents of the Society for American Archaeology replied with a letter to the editor noting “the social sciences have a huge impact on our quality of life. Research in archaeology, for example, fuels local pride and contributes to the multibillion dollar heritage tourism industry all across the U.S.” and point out “the entire archaeology budget would be barely sufficient to fund even a single major research grant in medicine.”

Paul Mullins, president of the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) wrote “Responses to Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith” for the SHA blog which provides further context for legislative efforts to reform grant processes emphasizing the economic benefits of NSF funded projects, noting that “archaeology in general and historical archaeology in particular represent an infinitesimal slice of the NSF budget”;  and puts out a call to clearly articulate the benefits of archaeology and rationalize publicly funded scholarship. He notes “we do live in a moment in which we cannot rationalize archaeology simply by pointing to existing legislation (which itself is under attack), and we need to refute Cantor and Smith’s caricatures of archaeology as an irrelevant academic discipline.”  Mullins calls for those who have received NSF grants to step forward and provide concrete examples of how NSF funding for archaeology has benefited communities, careers, and scholarship.

The American Anthropological Association contributed with a blog post titled “Congress Targets National Science Foundation Grants”, which provides some background to increased congressional scrutiny of the NSF, describes some ongoing AAA advocacy for social science research, and a call to “Please contact your Member of Congress today and let them know you support NSF and its peer review process.”

Archaeologists on Twitter were also quick off the mark with rationalizing archaeology in 140 characters or less, many under the hashtag #WhyArchMatters.  A sample includes these from @captain-primate: “Archaeology gives voice to the voiceless and the disenfranchised”; from @Sarah_May1: “Archaeology is our most powerful method of creating pasts now. It can legitimate or undermine current power structures”; from @JohnRRoby: “Archaeology disrupts the present as inevitable and highlights alternate ways of living”; and from @Peter_ismyname: “Archaeology is the cocktail of academia. Maybe not sex on the beach but its merging of science, arts, & humanities is unique”.

As much as I like almost all the contributions on Twitter, I do not recommend using them in arguments to politicians. I have difficulty imagining most politicians wanting to give voice to the voiceless and disenfranchised, undermine current power structures, highlight alternate ways of living, or talk about whether sex on the beach is an appropriate metaphor.

Threats and actual cuts to archaeology are certainly not a new thing; archaeology is certainly not alone; and it isn’t just the NSF. The AAA for example has recently blogged a reminder that there is a proposal for significant cuts to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

One of the problems for archaeology is that as traditional sources of funding have decreased, the entertainment industry has picked up much of the slack. Unfortunately the entertainment industry tends to firmly embed archaeology as entertainment, and thus largely irrelevant to real-world problems.

I suggest archaeologists keep on plugging the significance of archaeology in identifying and helping others solve easily understandable and proximate problems, including but certainly not limited to dealing with contemporary waste. These are the sorts of things easily understood by politicians, and can be described in the frameworks of politics and business.

Robert Muckle 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, published by the University of Toronto Press. He is based at Capilano University. He may be followed on Twitter at @bobmuckle or contacted at

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