Politics as Archaeological Action

Archaeologists should contemplate entering politics.

Recent articles in The Atlantic and The New York Times show they won’t be alone among those with a scientific bent seeking office. Both articles describe a political action group called 314 Action created to support scientists contemplating a move into politics, and they feature some scientists considering leaving their careers in science to enter politics. The articles do not specifically mention archaeologists contemplating a run, but I hope there are some. The timing is right.

I’m not aware of any current politicians in the United States and Canada who have transitioned into politics from a previous career in archaeology. An internet search of politicians with backgrounds in archaeology, unsurprisingly, produced zero results. I note that Prince Charles, who may one day be King, studied archaeology at Cambridge and participated in some excavations, but this does not make him an archaeologist.

Archaeologists would make good candidates for political office. Having a background in archaeology means that they had no aspirations as a career politician, and they value other things over money. This may be particularly appealing to voters who distrust career politicians. Archaeologists tell good stories, often involving bears, snakes, trains, treasure, and being shot at—often these stories are self-deprecating which is an added feature of an archaeologist’s appeal. Archaeologists tend to be social, much more so than academics in many other fields. Archaeologists tend to have an informal, but serious-when-appropriate style, which many would find appealing. Archaeologists can play it as a scholar or as a regular blue-collar kind of working person—whatever is best, depending on context. Most archaeologists are comfortable in both rural and urban settings, making it easy for people from all walks of life to identify with them.

The educational background and practical experiences of archaeologists also make them well poised to represent their constituents and the collective population. Archaeologists are trained to understand culture and the value of holistic, comparative, and evolutionary perspectives. Most have at least an elementary understanding of statistics. Most archaeologists also understand nature, past and present. Archaeologists know that a change in nature or one component of culture invariably causes changes in other components. They know how to write and evaluate proposals, reports, articles, and alternative explanations. They can be an important resource on matters related to the environment, Indigenous issues, and history. They are often comfortable in both the sciences and the humanities. Archaeologists also tend to have thick-skins, especially those working in nasty physical environments with bugs, those subject to peer review, and those seeing their student evaluations.

The kind of research archaeologists do enables them to think outside the box. For some archaeologists “bullsh*t” isn’t just an expletive. It may be something you call out to implore colleagues to watch their step during fieldwork or it may be used when identifying animal feces in a laboratory. Similarly, the first thoughts of some about “draining the swamp” may bring images of finding artifacts in the sludge from dredging and re-exposing ancient sites instead of cleaning up Washington politics. At the very least, an archaeologist referring to bullsh*t or draining the swamp could provide some good sound bites and analogies based on their archaeological experience.

A transition from archaeology to politics does not necessarily entail a renunciation of archaeology. Although not an archaeologist, the experiences of a climate scientist in “The Climate Scientist Who Became a Politician” illustrate this. The article focuses on the transitioning of well-known scientist-to-politician in Canada Andrew Weaver. Weaver not only suggests that university politics make government politics a whole lot easier, but also, “It’s the most rewarding profession you can have…as a scientist, you get excited about the little things. When I got my first paper published in Nature, I was over the moon. But that pales in comparison to the satisfaction you get when you can make someone’s life a little better.”

In a similar vein, The New York Times quotes Jacqueline Gill, a paleo-ecologist who is contemplating running for political office. “I came into this career wanting to do science that’s in the public good. And maybe now that means something different than it did before.” For archaeologists, this may mean not only becoming an advocate for heritage, but working for the greater good of all, using their unique combination of education, practice, and ways of thinking.

Archaeology is inherently political. One of the important books on this is Archaeology as Political Action by Randall McGuire. Archaeologists becoming politicians is kind of flipping this around—Politics as Archaeological Action—which is, I think, worth a try.

Bob Muckle teaches archaeology at Capilano University, has authored several books including Introducing Archaeology, 2/e, and can be followed on Twitter @bobmuckle.

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