The Archaeologist as Storyteller - Society for American Archaeology

The Archaeologist as Storyteller - Society for American Archaeology





Brian William Kenny and Matthias Giessler

Brian Kenny is a doctoral candidate and Mandel Center Fellow at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University.

He has worked as an archaeologist and applied anthropologist since 1978. Matthias Giessler is the Curriculum and Technology

Manager for the Cisco Networking Academy Program, a comprehensive program designed to teach students Internet technology skills.

Mr. Giessler and Mr. Kenny have partnered since 1995 to construct, maintain, and run the Southwestern Archaeology Inc. website at /.

Can anyone examine the archaeology sites that inhabit the Internet and the World Wide Web and claim

they represent some type of revolutionary “applied new media” that exists in sharp contrast with an olderstyle

academic media? Those who would affirm “progress” by promoting the new style over the old might

be surprised to learn that the underlying principles that structure traditional American archaeological practice are

still in play. These principles largely determine what information is available for dissemination, both in print and


Archaeology is a social movement that operates to secure and enlarge a commons that focuses on historic preservation

and interpretation of the past. As such, archaeology is as organic as any human endeavor and not a mere

abstraction of our global service economy. The archaeological commons is founded upon the socially constructed

realities of self-interested actors who are tied together by personal bonds and who operate to consolidate “social

capital” (cf. Putnam 2000)—and redistribute shares of it—over the course of professional careers. This commons

cyclically shrinks and grows over time, and it sees both a measure of comedy and tragedy in its daily operations.

While there is hope for cooperation and success in strengthening the social movement to preserve and interpret

the past, one can also find conflict and market failure in the archaeological commons (Hardin 1968, 1985). The

symptoms of success and failure manifest themselves in the dissemination of information.

These are the very quotidian conditions and issues we acknowledge—and digitally conspire to put before you

every day—via the “SWA” (Southwestern Archaeology) website (

The Tragedy of the Commons, Conflict and Market Failure

The public is largely excited about prehistory and history packaged in popular formats. They consume record

numbers of coffee-table books and magazines about archaeology. Television shows and Hollywood movies occasionally

depict archaeologists in a realistic manner, and the public loves the idea of these earthy but erudite scientists

taking to the fields of discovery. Avocational archaeologists and archaeological “groupies” of all stripes attend

the annual Pecos Conference (and other conferences) in record numbers. Internet sites, listservs, web “blogs,”

and chat groups offer a grand mix of pure science reportage and untempered speculation.

Public archaeology—if not a little misguided—seems downright exciting to be around these days, and professional

archaeologists have jumped right into this mix with great élan in hopes of raising public standards. This is

where we find the comedy of the commons.

Cultural resource management (“CRM” or “contract”) archaeology, despite its wage-earning capacity, can be publication

hell—whether CRM publications are presented via the Internet or through the more traditional channels

of printed publications. The problem is not that archaeologists substitute jargon for readable English but that

archaeologists operate in contractual management systems that emphasize competition, time conflicts, the lack

34 The SAA Archaeological Record • January 2003

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