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So that’s what anthropologists do …

I am just back from a long weekend trip to Nanaimo and environs on Vancouver Island. My wife and I joined a couple of friends at a B&B and when we arrived I found myself in an all-too-familiar exchange about what anthropologists do. I encountered, however, a new twist this time.

In her desire to make small-talk, the owner of the B&B asked us all what we did. I stated that I was an anthropologist and received back the refrain ‘Well, there’s lots of places to look for bones around here.’ She followed that up, however, with a fascinating comment which made me see that while she wasn’t distinguishing anthropology from archaeology, she was very knowledgeable about the role of archaeology in the development of British Columbia. She continued (and I paraphrase) that I was one of ‘those people’ who could make a lot of money accepting bribes from developers wanting no disruption to their building projects from archaeologists unearthing aboriginal remains. She went as far as to suggest that if ‘people like me’ wanted to hold up building projects we just had to throw animal bones into the hole. She was keenly aware of the requirement in BC that archaeologists conduct surveys before new construction occurs or if cultural objects are found during the course of construction.

This exchange fascinates me because it casts archaeologists into the role of ‘obstructor.’ I had assumed previously that the public imposed this role on native people directly. There was no sense here that archaeologists were working with native people to delay building projects; rather, it was something that archaeologists do on their own. To think that we/they have that much power!

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  1. Bob Muckle wrote:

    As an archaeologist in BC, I have dealt with the notion of ‘archaeologist as an obstructor’ many times. I’ve got it from developers, and from the public. Mostly, however, I have got it from students in my introduction to archaeology classes during discussions of cultural resource management. I usually try to turn it into one of those ‘teachable moments,’ suggesting, for example, that I don’t think very many people in the business of archaeology are in it for the money to begin with, and thus they surely wouldn’t be the ones to even think of wrongdoing. I also mention that the world of archaeology is actually quite small and even the slightest sniff of wrongdoing can easily spell the end of a career. I also try to lead it into a discussion of why a minimum of Master’s degree and considerable field experience is required to become a consultant (eg. the ability to recognize ‘bones that have been thrown into a hole.’)

    The whole concept of archaeologists having some kind of power is quite interesting. A current thread on a listserve for historical archaeologists (HISTARCH) has brought forth the notion that at least some amateur relic hunters view archaeologists as being part of a powerful elite linked with the government.

    Bob Muckle

    Tuesday, April 18, 2006 at 8:30 pm | Permalink
  2. Bob … thanks for the thoughts as always. I appreciate your expertise in these regards. Where do the students get these ideas? Knowing that they are likely in their first archaeology classes when they take archaeology with you, they must be picking this up from somewhere else … perhaps the same place that the B&B lady did. Is this a pervasive notion within the public?

    And, does the idea of archaeologists as powerful elites make the amateur relic hunter the marginalized victim? Are they suggesting that relic hunting is a responsible and ethical pursuit? (Or am I now sounding like an elitist intellectual?) My suspicion is, too, that archaeologists in BC are pretty careful about being labeled as government lackies. Wouldn’t that spell the end of a career in many cases?

    Wednesday, April 19, 2006 at 1:43 pm | Permalink