An archaeological debate on challenging the status quo and why we need more discussion like this

The academy is well known for its production of silos; researchers who ought to share similar perspectives and knowledge in many cases rarely collaborate with each other. There are many reasons for this situation, which I will not explore here, but in terms of heritage, a good example is the lack of engagement between archaeology/cultural resource management and critical heritage studies. In the interest of above/below ground agnosticism, I would also argue the same issue exists between historic preservation and critical heritage studies.

This situation is why encountering a debate between conventional archaeology and critical heritage studies in Antiquity (refereed journal, published by Cambridge University Press) is a rare and unusual circumstance. In this journal, González-Ruibal et al. (2018) pen an opinion piece eviscerating the “epistemic populism” of critical heritage studies while reinforcing the need for experts to “reclaim archaeology as a critical form of knowledge production” (513). Antiquity also published a series of reactionary papers, including one by Laurajane Smith and Gary Campbell, who are two of the acknowledged leaders of the critical heritage studies movement. Smith and Campbell (2018) characterize González-Ruibal et al.’s critique as a misguided “defence of archaeological expertise by archaeologists, based on a dubious equation of reactionary politics with communities and the popular” (521). Arguably, González-Ruibal et al. do not seem to be familiar with the research from critical heritage studies on “communities” and especially the problems inherent in overly-broad characterization of diverse groups of people as a “community”; Smith and Campbell are careful to make this obvious omission clear. The other debate papers in this issue of Antiquity are also well worth the read.

While I encourage you to read González-Ruibal et al.’s paper (PDF) and Smith and Campbell’s paper (PDF) and make your own conclusions, what I think is most important about this dialog is that it is happening at all. We need far broader and frequent scholarly debate on conventional and heterodox approaches to the identification of heritage (tangible and intangible) and its treatment from a multidisciplinary perspective. Personally, I think González-Ruibal et al. and Smith and Campbell both have valid points. In the former case, although they do not specifically make this statement, it is strongly implied that critical heritage studies research often is too theoretical and fails to offer applied approaches that can be used to change practice. In the latter case, Smith and Campbell are likely correct that traditional archaeology is threatened by critical approaches to heritage which challenge conventional assumptions of who has power.

I, for one, have filed these two papers away for future use in my teaching, where they ought to engender useful discussion in the classroom. In the meantime, I hope that this kind of debate does not continue to be an isolated occurrence, and that we’ll see more of this spirited discussion in the future.

Works cited

González-Ruibal, A.,González, P.A., Criado-Boado, F. (2018). Against reactionary populism: towards a new public archaeology. Antiquity 92(362): 507-515.

Smith, L, and Campbell, G. (2018). It’s not all about archaeology. Antiquity 92(362): 521-522.

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