Archaeology Matters

Archaeologist Jeremy Sabloff's new book argues for the modern-day relevance of studying the long-ago and faraway.
March 1, 2009

Environmental sustainability, population growth, urban blight—these pressing dilemmas seem distinctly contemporary. But Jeremy Sabloff, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, believes that, in a broad sense, they are also the very issues that civilizations ranging from the Mayas to the ancient Sumerians have been grappling with for millennia. “We’ve gone down these roads before,” he says, “and there are lessons to be learned.”

In his new book, Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology in the Modern World, Sabloff points to the ways in which the field of archaeology plays a key role in teaching these lessons. Aimed primarily at students and prospective archaeologists, Archaeology Matters demonstrates how archaeology contributes to the understanding and amelioration of present-day problems.

Sabloff was motivated to write the book in part by students who, time and again, pressed him to explain how archaeology could matter in today’s rapidly changing world. “Several years ago, I would end the semester of an introductory anthropology class with a discussion about the current relevance of the field,” he says. “Recently, I revamped the syllabus, based on feedback, to have this discussion in the second lecture.”

"When political leaders make decisions, they often turn to academics like economists and political scientists, but very rarely do they turn to anthropologists. Anthropology in general and archaeology in particular should be at the table." -Jeremy Sabloff

The book was also inspired by Sabloff’s own research on ancient Maya civilization, which thrived for hundreds of years in a difficult rainforest environment before succumbing to a rapid demise in the southern half of the Yucatan Peninsula. The collapse of Classic Period Maya civilization around A.D. 800, Sabloff believes, reveals important insights about issues such as overpopulation, shortsighted agricultural policies and political competition. He also thinks that the debates scholars have about people and cultures in the distant past have bearing on how we view the modern world.

In Archaeology Matters, Sabloff references the bestseller Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, in which the author, Jared Diamond, argues that Maya rulers were blind to the problems facing their empire and did nothing to correct them. But Sabloff sides with researchers who believe that the Maya were well aware of these problems and took action that was, in hindsight, inadequate. “These are two very different but important analogies to the world today,” Sabloff says. “In one you have political leadership that is unaware, in a sense, of bad practices. In the other, political leadership is aware but makes a narrow, traditional response which exacerbates rather than improves the situation.”

Sabloff thinks our politicians and policymakers should take into consideration such archaeological discussions. “When political leaders make decisions, they often turn to academics like economists and political scientists, but very rarely do they turn to anthropologists. Anthropology in general and archaeology in particular should be at the table.”

Archaeology Matters describes a variety of research efforts by archaeologists that exemplify “action archaeology,” a term Sabloff uses to describe archaeological work focused not only on recovering the past, but also on working with and for living communities. This work ranges from assisting city planners in designing environmentally sound landfills and building sustainable cities to guiding local communities in tourism development to aiding Native Americans in land claims cases.

Sabloff also challenges the field to become even more political and practical. He encourages the academy to more highly value applied work. “If you’re a young person and you’re worried about tenure, you’re thinking, ‘Will the action work not only not help me get tenure, but might it also be held against me?’” Sabloff says. “We have to better communicate with our colleagues that this is as productive a line of research as traditional archaeological research.”

Additionally, Sabloff puts the onus on archaeologists to tell the public how archaeological research can help improve the world now and in the future—an especially important responsibility in light of scarcer economic resources for research. And Sabloff says that increased involvement with the present-day people and cultures also necessitates a heightened awareness of the impact of such research.

“Archaeologists more and more understand that it’s not just about coming into a community and doing work, but that these communities have a real stake in their research. Some practices in the past, no matter how they were justified, won’t and shouldn’t work today. The field has changed a great deal, and the idea of action archaeology is part of a trajectory that, more and more, embeds archaeology in the modern world.”

As part of his own extensive contributions to engaging the public in archaeological research, Sabloff served for 10 years as Williams Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He recently returned to teaching, and he is in the early stages of planning a new book, aimed at undergraduate and popular audiences, that traces the major transitions in Maya civilization from the Preclassic Period more than 3,000 years ago to its present-day legacy.