What is archaeology worth?

by Emily

Archaeology’s value, defined in dollars, is now a subject of debate on the national stage. Given political attacks on specific programs and research grants funded by the National Science Foundation in the last few years, it was really only a matter of time. Still, when representatives in Congress are questioning why we fund archaeology rather than spending those dollars on “projects that could save lives,” archaeologists have to answer.

For thoughtful, well-thought, longer responses on the value of archaeology for our long-term national interests and sense of humanity,  and detailed critiques of the representatives’ attack, check out posts by James Doyle, Rosemary Joyce, and Paul Mullins. I, for now,  just want to make a few comments about how archaeology serves our short-term national interests, in the simplest economic terms.

First, archaeology creates jobs, which can even include politicians’ silver bullet, STEM jobs. National Science Foundation grants are part of this. They fund elements of research ranging from sophisticated scientific equipment, to field survey and excavation, to laboratory analysis, to undergraduate and graduate education. As Dr. Doyle notes, it also provides jobs for field technicians in areas where their alternatives could be quite harmful to US national interests. Since not all archaeology is government-funded – in fact, most archaeologists in the US work for private companies in the cultural resource management sector – investing in the development of new scientific methods and the training of new archaeologists also leads to private sector employment.

Second, archaeology gives back economically as well as culturally and scientifically. Think of the tourist sites that develop around sites with long-term or high-profile archaeological projects in the US, from Colonial Williamsburg to Cahokia Mounds to the African Burial Ground in New York City. Think of the small businesses like cafes and hotels, located near closed National Park Service historic sites and federal museums, that are currently losing visitors and income every day due to the government shutdown. (As a seasonal National Park Service employee, I am also personally saddened to think of the dedicated colleagues I know who are currently unable to do their jobs or earn their living. Federal employees have jobs that matter, too.)

Not convinced? Read about the economic impacts of historic preservation, state by state. Historic, archaeological, and environmental sites that give visitors a sense of place and history have an important economic role to play in an increasingly service-driven economy like ours. Archaeology creates rich narratives about the past that enable us to explain why American destination sites are worth visiting.

It also helps to preserve the past for the long term. It is often archaeologists’ job to determine site significance, which means researching the history and location of sites, deciding what should be investigated and preserved, and laying out plans. These plans include well-documented survey and excavation, so that even when artifacts or features are removed, it is still possible to figure out how they fit together; cleaning, conservation, and laboratory analysis, so that we can learn as much as possible from archaeological collections; and long-term curation, so that people with new questions or techniques can learn more from them in the future.

Once an archaeological site is destroyed, it is a truly non-renewable resource. At the most basic level, it is in our interest to steward our unique and limited resources well.