Writing Archaeology

This week marks the official launch of the new edition of Introducing Archaeology, along with its companion website (www.introducingarchaeology.com) and a new Twitter account featuring short excerpts from the book (@Archaeologytext). In this blog posting, author Robert J. Muckle describes the process he went through in revising his book and highlights how much the world of archaeology—and writing about archaeology—has changed in the 8 years since the initial publication of Introducing Archaeology.

I like writing about archaeology. Articles, reviews, reports, columns, and books. All of it. I even like writing course materials. What attracted me the least was the idea of working on a second edition of Introducing Archaeology.

The first edition was published in 2006, and although I was somewhat reluctant, I figured it was time. When I write books, I anticipate a shelf-life of several years, but 8 years seemed liked it was pushing the limit. I know that some authors like to work on newer editions, but I have done it with other books, and it just felt too much like work. I particularly like the early stages of book production, such as identifying the niche, deciding what topics to cover and how to cover them. Simply tweaking things, I don’t like so much. But after careful consideration, lasting months, I made the proposal to the publisher and they agreed it would be worthwhile to do a second edition.

One of the reasons I overcame my reluctance was that I am quite excited about the emergence of the archaeology of the contemporary world. I have long been interested in this aspect of archaeology, but only within the past couple of years has it moved inwards from the fringes of academic archaeology. I relished the opportunity to develop a new chapter, which I have titled “The Archaeology of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” One of the reasons I wanted to develop this chapter for a new edition is that when I teach the introductory archaeology course (which I do every fall and spring term), I notice the students are genuinely interested. I can almost see light bulbs going on in their heads. It makes archaeology relevant to them. It makes archaeology method and theory come alive for them. It gets them over the hurdle of thinking archaeologists deal with dead things of no real consequence. Topics in this chapter include activist archaeology, the archaeology of homelessness, the archaeology of undocumented migration from Mexico to the United States, forensic archaeology, disaster archaeology, and archaeologies of climate change, contemporary waste, and sustainability.

Another reason I overcame my initial reluctance is that I think those teaching archaeology are now ready for coverage of the social and political contexts of archaeology, and the explicit recognition of bias, which I include. One of the challenges of writing a textbook for an introductory archaeology course is that one has to cover the core material as it is taught in most institutions (i.e. the basic methodological and cognitive skills used to reconstruct past lifeways). The second edition of Introducing Archaeology covers that, but it also includes explicit coverage of the social and political contexts of archaeology. Unlike most texts, Introducing Archaeology also includes explicit coverage of bias in archaeology. Archaeologists are talking and writing about these things (social and political contexts, and bias) much more in 2014 than they were in 2006.

Another thing I wanted to do with a second edition was include box features. There were none in the first edition, and there are now 16 in the second. I chose topics that students consistently find engaging and also have value in illustrating the nature of archaeology. These include such topics as archaeology and popular culture, archaeology and Indigenous peoples in North America, archaeology and beer, pseudoarchaeology, and the paleo diet.

The writing of Introducing Archaeology, Second Edition has been guided by the principles of curriculum reform recently developed by the Society for American Archaeology, and endorsed by several other associations and societies of archaeologists and anthropologists. These principles include making students explicitly aware of (i) the non-renewable nature of the archaeological record, (ii) the fact that many other groups besides archaeologists have a vested interest in the archaeological record, (iii) the socially relevant contributions of archaeology in the present, (iv) the ethics that guide archaeologists, (v) the importance that archaeologists be effective communicators, (vi) the basic cognitive and methodological skills, and (vii) real-world problem solving. While maintaining the basic cognitive and methodological skills at the core, the book also incorporates each of these other principles as well. The non-renewable nature of the archaeological record, for example, is emphasized through such topics as the rise of commercial archaeology, heritage legislation, and the destruction of sites through looting and warfare. The vested interests in the archaeological record by others are covered by situating archaeology in the heritage and tourism industries as well as within Indigenous contexts.

In addition to the principles of curriculum reform, the writing was also guided by the six things I hope all readers retain, even if they never take another archaeology course. These are the six essential things I think everyone should know, and I use the text to support that:

(i) archaeology is important and relevant to everyday life,
(ii) the archaeological record is vast,
(iii) archaeology is firmly grounded in scientific method and theory,
(iv) archaeological sites are being destroyed at an alarming rate,
(v) archaeology is filled with bias, and
(vi) people have been smart for a very long time.

Despite the addition of a new chapter and the boxes, the book remains fairly concise (about 300 pages, including index). It is comprehensive enough that it can stand alone as the sole book for a course, and concise enough that instructors can add other readings. There is enough in the book that a cultural anthropologist should have no problem using it to teach an introductory course in archaeology, while at the same time concise enough that it allows experienced archaeologists to incorporate their own interests.

One of the reasons that I like to write for small publishers and university presses in the higher education market is that they tend to produce very well-priced books. I am glad to know that the University of Toronto Press priced this book very well, at about $50.

Instructors who adopt the book also get the benefit of what I think is a good set of new ancillaries, all developed by me. These include, for the instructor, an instructor’s manual, sets of PowerPoint slides, and a test bank. For the student, ancillaries include a companion website complete with chapter-by-chapter study questions and links to resources on the web. I complained and I grumbled while working on the ancillaries, but I eventually came around. And I am glad I did. I think they will be very useful for students and instructors.

In retrospect, writing Introducing Archaeology, Second Edition was not the chore I initially expected it to be. I am glad I decided to do it.

Robert J. Muckle has been doing and teaching archaeology for more than 25 years. He is a professor at Capilano University near Vancouver, and has considerable experience directing projects in the realms of academic, commercial, Indigenous, prehistoric, and historic archaeology.