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ARCHAEOLOGICAL PRACTICE AND THEORY: TOWARDS A BETTER


UNDERSTANDING OF THE PAST AND ITS APPLICATION TO THE FUTURE

George J. Gumerman

Arizona State Museum, The Santa Fe Institute

George Gumerman IV

Northern Arizona University

“Students ….. have learned from their professors that persuasion – reasoned argument –
no longer holds a favored position in university life. If their professors – feminists,
Marxists, historicists, other assorted theorists – belong to suspicious, gated intellectual
communities that are less interested in talking to each other than in staking out territory
and furthering agendas, then why learn to debate? Despite having endured endless faculty
meetings, I can’t remember that last time anyone changed his (or her) mind as a result of
reasoned discourse. Anyone who observed us would conclude the purpose of all
academic discussion was to provide the grounds for becoming further entrenched in our
original positions.”

Richard Russo “Straight Man”

Thoughts on the Conjunction of Theory and Practice

On a recent visit to a field school that was whose students


were excavating a Pueblo IV site in northern Arizona, Jeff
Dean and the senior author gave talks on complexity theory
and on the Artificial Anasazi Project (Gumerman and Kohler,
this volume). A tour of the site provoked the usual
interesting kinds of observations and questions about what
was being exposed. Is this partially uncovered masonry
section of fallen wall or a room divider? Are these two
walls abutted or bonded one another? Do these twelve layers
of plaster represent annual applications or were they
applied randomly through time? It struck me that these were
the same kinds of questions that were being asked when I
visited the University of Arizona Archaeological Field

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School at Grasshopper some thirty five years earlier - in


years, probably more than a third of the average Anasazi
phase. True, archaeologists take more care in excavation
procedures and collect more fine grained data (the
Grasshopper central plaza, for example, would almost
certainly not be completely dug out with a backhoe today as
it was in 1966). But the specific questions about what is
being viewed in partially buried rooms or plazas has not
changed much.

The slow pace of change in the practice of archaeology is


not surprising. After all, archaeologists still must deal
with the stuff of the past. Archaeology is an empirical
discipline. We deal with data. When was this door sealed?
Was the abandoned room used as a dump by people living in
what room cluster? Did the pueblo grow slowly by accretion
or by large groups of migrating people? Data must be
collected in a way that can potentially provide answers to
the questions that we ask about the past.

Given that archaeologist must continue to deal with cultural


material to answer questions, our goal in this article is to
briefly discuss some current issues in American archaeology,
especially those addressed by the theme of the Durango
conference. We suggest an expedient approach to the
application of theory to practice, using theory or parts of
theory as seems appropriate to the situation and to the
research questions we ask. In contrast, general theory
explains the human condition, versus more narrowly focused
theories that are used for understanding aspects of a
specific archaeological situation. Finally, we suggest that
archaeology become more relevant to global issues of today
and tomorrow.

There seems to be a greater discordance between practice and


theory now than in archaeology undertaken soon after World
War II. In large part this is because fifty years ago there
was little well developed theory in Americanist archaeology.
Walter Taylor’s “A Study of Archaeology” (1948) is a
monograph devoted to the subject that most often comes to
mind. Unfortunately, largely because of its attack on the
icons of the discipline Taylor’s thesis was ignored, deemed
not even worthy of discussion in most academic circles,
except for ad hominem attacks.

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Even the often quoted and greatly admired “Method and Theory
in American Archaeology” by Willey and Phillips (1958) is
largely devoted to classification and not general theory.
Wiley and Phillips was important, however, because it
provided shemata for ordering the data that was increasing
rapidly coming out of the ground. Another monograph that did
explicitly address theory is Raymond Thompson’s (1958) study
on the role of inference in archaeology. (The same
publication also established the field of ethnoarchaeology.)

Today the gulf between the practice of doing archaeology and


painting a portrait of past life ways or explaining cultural
processes seems to loom large, perhaps, in part, because
there is so much well-developed theory. The disjuncture
between the lecture on complexity theory at the field school
and students teasing out a wall construction sequence or
putting together the sherds of a broken White Mountain
Polychrome vessel is enormous. If we ask, “Is theory
informing data collection techniques and is the collection
of data today informing theory?”, the answer has to be “very
little.” In the case of what can be called “little studies”
(Rogge 1983), such as many Master’s theses that focus on
some aspect of a larger topic like subsistence, there is a
rather close connection between practice and theory. This is
because the questions being asked by necessity have to be
narrowly focused and usually rely on quantitative data. The
“big studies” involve a synthesis of many of the little
studies and overall impressions about a region or a large
site. These are usually the work of the director of the
project and are prepared many years after the instigation of
the project or even long after the field work has been
completed (Reid and Whittlesey 1999; Gumerman 1984). These
synthetic overviews are not dependent on contemporary
theory, although the tenor of writing usually reflects to
some degree the theoretical stance of the author. Both
little and big archaeological studies are usually formed
within some theoretical construct, whether consciously or
not.

Because the vast majority of the archaeology done in this


country is not grant supported research or field school
efforts, but rather contract archaeology, it is necessary to
briefly consider its role in theory and practice. Contract
archaeology has tended to be a consumer of theory, rather
than a generator of it. Cultural resource managers demanded
that larger projects include theory-based research, and
contractors soon learned to frame their proposals within

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some theoretical construct. (Perhaps there would be even


more robust theory today if so many of the bright young
people who sought unsuccessfully for prestigious academic
positions in the last decades did not have to make a living
grinding out proposals for contract work and being rewarded
in a different way than academicians). Tom King, while in a
responsible federal historic preservation position, tried to
impose a set of research questions set in a theoretical
framework which would be addressed by all large contract
projects if the research themes were appropriate. Despite
the logic of the concept it was never given serious
consideration. Part of the failure was the result of the
notorious independence of archaeologists--many with the
attitude of “Nobody is going to tell me how to do research.”
This occurred despite the fact that the research questions
were very broadly stated. Perhaps more importantly, many
archaeologists felt the research questions and theoretical
framework were being imposed from the top down, rather than
being generated by archaeological practitioners.

General and Expedient Theory

All theories are not created equal in terms of their


explanatory power. For the purposes of our discussion, we
consider archaeological theory under two broad rubrics,
general theory and theories of expediency. General theory
purport to explain grand patterns of culture change that may
be universal, rather than selected or more parochial aspects
of that change. General theory does not account for specific
observations bounded in time and space. It is more than
anthropological, encompassing much of the social,
behavioral, and physical sciences that develop explanations
about the human condition. Often general theory is
integrated into the big studies mentioned above and small
studies more often are framed using theories of expediency.

General theories are more difficult to operationalize than


expedient theories. For example, Leslie White, whose
theories profoundly effected a generation of archaeological
theorists, wrote ethnographies as if he were in a
theoretical vacuum (White. His ethnographies of the Rio
Grande Pueblos are indistinguishable from those written by
Boasians, whose lack of theory he detested (White 1963).
Walter Taylor’s conjunctive approach while conceptually
solid was a failure because no archaeologist, including
himself, was capable of the level of detail in analysis that
Taylor demanded. The early processual archaeologists

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understood this and therefore deemed it necessary to collect


data in such a way that specific, more narrowly defined
questions could be answered.

General theories tend to be successional, i.e., they are


meant to replace theories that came before. They are usually
seamless, and all encompassing, and therefore less flexible
in their ability to accommodate other concepts or theories.
The founders were often confident, dismissive of earlier
practice and theory, and defended even the slightest
criticism as if admitting any weakness of idea or practice
would unwind the entire structure of their argument. The
founders of general theory also exaggerate the differences
of their theories when compared to others. Consider the
following modes of discourse and the names associated with
their genesus: Culturology, the conjunctive approach,
processual archaeology, postprocessual archaeology, and
selectionism. Perhaps major break throughs in general theory
favor a certain type of personality. Leslie White’s (1963)
attack on Franz Boas was so vitriolic that it was turned
down by the major journals, finally published by The Texas
Memorial Museum and distributed free.

Expedient theorists, on the other hand, tend to pick and


chose elements of a general theory or to use what is
sometimes called an “approach”, such as an “ecological
approach.” The expedient theorist is eclectic and selects
elements of theory that illuminate the data. As such, the
expedient theories are usually developed by accretion, i.e.;
they use some aspect of existing theory to construct new
theory or modify existing theory. Expedient theory tends to
have many seams and loose ends and therefore are more
flexible about accommodating elements of other theories.

Expedient theory does not produce the major paradigmatic


shifts that occur with general theory. Partial explanations
produce more incremental advances in understanding the past.
Expedient theory flies at least partially under the flag of
realism as expressed in this volume by Sebastian and
McGuire, Kelley, and in the pleas for inclusive approaches
to archaeological theory in the paper by Crown. As Kelly
says, realism can factor in both history and contingency.
Sebastian and McGuire (this volume) note also that the goal
of realism is explanation not prediction. A realist
explanation begins not with general principles, but with the
social forms of an actual society. By accounting for the
evolution from one form to another in terms of both the

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natural and cultural environment of the society, realism


encourages an expedient approach.

Rather than view the characteristics of the two categories


as rigid and distinct, the are permeable. Randy McGuire
recognized a diversity of viewpoints even in Marxist
archaeology by titling his book “A Marxist Archaeology”,
rather than “Marxist Archaeology” or even “The Marxist
Archaeology”. Furthermore, there is a strong tendency for
general theories to become expedient once the intellectual
fires of the initial proponents have cooled, and the need to
disassociate from exiting theories deemed less necessary.
The early processual archaeologists, for example, were
vigorous proponents of their positivist approach and
disdainful of culture history. This despite the fact that in
the foundation article by Binford, (1962) he explicitly
states that the three goals of archaeology are culture
history, depiction of past life ways, and an understanding
of cultural processes (Binford 1962). The processual school
eventually became more flexible and inclusive of differing
shades of theoretical opinion, but not so accommodating as
to accept the basic principles articulated by
postprocessualists. And by its explicit theoretical
foundation, postprocessual archaeology should be flexible in
the theoretical interpretations that it entertains. The very
name, postprocessualism, suggests replacement and
succession. As individual general theory ages, there are
many calls for compromise and a more tempered acceptance of
at least part of the concepts of other general theory (For
example, many of the papers in Preucel 1991; Hodder 1991;
Skibo et al, 1995; Renfrew and Bahn, 1996). But on the other
hand, when Schiffer (1996) pointed out the complementarily
of much of behavioral archaeology and selectionism, his
offer of accommodation was greeted with a catalogue of
behavioral archaeology’s faults and selectionists virtues
(O’Brien et
al 1998)

The general theory practitioners in their attempt to


distinguish themselves from the errors of their fathers,
catalogue the ways in which their theoretical ancestors have
erred. In most cases, however, the theoretical ancestors
were not wrongheaded, but simply incomplete, or if
incorrect, only partially so. As many of the authors in this
volume indicate they are not proposing replacing past theory

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and practice, but advocating the inclusion of other


concepts.

Hays-Gilpin, for example, does not indicate that the older


view of sex differences is the archaeological record was
wrong, although they were shaded by our own biases; they
were incomplete and almost exclusively focused on economic
issues. Hays-Gilpin paints a much more complete and
complicated picture that more accurately reflects how humans
actually behave.

Another example of the expansion of traditional research


into new arenas is explored by Gumerman IV (this volume).
While archaeologists will always be interested in what
people consume, an expanded concept of foodways considers
the social aspects of food in its production, preparation,
distribution, consumption, and disposal. Archaeologists
build on a dietary foundation to explore social, gender, and
political relations through the study of food.

Gumerman and Kohler (this volume) demonstrate a new tool,


agent based modeling, for provoking new questions and
shedding light on some old ones. Again, this is an evolution
in understanding, not a replacement. In fact, the
instigation for the research was started with the SARG
effort in the late 1960’s. Critics (Schaafsma and Riley
1999) who complain that agent based modeling cannot provide
a realistic portrait of the past because it does not
consider historical contingency, fail to understand that the
purpose of simulation is not realism, but to act as a
prosthesis for the imagination. Agent based modeling will
probably never provide more than a simple cartoon like image
of the Anasazi. To paraphrase Picasso who said, “Art is a
lie that helps to understand reality”, We consider agent
based modeling to be a lie that helps to understand past
reality.

By advocating an expedient archaeology, we mean more


opportunistic, than inclusive, more complimentary than
opposing. The place, time, data, and the research questions
should be the overriding issues that determine the theory
and elements of theory that form the framework of research.
The goals of melding theory and practice is not to create
harmony among scholars, but rather to provide a richer, more
detailed, and plausible account of the past. Compromise is
sometimes not the most appropriate action, for there is
often inappropriate use of some theory, and theories of

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everything in the social and behavioral sciences as some


advocate are almost certainly wrong. Likewise, a middle of
the road approach may yield banal results. As Johnson
reports hearing in a west Texas bar, “there ain’t nothin’ in
the middle of the road ‘cept white lines and dead
armadillos.” (1999, 187). Jane Kelley’s “middle of the road”
view expressed in this volume is not an unexamined quest for
compromise, and her “selective browsing” for appropriate
theory is what we call “expedient”.

Expedient archaeology can provide a much richer,


heterogeneous, stimulating, and as Kelly (this volume) has
said a “kinder and gentler understanding of the past (see
also Wylie 1995; Kehoe, this volume).

An example of an expedient use of theory in the practice of


archaeology is Chuck Adams’ (1991) study of the origin of
the Pueblo Katsina Cult.” He uses the twenty five years of
data collected from directing the archaeological projects at
the Hopi site of Walpi, and the proto – historic site of
Homol’ovi to investigate a topic that has fascinated
archaeologists for years. While he uses an “ecological
approach” to understand Anasazi interaction with the
environment, he does not use it in the systemic “black box”
sense that Phillips describes in the Forward as “functional
ecology”. Adams relies more on the quirkiness of history,
the data from the two projects, symbolism, materialism, and
ethnographic data than he does on environmental factors to
account for the origin, character, and spread of the Katsina
cult. Adams used the combination of concepts that were most
likely to answer the questions he was asking.

The New Ecologies

In proposing the Durango conference, the organizers of the


conference were startled by the large and positive response
they received from the researchers. They should not have
been. Their call for action was sympathetically met because
few researchers had clung to the pure functional ecological,
homeostatic notion of earlier decades. In effect,
anthropology theory had by past Southwestern archaeological
theory. Cultural anthropology had discarded the older
notions of cultural ecology that Southwestern archaeologists
continued to champion. As early as 1984 Rappaport declared
that ecology in its various new guises no longer offers
causal explanations. Rather, it provides a perspective that
defines questions and problems. The changes in the

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functional ecological movement, in fact, are a good example


of how general theory can become expedient.

Biersack’s (1999) overview of the evolution from the “new


ecology” of the 1960’s to today’s emerging “ecologies”
outlines how symbolic, historical, and political ecologies,
can be used to delimit problems according to the nature of
the data and the problem being addressed. Symbolic ecology
purses an agenda that is archaeology of the human mind and
its relationship to the landscape on which the play is
staged. Early efforts tried to distinguish between the
“emic”, or possibly flawed cultural understanding of the
environment and the “etic”, or objective or actual
representation of the environment (Harris 1990). More recent
studies have dealt with the social construction of nature
(Lansing 199X). Historical ecology evolved from a
perspective of human cultural adaptation to the environment
to a more dynamic concept of the environment that is the
result of a historical interplay between culture and the
environment (Kirch and Hunt 1997). Crumley (1994) argues
that an ecology is a historical reflection of decisions,
ideas, and practices that are based on mental activities
that remain encoded in the landscape. Crumley’s concept
maintains a tenet of historical ecology, that it is
inherently anthropocentric, not ecocentric (Biersack 1999,
9). Political ecology explores the consequences of power
relationships on a large spatial scale in understanding how
humans use the environment. Most of these studies have
concentrated on historical periods (Wolf 1982), but there
are archaeological studies are beginning to appear, mostly
in using more complex societies as an example Gill 1999).

An Applied and Relevant Archaeology

Despite the attempts at reinvigorating archaeology, as


evidenced by this conference, it is necessary that
archaeology extend itself and explore new uses for its
products. Otherwise the discipline will be reduced to a
handful of academics debating questions nobody else cares
about and therefore will not support. We believe that the
future of archaeology not only depends on a closer
relationship between theory and practice, but also on
applying archaeology to broader societal concerns. This is
not the clarion call to relevance heard throughout the 60’s
and early 70’s from the entire range of social and

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behavioral sciences. It was unrealistic to expect the


lessons from Southwestern archaeology to address problems in
the modern urban ghetto (Martin and Plog 1973). There were
few resources that could be devoted to such an effort, and
even if they were available, the technology for translating
archaeological research to applications available to a huge
audience was not available. The global coverage of the web
and the ready availability of CD-ROM technology offer huge
teaching and research outreach. Of the hundreds of efforts
to use the new technology we offer only a few examples.
Yet, an interactive CD-ROM on the archaeology of slavery
could apply archaeological knowledge towards improving
education among urban grade school children. Ian Hodder has
put all the data from his excavations at Catal Hoyuk on the
web for any individual or organization to offer their own
interpretations of the data from postprocessualists to a
witches coven (http://CATAL.arch.cam.ac.uk/catal/catal.hmlt)

As has been articulated by many papers in this volume, we


need to make archaeology relevant to a variety of audiences
—grade school children, life-long learners, Native
Americans, and others (McManamon 1991). This could include,
for example public programs to the local populations where
we work, developing land-use planning strategies for
communities, and reintroducing past technologies (Downum and
Price 1999).
All archaeological research needs an applied component.
Anybody who recently has written or reviewed a NSF proposal
knows that the research component is now only one aspect of
the proposal. Archaeologists are now required to demonstrate
the applicability of their research. Ideally, there will
develop a synergistic relationship between research and
application.
The junior author, along with Joelle Clark of Northern
Arizona University’s Science and Mathematics Learning
Center, developed the Partnership for Public Archaeology.
The role of the Partnership is to develop and implement a
variety of educational programs based on the creation,
implementation, and dissemination of a spiral education
model—a curriculum that cumulatively develops from
preschoolers to adult learners. Working in partnership with
archaeological researchers and educators, this model will
introduce and continually build an understanding of
archaeological concepts, theories, and methods.
One initiative of the Partnership for Public
Archaeology is the development of a series of interactive
CD-ROMs and an associated web site that use archaeology to

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teach math, science, and cultural diversity to 4th-6th grade


children. The first CD-ROM focuses on multicultural
interpretations of the archaeology of the Colorado Plateau
and Grand Canyon. The program introduces archaeology as a
science, while providing students a chance to witness
archaeological research. The overall objective of the
computer program is for students to appreciate the types of
prehistoric societies that inhabited the Colorado Plateau
and how they interacted with each other. Students will
complete lessons that allow them to interpret data from
three sites. Video taped interviews with archaeologists and
Native American Elders will supplement the text. Native
Americans will share their present day perspectives
regarding the importance of the Grand Canyon and
archaeological work in the Four Corner's region, while
demonstrating the value of multicultural education and
appreciation.
How does applied archaeology affect theory? Does it
create a greater distance between theory and practice? Or
does it create new ways of looking at the past? It is likely
that the theories that we use to understand past behavior
are distinct from the theories used in applying our
knowledge. Archaeologists are omnivorous when it comes to
the adoption of theories form other disciplines. But we
might become more so, drawing on theories from education,
psychology, and ethics. Understanding how people learn, for
example, should affect how we design museum exhibits or
educational CD-ROMs. With our central concern of
understanding human behavior, archaeologists also can
contribute theory to other disciplines, such as education.
We can address such questions as, “How do different cultures
learn? How do we teach archaeology to a multi-cultural
audience? To Native Americans? To grade school children in
Peru?”

While these programs have great value to a diverse audience,


archaeologists will soon have to use their skills for more
than informing the interested public about the past or as a
vehicle for understanding science. Archaeologists constantly
repeat Santayana’s statement “Those who cannot remember the
past are condemned to repeat it.” or chant, “Archaeology is
the only discipline that controls the data with sufficient
time scale to understand long term change”. Unless, however,
we act upon these sentiments with data and concepts that can
be used for public policy, many shall consider archaeology a
social luxury. Cultural anthropology has already been

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somewhat marginalized by the appropriation of concepts of


multiculturalism and by the institutionalizing of
departments of women’s studies and African American studies,
rather than gender, race, and ethic studies within
departments of anthropology.

Archaeology, however, can be truly relevant with important


consequences for the future of both our world and our
discipline. Here are three examples of archaeology as an
integral part of public land use policy, and interestingly
two from the Southwest.

The oldest and most ambitious is the multidisciplinary


Archaeomedes Project in southern Europe, funded by the
European Union. The goal was to understand both the
anthropogenic and natural causes of land degradation in the
semi-arid Mediterranean region in order to provide
scientific data to national and multinational policy makers.
Funded by the European Union, teams of scores of researchers
from dendroclimatologists, economists, rural and urban
sociologists, hydrologists, to archaeologists used the long
time scale to address contemporary problems. The time range
began with the Early Paleolithic use of the landscape and a
characterization of the landscape unmodified by humans. At
the other end of the temporal scale, studies examined the
effect of contemporary farm subsides on the desertification
of southern Europe. These studies were more intensive than
extensive, actually a series of case studies that ranged
from eastern Portugal to western Greece. The research
developed policy directives to attain sustainable
development and preventive and remedial policy. An important
aspect of the study was an evaluation of the perceptions key
individuals had concerning the environment and resource
management. In addition, it was important to develop early
indicators of environmental deterioration and identify a
range of landscapes and human behavior that contribute to
environmental problems (S. E. van der Leeuw 1998, 2).
Significantly, the project coordinator was an archaeologist,
van der Leeuw.

Closer to home is Arizona State University’s Center for


Environmental Studies, and the Central Arizona – Phoenix
Long Term Ecological Research Project (CAP LTER). It is one
of twenty-one such projects funded by NSF and one of only
two concerned with urban environments. The budget with
support from ASU and a number of community partners exceeds
eight million dollars. The goal of the project is to

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understand the relationship between urban centers and the


natural environment through time. Phoenix, the second
fastest growing city in the country and in a fragile semi-
arid environment, needs to consider how continued urban
growth changes the social and ecological characteristics of
the area. By 1998, CAP LETR scientists initiated eighteen
projects, some of which were long term monitoring, others
involved data synthesis of prehistoric and historic
information, and others were short-term investigations.
Teams of biological, physical, and social scientists are
addressing the urban ecosystem with a decidedly evolutionary
perspective. Much consideration is being given to pre-
Spanish use of the land, including the impact of irrigation
systems, soil salinization, and other early land use
practices. The CAP LETR data and research results will be
available on the web. Again, significantly, the project co-
director is an archaeologist, Charles L. Redman. (There is
also a large component of CAP LERT that involves public
participation, especially K-12 students).

A bit further to the south is a more recent development; the


Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan (SDCP) initiated by Pima
County of Arizona, in which lies the fast growing city of
Tucson. The SDCP is driven by the Endangered Species Act; in
the county there are eighteen federally listed species on
the threatened or endangered list and five more under
consideration. Rather than address the consequences of
urbanization to these species in a piecemeal fashion, the
goal is to develop a coordinated plan to achieve
conservation goals while meeting the economic needs of the
community. There is a large SDCP Steering Committee with
diverse backgrounds, including developers, environmental
activists, government officials, and a cross section of
concerned citizens. There are also technical teams that are
collecting data and synthesizing in the following areas:
biological studies, ranch land studies (chaired by an
ethnohistorian, Tom Sheridan), economic studies, and
cultural and historical studies (chaired by an
archaeologist, Paul Fish, and using the computerized AZSITE
GIS based site system developed by a consortium of
universities, state agencies, and museums). The hope is to
preserve critical habitat and resources in all the areas of
study, perhaps exchanging some habitats and sites that are
less critical on public lands for those that are unique or
rare in private hands.

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These examples provide evidence that archaeology can


have a place at the table that is laden with issues that are
important to our communities and the world today. It is
clear that when archaeologists make their possible
contributions known, the public and the policy makers
listen, include us, and apply resources to our efforts. It
is incumbent upon us, however, to make our skills known and
our talents and data available. Phillips has noted somewhat
plaintively in the Forward that the intellectual enthusiasm
generated by the conference seems to have dissipated. Given
that has been about thirty years since the first loud calls
for relevance in archaeology to actually put words to
action, it is not surprising that the archaeological
practice and theory called for by the Durango Conference
seems slow to develop. Patience. Expedient theory and a
focus on relevance will be the cradle of the future of
archaeology.

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