Archaeology in the Time of Coronavirus

This is my first post about my new research project ZANBA: zooarchaeology of the Nuragic Bronze Age. This isn’t the post I expected or wanted to write. But none of us are doing what we expected or wanted right now. Fighting the pandemic is rightly taking precedence over our plans. So these days I’m sitting on my couch or looking out my window at empty parking lots and wondering – how do I “do” archaeology in the Time of Coronavirus?

I expected to be in the field right now, getting ZANBA off the ground: meeting with the Soprintendenza, discussing permits, reestablishing lab access, taking a look at the bags of animal bones I haven’t touched since fall 2018. I was hoping to revisit some of the monuments where I work so I could finish an article that’s 90% written. I was going to see my friends. The trip was going to be low pressure and exciting. It was going to be fun.

Obviously, that trip has been cancelled. I’m still seeing my friends, but it’s for virtual cocktails over Zoom. Our conversations only occasionally touch on work. They focus on concern for each other’s safety and heavy doses of encouragement.

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Lab training for ZANBA, on hold for the moment.

I arrived in Wales to begin my new project in early January, just days before the novel coronavirus was identified. In January, the feeling around me was of an emergency happening somewhere else. In February, the feeling was of a concern that would only seriously affect a few. In March, the feeling went from “this is probably overreacting, but…” to “this is a national health emergency” in a matter of days. On Friday, March 13, my university announced that in-person teaching would end after one more week. The following Monday morning, it announced that in-person teaching would end after Wednesday. By that Monday evening, in-person classes were cancelled and staff were encouraged not to return to the building on Tuesday. The world was changing fast.

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The world is changing fast, and it can be hard to grasp what a slow-moving discipline like archaeology has to contribute in a crisis. The logistics of excavation and survey mean it can take years to gather our primary data. The constraints of collaborative research, shared labs, and intermittent funding mean it can be years again before we publish our findings. Most of our work investigates people who died a long time ago. Realistically, should the public care at all right now what the archaeologists have to say?

YES. Archaeologists can answer some of the most important questions people are worried about right now. Not about how to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the virus (stay home, wash your hands!) but about what things might look like after. How do societies respond to crises? How do crises differentially affect cities, towns, and rural settlements? What happens after a crisis? How do societies recover – or not? How long does recovery take?

Archaeologists have experience interpreting a global dataset that stretches back 250,000 years. We’ve studied how a lot of human systems have contracted and collapsed, as well as how they’ve adapted and been reinvented. It may feel like archaeological information can’t be comparable to what we’re going through today – ancient people didn’t have jets and stock exchanges and the internet. But most archaeologists will tell you that the roots of resilience in the past are the same as those in the present: maintaining the flow of accurate information, good decision-making, robust supply chains, and a willingness to do things differently when necessary.

Many archaeologists are trained in an anthropological framework that encourages us to see ancient people as culturally different, but cognitively and biologically the same as we are today. This perspective means that archaeologists can’t fall back on the comforting but false idea that real crises won’t happen to us because we’re too smart, scientifically advanced, or technologically capable. Archaeologists know that ancient people were just as smart as we are, and we’ve seen plenty of evidence that – no matter how smart we are – our human trajectory never goes endlessly up.

But we’ve also seen that dips in human trajectories vary widely in their aftermaths. Sometimes large-scale projects and long-distance communication all but disappear for centuries, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes people respond quickly and there’s a new period of growth. Sometimes the dissolution of sweeping hierarchies leads to more successful local systems. All kinds of outcomes are possible. Both individual and institutional responses matter, and adaptation is key.

The archaeologist who is my coauthor on the article that’s 90% finished is a specialist in photogrammetry. He’s currently adapting his skills to 3D print face shields for medical workers. We all have skills that can be adapted to the current moment. They may be as simple as the ability to keep ourselves entertained while staying inside, but these skills are saving lives.

We also have skills that will help us adapt to whatever future emerges from the current crisis. None of us knows right now how long this will last or what the long-term effects will be on our social networks, our economies, and our way of life. We’re taking this one day at a time. But as we move forward, consider talking to the archaeologists. Our case studies are different but relevant, and we’re trained to take the long view.

And please, please protect yourself and others by staying home and washing your hands!

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Documenting remains of the Nuragic Culture on the Siddi Plateau in 2019. Hopefully I’ll be able to return soon to finish that work!

2 thoughts on “Archaeology in the Time of Coronavirus

  1. Pingback: Archaeology vs. COVID-19 – Errant

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