Thursday, April 28, 2011

Knowledge of archaeology

Mihriban Ozbarasan, left, is a professor at Istanbul University who leads a group working at the Catalhoyuk site. Ian Hodder, second from left, is director of Stanford's Archaeology Program.

Archaeologists at Stanford used to be all over the place. In trailers. In basements. In their home departments. But never, or hardly ever, near their archaeological colleagues.

But it's a new and exciting era at Stanford. Since 2005, a state-of-the-art Archaeology Center just off

the Main Quad has become a home for faculty, students and visitors, a place for meetings and lab work and artifact storage and the sort of casual conversation that can spark projects that, before, might never have seen the light of day.

First approved in early 2001 and recently renewed for another five years, the interdisciplinary undergraduate Archaeology Program has participating faculty from the departments of Anthropological Sciences, Cultural and Social Anthropology, Classics, Geological and Environmental Sciences, Geophysics, Political Science, History, and Art and Art History. Teaming up, they are training a new generation of scholars and practitioners.

And starting this fall, a workshop at the Humanities Center provides a new intellectual forum on archaeology.

It was the arrival of historian and classicist Ian Morris in 1995 that got this collaborative process going, most people say. There followed a series of senior appointments—including archaeologists Ian Hodder and Lynn Meskell—and junior appointments in a range of departments. Suddenly, there were few better places to learn and practice archaeology than at Stanford. The university's mix of new and old, theory and practice, and politics and tradition is unique, scholars say, and absolutely essential for ensuring that archaeology lives up to its literally ground-breaking potential as a field that cuts across and challenges a host of disciplines.

"All these people all working together is very inspiring," said Josh Ober, a new faculty member with a joint appointment in political science and classics. He is the first holder of the Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Professorship and just arrived here from Princeton. "It's a world that tends to be quite fragmented. The Old World doesn't talk to the New World; dirt doesn't talk to theory. Clearly, at Stanford there's a real eagerness to do things in a way that brings together strengths from various traditions."

Hodder, the Dunlevie Family Professor and director of the Archaeology Center, made it clear that this scholarly convergence on the center does not mean he is interested in creating a new department. Archaeology departments, in fact, are a rare breed in the United States.

"The key issue is flexibility," he said. "We need a loose structure, a network, openness. We don't need another straitjacket. Disciplines go back and forth with the times, and we must allow them to move and to change, to incorporate new theories and new technologies."

Hodder spoke just after returning from a summer in Turkey, where he directs the dig at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük ( "The great strength of Stanford is the availability of international travel in the summer," he said last summer, reflecting on his upcoming duties as director.

"I feel very strongly there's an extreme importance for Stanford students to go abroad. When you're at the site, you sit there. You don't just pass through; you have to interact with the local community. I can see how the students change."

Stanford faculty have ongoing projects on every continent, and every one has the potential to slice through methodological, theoretical, social and moral concerns. "Archaeology tends to be ghettoized in one place or another," Hodder said. Usually that means an anthropology department.

"In the United States, no one has successfully bridged the humanities, the natural sciences and the social sciences," he said. "We're unable to bring people together, integrate them, build something new. But at Stanford, we have managed to take a diverse range of sciences and pull them together in the center, which is unique."

For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.

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