Michael Brian Schiffer. Archaeology’s Footprints in the Modern World. 397 pp., 38 b&w photos, notes, refs., index. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2017. $26.95 (paper), $22 (eBook)

Does archaeology matter? Scholars at various levels of the academic ladder have grappled with the need to explain the significance of their research to non-academics. Among one another, scholars can certainly explain the intellectual merit of their work. However, in the US, archaeologists have increasingly come under public scrutiny for an apparent lack of relevance in contemporary society. Parents ask, why pay thousands of dollars for their kids to shovel dirt? Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) targets archaeological projects as scapegoats for apparent bad spending by the National Science Foundation. The random stranger asks “what is left to find?” Through forty-two succinct case studies, Schiffer examines how archaeological research has impacted a broader world. By mustering examples that span the history of archaeological inquiry, he argues that archaeologists have reshaped various aspects of contemporary societies and how people think about the past. Schiffer demonstrates that “[a]rchaeology’s impact on modern societies reaches far beyond the media and college courses” (xv). He provides a “panorama” of archaeology’s unique footprints in the modern world (xv). In his words, “[f]rom the many case studies, I hope you will acquire a deeper understanding of what [archaeologists] do and why we do it and will come to appreciate that archaeology is as significant as it is cool” (xxiv).

Schiffer’s panorama is organized into fourteen themed sections that each contain three chapters. Each section begins with a short introduction that explains the broader theme linking the chapters. His introductions allow the reader to easily transition among varied archaeological contributions to particular topics, such as activism (“Pursuing an Activist Agenda”), forensics (“Doing Fieldwork in a Forensic Context”), heritage management (“Enhancing Cultural Tourism and Heritage Awareness”), and history (“Complementing Historical Evidence”). The succinct case studies are tailored for general audiences. Consequently, the book presents a wealth of readings that professors can assign for undergraduate courses. More importantly, one can hand the book to a parent, friend, or stranger so they can discover the relevance of archaeology in contemporary society.

The essays provide a perspective on the impact of archaeology from a scholar who has been central in the development of the field since the 1970s. Schiffer reflects on archaeology and provides a glimpse into his own intellectual development. Therefore, the book contains many case studies that relate to North American archaeology and materials science. Schiffer builds from his classic works, such as Formation Processes of the Archaeological Record and his examinations of radiocarbon dating (i.e., old wood).[1] Similar to Formation Processes, he argues that archaeologists’ focus on materials and material properties is valuable for other scientific disciplines. For example, in the section “Contributing to the Physical Sciences and Engineering,” one chapter is focused on how engineers sought help from archaeologists to determine what materials could be used for long-term containment of nuclear waste.

Writing a book on the impact of archaeological research begs the question of why. Why write a book about the resonance of an academic field in contemporary society? While many professional scholars likely understand that archaeology has come under fire from US politicians, Schiffer does not provide much context for why archaeologists must demonstrate their value. Archaeology is at the heart of political debates on science and the allocation of federal, state, and private resources. The rise of fake news and alternative facts are outcomes of a renewed anti-intellectual movement that grew before the 2016 presidential election. Schiffer, similar to other archaeologists,[2] is likely responding to public critiques that label archaeology as a superfluous and esoteric form of inquiry. He piles on the evidence to demonstrate that despite popular rhetoric, archaeology has a broader impact in contemporary society. Without archaeology, people might still believe in lost races of moundbuilders (Chapter 1), rely on relative dating to understand deep time (Chapter 32), and lack long-term data on human interactions with the environment (Chapters 37-39).

For the history of archaeological and anthropological inquiry, Schiffer’s book may highlight an important period of transition in scholarly practice. Archaeology’s Footprints presents a shift in Schiffer’s scholarly repertoire. In terms of publication, he is known for discussions of methodology, material properties, and human behavior. However, a large portion of his case studies are focused on activism and collaborative engagement with non-academic communities. For example, in the section “Pursuing an Activist Agenda,” Schiffer includes his study of why electric cars lost to gasoline engines at the dawn of the automobile industry. Schiffer repeatedly advocates for collaborative, community, and activist archaeologies. He takes a political stance by supporting science and highlighting the importance of engaging broader publics in the archaeological process. After reading the book, I was left with the impression that archaeology’s real impact is not found in the writing of human history, but how the creation and dissemination of histories relate to broader publics. Therefore, activist and applied archaeologies may no longer be the elephant in the room.[3] Although his book is aimed toward a non-academic audience, Schiffer arms professional scholars with statements of broader impact that also highlight intellectual merit in a concise and clear manner. Therefore, anyone struggling to complete grant proposals would find useful writing samples in the chapters of Archaeology’s Footprints in the Modern World. General and professional audiences would benefit from examining Schiffer’s argument for how archaeology has shaped contemporary social life.

[1] Michael B. Schiffer, Formation Processes of the Archaeological Record (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987).

[2] Randall H. McGuire, Archaeology as Political Action (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); Jeremy A. Sabloff, Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology in the Modern World (Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, 2008).

[3] E.g., McGuire, Archaeology as Political Action; Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley, Social Theory and Archaeology (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1987); M. Jay Sottman, ed., Archaeologists as Activists: Can Archaeologists Change the World? (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010).

Christopher Hernandez: contributions / cherna5@uic.edu / NSF Post-doctoral Fellow, University of Illinois-Chicago