The National Directory for Archaeological Societies lists fewer than 100 archaeological societies across the US, with only two in Indiana, one (The Kentucky Archaeological Survey) in Kentucky, and none in West Virginia. Granted, this list does not appear to be inclusive of all the organizations for those states. There are several notable omissions such as the Central Ohio Valley Archaeological Society (COVAS), the Kentucky Chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), as well as the Meade County Historical and Archaeological Preservation Society. The longstanding West Virginia Archaeological Society is not included. The Council of Affiliated Societies (CoAS) within the Society for American Archaeology lists only seventeen active groups in the US. Overall, most of the societies across the country appear to be in areas with a strong Native American presence, where archaeological sites are still very numerous and apparent on undeveloped public lands, and which are located in proximity to universities – and by extension – professional archaeologists.
It has been noted within the Ohio Valley region that membership and participation in archaeological societies has been in decline in recent years. Membership is aging, and fewer young people are joining. The Web Society in Kentucky no longer exists. Eleven chapters once existed in Indiana, but only two, the Falls of the Ohio Archaeological Society (FOAS) and the White River Valley Archaeological Society, are still active. Multiple society chapters in West Virginia are now defunct. While individuals may maintain their membership status, they do not regularly attend meetings or actively participate in society activities. There are multiple reasons to explain this decline.
Lack of Leadership. This is a key factor in the failure of avocational societies. No organization of any type will be successful over the long run without strong leadership. Yet there are too few people who are willing to invest their time and energy and assume leadership roles. Leadership can be a single person, or a group of individuals, but it is unrealistic to think that any one person could maintain this role indefinitely without burnout. While this leadership can be lay, professional involvement is a key to the continuance of a society. Yet professional people are hesitant to undertake time-consuming roles, and with good reason. They are involved in archaeology for 40 hours per week in university or CRM positions, and it is understandable that they may need a break from it during their off-time.
Competing Interests. Today, there are many competing interests for one’s time. For any planned society meeting or activity, there is a growing number of unrelated events occurring simultaneously. And in this world where so much is on offer and one must see it all and do it all, people can simply be stretched too thin.
Social Media and the Internet. Websites, YouTube, Facebook…each of these resources has brought archaeology into the reach of the public. There are so many resources at the tip of one’s fingers, and one does not have to leave his/her chair to learn about exciting discoveries and new theories. Videos can be watched, questions can be asked and answered on interactive sites, all without leaving home.
Exhaustion of Speakers. Most amateur/avocational societies have a monthly or quarterly meeting format that includes a speaker, whether a professional archaeologist, historian, or someone with a specific expertise. These folks generously give of their time and sometimes travel quite a distance to present at a society’s meeting place, often to find only a few individuals in attendance. There are too few speakers within local or easy travel of most societies, and groups find themselves reaching further and further out in the region to solicit new speakers. Even so, the number of available speakers who are willing to participate is finite and soon exhausted, leaving the meeting organizer at odds for what to do at meetings.
Lack of Student Interest/University Programs. In some cities and even states, there are few anthropology programs that offer graduate degrees in archaeology. This means there are limited professional resources to draw upon for society support and guidance. Some programs are staffed by professionals with research interests overseas rather than more local or regional cultural areas. With a low number of degree programs and professors, there are naturally fewer students. While students are always a welcome addition to any society, most choose to align themselves with the academic community rather than avocational or amateur groups.
Current Laws, Regulations, and Policies. There are fewer opportunities for archaeological societies to become involved in independent fieldwork or excavation. In the past, societies have made significant contributions to our understanding the past in this manner. Today, however, there are laws and regulations to protect and manage our nation’s cultural heritage. And with good reason. With ever spreading development and loss of expansive, natural lands, archaeological sites are rapidly diminishing in number. The ramification for amateur/avocational groups, in some states moreso than others, is that there are more stringent requirements governing the excavation of sites, most of which focus on the involvement of a professional archaeologist. And even more than site protection, today’s enlightened climate demands a sensitivity to the cultures, beliefs, and ancestral traditions of those peoples whose sites we may disturb. Policies for the appropriate treatment of traditional and sacred places and burial grounds of all cultures further limit the opportunities for disturbance through excavation. And rightly so. Lastly, though it still occurs far too often, there is a growing perception on the part of the public against the collecting, trading, buying, and selling of artifacts. The successful prosecution of ARPA cases, the notoriety surrounding the illegal acquisition of artifacts by large corporations, are slowly but surely enlightening the public and attaching a stigma to the inappropriate treatment of artifacts.
Anne Tobbe Bader
Corn Island Archaeology LLC