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Living in the past: ASU archaeologist seeks new answers to old questions

headshot of ASU archaeology professor Michelle Hegmon
March 04, 2014

If you find archaeological accounts dry and irrelevant, Arizona State University archaeologist Michelle Hegmon has three letters for you: AHE.

That acronym stands for Archaeology of the Human Experience. It is a new direction for the discipline, one that is receiving a lot of attention.

AHE asks archaeologists to consider what it was really like to live in the past that they study, and to understand the people who populated that past as fellow human beings. That shift in paradigm provides new answers to old questions and is inspiring archaeologists to ask a whole new range of questions that humanize their research.

Last fall, the Society for American Archaeology’s magazine, the Archaeological Record, devoted a special issue to the approach, and asked Hegmon – a pioneer and major proponent of AHE – to act as guest editor. She brought on board some of the brightest young minds in archaeology, including ASU alumnus Scott Ortman and doctoral students Laura Swantek, Jacob Freeman and Timothy Dennehy.

Changing paradigms

Hegmon, a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says that her trigger for developing AHE was the reaction to a 2008 article she and others published in American Anthropologist. Titled “Social Transformation and its Human Costs in the Prehispanic U.S. Southwest,” the article specifically considered the human sufferings in social transformations, a direction that was very well received by many colleagues.

However, when Hegmon attempted to take the same approach in a different piece for a more science-oriented journal, her submission was rejected. She was told that it isn’t appropriate to talk about human suffering because researchers can’t know what people in the past felt.

Hegmon couldn’t accept that attitude. She set out to show that archaeology can provide a humanized understanding of what it was like to live in the past, and can support that understanding with solid and rigorous research.

To this end, Hegmon developed an approach, which became one part of AHE, based on the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) dimensions of human security, facets developed specifically to focus on the human experience (in contrast to national security).

The UNDP has defined seven dimensions: economic, political, community, food, health, personal and environmental. Hegmon is modifying this framework, which was developed for today’s world, for archaeological application.

She says that considering how the human securities changed for past peoples over time may produce a holistic awareness of germane themes, including migration, societal expansion and periods of peace or war.

Decision-making is at the core of civilization, she says, and better understanding the decision-making of ancient peoples – such as the reasons behind going to war or settling in a certain place – can inform academic studies ranging from politics to ecology.

Resilience at what cost?

In recent years, archaeologists have begun contributing heavily to sustainability studies. Hegmon understands the value of her research in this realm, but she sees the potential for broadening its scope using AHE.

She explains, “As we try to understand the past, what caused certain phenomena and whether societies were resilient, it’s important to understand how people felt about what was occurring, what trade-offs were made and how changes impacted them.”

Hegmon believes it is important to not just look at what seemed to work in our human past, but also ask ourselves if we are willing to live through the conditions that created or enabled that situation.

As an example, she points to the Faroe Islands, well documented in the Archaeological Record AHE edition by City University of New York graduate student Seth Brewington.

Unlike nearby Iceland, which has supported people for a long period at the expense of degraded land, and Greenland, where the original Norse settlements died out, the Faroes seemed like the poster child for sustainability.

But Brewington shows that while the Faroese people have practiced long-term management of resources, historically, oppressive measures were used to create the human-ecosystem balance.

In medieval times, the creation of new settlements was barred and marriage was forbidden for people who did not own a certain amount of property, preserving land holdings for the wealthy and providing peasant labor in the form of the unwed poor. The results, whether intended or not, were a manageable population and a robust landscape, with restricted access to natural resources.

In this case, while the big picture appears positive, a more detailed view reveals how the burden for these developments was unequally shared and involved a loss of rights and opportunities for a segment of the population. Hegmon points out that sustainability today involves satisfying human needs, particularly of the global poor, while respecting environmental limits. By these standards, although Faroese society did persist, it may not have been sustainable.

According to Hegmon, AHE is inherently political and often shows “what it’s like to live with the decision-makers’ decisions.” Perspectives derived from it can be timely. She says that after becoming familiar with the Faroe Islands case, she couldn’t help but think of modern austerity measures, which allow societies or economies to persist, but with little attention to human needs.

Research for the ages

“A big part of what archaeology can contribute is our understanding of another time and another place,” Hegmon says. “It opens minds and imagination as to how processes and situations emerged.”

She emphasizes that AHE depends on material evidence and not speculation. “I’m not trying to get into people’s heads or write historical fiction,” she states. “I want to contribute solid evidence to understanding the human condition in the past and how that might explain how societies developed and changed.”

She finds working in conjunction with bioarchaeologists – those who study human remains in an archaeological context – particularly helpful. Information on trauma, as evidenced in the skeletal structure, can address the questions about how, and for how long, a person suffered with an injury, disease, mental impairment, malnourishment or any of a number of issues that could have affected the way they experienced and interacted with the world. Such information can often be applied to entire populations or segments of populations.

AHE could advance archaeology to the next level by making it not only relevant and accessible, but also engaging to people who otherwise might not be willing to wade through dry academic accounts of important cases. Those people just may be policymakers or potential collaborators who can implement the findings in meaningful ways.

A book on AHE is forthcoming from Hegmon and fellow ASU archaeologists Margaret Nelson, Keith Kintigh, Katherine Spielmann and Michael Smith, as well as graduate students Timothy Dennehy and Andrea Torvinen, and alumni Scott Ortman, Matthew Peeples, Colleen Strawhacker and Benjamin Staley.