Lecture Program

AIA Lecturer: K. Anne Pyburn

Affiliation: Indiana University, Bloomington

K. Anne Pyburn is Provost’s Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University Bloomington, and she holds her degrees from the University of Arizona, Tucson (Ph.D. and M.A.), and Reed College (B.A.).  Her geographic areas of specialization are Mesoamerica (Belize) and Central Asia (Kyrgystan), with research interests that include archaeology, settlement patterns, the Maya, gender, ethics, as well as archaeology and social content.  She is the Director of the Belize Service Learning Project for Wells Scholars, and Co-Director of the research project at Aygergel II, Naryn, Kyrgyzstan.  She has written and presented widely, and her published works include Collision or Collaboration: Archaeology Encounters Economic Development (co-editor with P.G. Gould, 2018, New York, Springer).


Contemporary trends in mass media communication indicate serious confusion in the public consciousness about the nature of science and the status of evidential reasoning. Archaeologists, in an effort to make esoteric research programs interesting to the public, have contributed to this problem by providing over-simplified stories and “lessons from the past” that overinterpret evidence and mystify analysis. We have allowed public intellectuals from other disciplines to speak for us, and we have failed to address the dangerous gap between what we were saying about the past from what the public was learning about the past. One result has been that archaeologists’ news stories inadvertently promote political values that their data do not support.

Archaeology is not alone among the sciences in its attempt to enchant the public with fashionable explanations and easy answers, so the problems and the potential remedies for archaeology’s missteps with publicity are related and similar to those of other disciplines. In this presentation I consider how archaeologists and other scientists might recast our public interactions to encourage a more well-informed citizenry. I argue for a more respectful engagement with the public and insist that it isn’t necessary to be either tedious or simplistic to entertain an audience.

In an attempt to make their work relevant to the present and supportive of valuable political understandings, archaeologists have often tried to interpret their findings as providing “lessons from the past.” Usually these have something to do with a concern for the results of overpopulation or environmental destruction in the present. Many have assumed that showing how human error in the past led to starvation, suffering and collapse would impel people in the present to make better choices.

The results of these efforts have been negligible for social change, but unfortunately, constructing the ancestral cultures of Indigenous groups as wasteful, violent, political failures has had demonstrable negative consequences. This is particularly the case for living Maya people whose plight in the world today continues to be ignored, as their history is continuously used as a cautionary tale for humanity. People are shocked to learn that there are over eight million Maya speakers alive today, many of whom are still struggling to overcome the genocide of the Guatemalan civil war.

In this talk I cast the history of Maya speaking peoples in a different light and turn the “lessons from the past” upside down to expose the brilliant, creative, highly developed civil society, and astonishing sustainable economic strategies of Maya cultures. I show how a well-intentioned misrepresentation of the past has not only undermined Maya sovereignty in the present but is teaching exactly the wrong lessons from the past. The “Maya collapse” lessons are not only inaccurate, they miss the points about resilience and land rights that could have real impact on the modern world, by challenging the history of the destructive forces that are made to seem inevitable in traditional archaeological stories about the Maya past.

The goal of the “Grassroots Resource Preservation and Management in Kyrgyzstan: Ethnicity, Nationalism and Heritage on a Human Scale” project was to develop, promote, document, and evaluate a set of small-scale heritage and cultural property preservation/education projects designed by citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic. These projects promoted the development of community initiatives to preserve cultural resources. The project’s thesis was that Kyrgyzstan needed a more developed cultural resource management strategy to respond to rapid globalization and increasing tourism, which if unchecked was likely to result in escalating destruction and loss of cultural property. Kyrgyz archaeology and ethnohistory indicate that a pluricultural past underlies modern cultural vitality. The larger goal was thus to introduce and promote critical reflection on the repercussions of essentialist rhetoric before nationalistic constructions denying and restricting cultural diversity could take root.

Over the course of 12 years of collaborations among professionals from several disciplines and several countries and stakeholders from various communities, the Grassroots Project participated in and encouraged over 25 local projects. In this talk I describe the origins and development of the project and showcase some of our successes as well as plans for the future.

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