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How can archaeologists improve the prospects for a sustainable world?

The following is an extended column by Archeology Division Contributing Editor E Christian Wells. A shorter version appears in the March 2011 AN. Comments are welcome.

In this editorial, I invite readers to contribute articles to the AD column throughout 2011 that address archaeology’s role in making the world a more sustainable place and helping us understand what is and what is not sustainable.

The question posed in the title of this essay is one considered by Jerry Sabloff in his highly popular book, Archaeology Matters (Left Coast Press, 2008), which outlines some of the ways in which archaeologists are addressing contemporary global problems with historical data from pre-modern civilizations. A similar issue was raised in a recent (2010) issue of The SAA Archaeological Record (10[4]) by Mike Smith, who asks “Just how useful is archaeology for scientists and scholars in other disciplines?” Sabloff and Smith are not alone in their interrogations. Archaeologists are increasingly exploring how their research can be action oriented and integrated into other knowledge seeking enterprises.

My impression from examining some of these contributions over the past few years is that many such efforts can be characterized as various forms of outcome-driven sustainability science, in which the goal is to better understand changes—both adaptive and resilient—in the human trajectory. For archaeologists, this means applying the insights that we uncover from our shared past to engage the large questions of the human condition. And, importantly, this also means finding new and effective ways of communicating how our research is relevant to these global grand challenges.

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