Winter 2018-19: By David Malakoff

In the summer of 1894, archaeologist Ernest Volk of Harvard University was excavating a promising prehistoric site in New Jersey’s Delaware River Valley when he hit an unyielding obstacle: money. “Owing to lack of funds,” he lamented in his journal, he had to suspend the dig.

More than a century later, Volk’s financial frustration has a familiar ring to many archaeologists working in the United States. Although archaeological research is less expensive than many other scientific endeavors—there’s no need for a billion-dollar atom smasher or interplanetary spacecraft—archaeologists often struggle to find the cash they need to conduct digs, date objects, and catalog and curate collections. Some spend as much or more time writing grant proposals and fundraising as they do conducting research. “There’s a lot of anxiety around funding,” said Peter Gould, a consulting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “You get the sense that everywhere money is tight, and the competition is intense.”

The angst is understandable. Archaeologists working at universities, for example, face sobering odds in trying to win a prestigious grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), two of the U.S. government’s biggest funders of academic archaeology. Together, the two agencies award several dozen major archaeology grants each year, which amount to a small fraction of the requests they receive.

Other trends are contributing to the problem. Over the past few decades, the pool of money that academic archaeologists can compete for, from both the federal government and private foundations, has stagnated, even as the costs of projects have often grown. At the same time, some state and local governments have pared support for programs that help study and protect cultural resources. In Congress, conservative lawmakers have repeatedly questioned whether taxpayers should be supporting archaeology and other “soft” sciences; they have singled-out specific NSF-funded archaeology projects for ridicule, and called for the money to be spent on other things. President Donald Trump’s administration has echoed some of those views, proposing deep cuts to agencies that support archaeological projects.

More in our Winter 2018 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 22 No. 4. Browse Contents: Winter 2018.

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