Archaeological Dialogues

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Archaeological Dialogues (2009), 16:142-148 Cambridge University Press
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Third millennium changing times

Rita P. Wright

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Shannon Dawdy has presented us with a provocative dialogue on the question ‘is archaeology useful?’ In it, she forecasts a rather bleak future for our field, raising doubts about whether archaeology should be useful and whether it is ‘threatened with its own end-time’. Woven throughout her paper are major concerns about the use of archaeology for nationalistic ends and heritage projects which she deems fulfil the needs of archaeologists rather than those of the public they serve. In the final section of her paper, when she asks, ‘can archaeology save the world?’, Dawdy recommends that we reorient our research ‘away from reconstructions of the past and towards problems of the present’ (p. 140). In my contribution to this dialogue, I introduce an issue that reflects on cultural heritage, antiquities and artefact preservation, which, though they may seem antithetical, are closely aligned with Dawdy's concerns. As a prehistorian with a focus on the third millennium B.C. in the Near East and South Asia, I consider these issues to be the ‘big stories’ that have emerged in the early years of this third millennium, and those that speak directly to the usefulness of archaeology. Of course, it is not the only thing we do, but it is ‘useful’.

Rita Wright ( is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at New York University. Her research focuses on the first cities and states in the Near East and South Asia, where she has conducted excavations and surveys in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. Most recently she completed a regional survey near the ancient city of Harappa, a major centre in the Indus civilization, to document relations between the city and its countryside. Her other research interests include human responses to climate change, gender studies, craft specialization, and cultural and national heritage issues. She is editor of Gender and archaeology (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996); coeditor (with Cathy Costin) of Craft and social identity (American Anthropological Association, 1998); author of The ancient Indus. Urbanism, economy and society (July 2009); and editor and founder of the Cambridge University Press series Case Studies in Early Societies.