Op-Ed

‘Archaeology is endangered.’ UK decision is a loss for the state and Kentucky students.

Kim McBride, co-director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey,  took soil samples at a  dig site at the Oscar Pepper home  site near the Woodford Reserve Distillery on McCracken Pike near Versailles, Ky., in 2013.
Kim McBride, co-director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, took soil samples at a dig site at the Oscar Pepper home site near the Woodford Reserve Distillery on McCracken Pike near Versailles, Ky., in 2013. Herald-Leader

In late February, the Dean of UK’s College of Arts & Sciences, Dr. Mark Kornbluh, terminated Kentucky Archaeological Survey (KAS) and Program for Archaeological Research (PAR) staff effective May 29, 2019. This decision leaves us shocked and saddened. Dismantling these organizations through what Dean Kornbluh calls a ‘reorganization’ will jeopardize opportunities for UK students to begin careers in Kentucky archaeology and heritage management through robust training and development. This action also threatens to diminish the study of Kentucky’s rich archaeological and historical heritage by the state’s flagship institution. 

We all grew up in Kentucky. We worked for these organizations—first as students and then as professional staff. Under KAS and PAR we were trained to carry out research for state and national agencies, such as the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, Kentucky State Parks, and Mammoth Cave National Park. We each worked with non-profits such as Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate and the Kentucky Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and with city and county governments. Regardless of who we worked with, we gained invaluable on-the-job training that prepared us well for admission to top archaeology graduate schools, and later, for employment as professional archaeologists, researchers, and educators.

In addition to conducting research, as part of KAS’ outreach mission, more than 150,000 Kentucky elementary, middle, and high school children have taken field trips to ongoing KAS excavations in their communities. Furthermore, KAS educational videos have been viewed online by more than 2,000,000 people, exposing viewers to Kentucky’s rich archaeological and historical heritage. KAS’ Davis Bottom History Project was awarded the 2018 Society for American Archaeology (SAA) Award for Excellence in Public Education. SAA, our national archaeological organization, recently released a public statement against this move to dismantle KAS and PAR at UK. 

As native Kentuckians who earned undergraduate degrees at UK, we feel that we received an excellent education through the Department of Anthropology and UK’s College of Arts & Sciences. However, most of our experiential training—learning how archaeology examines the past and answers big-picture questions about the human experience—came as employees of KAS and PAR. In this capacity, we learned how to do archaeology and how to link field research to the ideas we were introduced to in the classroom.

We represent first-generation Ph.D. grantees, and we each agree that being trained to direct field projects, analyze artifacts and other data, and write research reports prepared us for graduate school in ways classroom learning could not. Moreover, it was through our work at KAS and PAR that we were first encouraged to publish our research and share results of our work at state, regional, and national conferences and with the public at large. As faculty members we have learned that providing students with real-world hands-on opportunities gives them an advantage in today’s hyper competitive job market. Getting out of the classroom and participating in research teaches students how to become professionals and gives them the confidence they need to succeed. We learned this through our experiences at KAS and PAR, and this influenced how we teach and train students at our respective institutions. UK’s current plan all but eliminates KAS and PAR, and this change will bring an end to similar educational opportunities for future Kentucky students. 

Dean Kornbluh’s reorganization plan is to hire two new tenure-track professors in archaeology and an Education Director to replace the 12 terminated employees. As Assistant Professors in Departments of Anthropology, we find it laughable that two new professors and one staff person will be expected to conduct the same kind of education, outreach, and research. 

In recent social media posts and in responses to letters, UK has suggested that its decision to terminate KAS and PAR is, in part, a response to external department reviews that led to larger reforms that seek to better align the collections in the Webb Museum of Anthropology with the teaching and research mission of UK, including an enhancement of educational experiences for students. In a Lexington Herald-Leader article, UK indicates that this move better positions the department to conduct vibrant research, engaged scholarship, and teaching. 

External reviews do not mandate the exact means to enact specific policy changes but rather, they make programmatic recommendations for addressing structural problems and improving research and education. Werner et al.’s February 2018 external review notes that: 

“It is the view of the Review Committee that the Archaeology Units represent some of the strongest and best-known portions of the University of Kentucky’s Department of Anthropology. They have trained virtually all of the professional archaeologists in the state, and have created innovative educational and outreach programs and activities. However, over time, they have become distanced from the Department and this has hurt faculty, students, and staff. (pg. 11)“

It is our understanding that the external review did not recommend the full-scale dismantling of KAS and PAR, but that the two units be better integrated into the Department of Anthropology. 

Regardless of how you view your connections to Kentucky’s past, archaeology is endangered at UK through this recent decision. We hope that all parties involved can renegotiate a more nuanced solution that preserves the incredible legacy and educational resource that KAS and PAR represent and maintain the hands-on learning and award-winning outreach programs they have developed. 

Without our experiences at KAS and PAR, we would not have positions as professors and researchers today. KAS and PAR provided critical training and experience in archaeology that we needed to succeed in graduate school and beyond. We still have close colleagues in the department, and we cannot help but wonder if their voices were heard during this process or if they, too, were blindsided by this decision. However, one thing we know for sure, we are each thinking about the future Kentucky kids who, like us, will be looking to find their own careers. Unfortunately, if they are interested in archaeology and Kentucky’s past, they may have to look out of state to get the guidance and training they need to succeed.

Edward R. Henry, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Colorado State University; Casey R. Barrier, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Bryn Mawr College; Kurt Rademaker, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Michigan State University  

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