The Joukowsky Institute Competition for Accessible Archaeological Writing
As archaeologists, we write for each other in journal articles, book chapters, monographs, and other forums, using language that makes sense to fellow members of the profession. That is as it should be: we have no more reason to “dumb down” our findings than do, say, astronomers, brain surgeons, or epidemiologists in publications for their own communities of scholarship. At the same time, the results of archaeological discovery and analysis are important and deserve the widest possible audience: archaeology has momentous findings to report, and for the periods before written history stands as the only source of evidence we have for the human condition.
Unlike other fields which have benefited from brilliant writing in a popular vein by scholars such as Stephen Jay Gould or Carl Sagan, archaeology as a discipline has done rather poorly at the effective communication of its most interesting and important results to the general public, and indeed to itself, which is also important. Certainly, some writers, such as Brian Fagan, have excelled at the task of popular dissemination of some of archaeology’s big themes. Yet most websites, TV shows, and archaeology magazines (such as Archaeology or Biblical Archaeology Review) tend to emphasize the sheer luck of discovery, the romance of archaeology, and supposed “mysteries” that archaeology tries (but usually has failed) to resolve.
We believe that archaeology is worthy of a better level of writing, one that is accessible and exciting to non-specialists, but at the same time avoids excessive simplification, speculation, mystification, or romanticization. As a discipline, we have some fascinating and astonishing results to report, findings that impact our entire understanding of who we are as a species, and how we have come to be as we are now. Some of the most effective writing in this vein has appeared not in professional venues, but in publications with a far wider readership. As just one example, we would cite Elif Batuman’s article in The New Yorker Magazine (December 19, 2011) on the Göbekli Tepe site in Turkey, and the many fundamental questions it raises about religion, technology, and human social evolution.
With these thoughts in mind, and to encourage more writing in this vein, we propose a competition for new archaeological writing. We invite the submission of accessible and engaging articles, accompanied by a single illustration, that showcase any aspect of archaeology of potential interest to a wide readership. As an incentive, we offer a prize of $5,000 to the winner. The prize-winning article, together with those by eight to ten other runners-up, will be published in Fall 2015 in a volume of the Joukowsky Institute Publication series (published and distributed by Oxbow Books).