VAS High School Paper Prize Contest
About the Contest
As part of Vermont Archaeology Month, the Vermont Archaeological Society organized our first ever student paper contest. The aim of which was twofold: to raise interest for archaeology among our rising generation of high school students, and to learn from them what significance the field has in their lives and their future.
With those goals in mind, we decided that the paper prompt for the first year would be, “Why Does Archaeology Matter?” which is a question that I think every archaeologist has been asked at one time or another – sometimes by our very own parents!
Why Does Archaeology Matter is not an easy question to answer. When we look at the news today and take in the full range of uncertainties about the future – the future of the environment, the economy, even humanity – on the surface it seems like archaeology is a diversion – something that may be interesting, but not really of practical use for today.
However, beneath the surface, just like in archaeology itself, one finds great potential for the field to contribute knowledge relevant and perhaps critical to our contemporary world and its future survival.
About the Entries
Twenty-six students from across Vermont took up the challenge of digging beneath the surface to provide their answers to Why Archaeology Matters. Each paper offered distinct opinions and insights, and we truly thank each student for their contributions. We enjoyed reading every paper and were impressed with the range of responses, the examples students drew upon, the clever turns of phrase, and the critical thinking that the papers revealed.
For instance, several students discussed how archaeology contributes insights into patterns of the social inequalities that exist between genders, races, and ethnic groups, demonstrating and historicizing their cultural contexts rather than as natural facts of life. And some students showed how some archaeological discoveries challenge our present-day stereotypes and biases – such as a paper that focused on the recent discovery of a female Viking warrior.
Many students discussed the contributions that archaeology can make to understanding the relationships between humans and the environment. Such connections are of special interest to students today as they face a world that their more immediate predecessors have not taken the best care of – and are finding that looking back into deep history and prehistory may provide inspiration for finding innovative and healthier ways of living and working with the natural environment.
Some students touched upon how archaeology can become the focus of social conflict – one paper in particular discussed the destruction of Syrian archaeological sites, providing painful evidence that archaeology matters not just to academics and professionals but to the communities who share a sense of association, belonging, and memory with such remains.
On a more positive note, some students noted how archaeology provides a sense of continuity with other cultures and other times. One student in particular noted that archaeology can have a “humbling effect” – a virtue that I think our contemporary culture can always use more of.
I haven’t been able to mention every topic and idea here – nor the range of archaeology discussed – from Pompeii to Addison, Vermont – from monumental cities to underwater shipwrecks — but I hope you get a sense of how difficult it must have been for the VAS board to judge the papers and select a winner. We judged each paper based upon its integration of knowledge, topical focus, depth of discussion, cohesiveness, and its spelling and grammar. I have to say it was close – with many high scores.
Because of the high quality of papers, we decided to offer a second prize of $100 to the runner up. This paper stood out for its daring, devil’s advocate approach, opening with the provocative question, “Why don’t we leave the past in the past?” Rather than giving way to the cynicism that often accompanies such a question, the author offered evidence that archaeology challenges our own feelings of cultural superiority and attests to the connections shared between social groups across all scales of space and time – a value that must come to the fore when we are faced with social strife. We are very pleased to award the second place prize to the author of this paper, Shannon O’Kelly, who is a senior at U-32 High School in Montpelier.
Our first prize paper offered a wide range of uses of archaeology for contemporary society: including practical improvements of our political institutions and even our diets, philosophical contributions such as aiding the existential search for where we come from and why we are here, and to contribute to more holistic understandings of the function and significance of religion in society. The closing sentence nicely summed up the responsibility of archaeology in a world where it does in fact matter, “…archaeologists carry such an important weight on their shoulders, as keepers of the past, changers of the present, and predictors of the future.” We are honored to present the first place prize to Katherine Blassingame, a sophomore at St. Johnsbury Academy.
The Winning Papers
Why Archaeology Matters
by Katherine Blassingame
First Prize Winner
St. Johnsbury Academy
From time period to time period, our species has evolved and grown in countless ways. It’s surprising to know that only a few thousand years ago, we barely understood the world around us, which is a stark contrast to the advanced, civilized world that we now live in. Scientists who focus on these earlier people, archaeologists, unearth just how humans have evolved. Our ancestors interpreted the world through the creation of gods that controlled the world for them, as a means to cope with the vast and confusing world that they inhabited. As well as this, they all had different cultures that were best suited for the environment that they lived in. Looking back on these peoples and the many unique ways they adapted to their surroundings, we can get a good idea of how they lived, what they believed in, and how they contributed to the progression of humanity. It is for that reason that I believe archaeology has its merit and importance in the world of science.
First of all, it is regularly said in regards to history that if you are unaware of the past, you are doomed to repeat it. Whether or not this is true, the fact remains that studying artefacts from the past can offer insight into how to lead a country or people, or how to change your habits to better achieve a personal goal. For example, many famous leaders of the past used the Roman Empire as an inspiration for the way they led, because of its longevity and strength over the centuries that it ruled over Europe. In times of economic or political strife, some have looked to the Empire for an idea of how to restore balance. Also, a popular trend amongst those who stress the importance of healthy eating is the revival of ancient diets. Compared to eating habits of today, our ancestors ate many more grains, proteins and vegetables than we do, which kept them healthy and strong enough to do heavy farm-work or spend their days occupied with strenuous tasks. Obviously, this interests some, and the switch to a diet based on the meals of the Romans, Greeks, or Egyptians is a worthwhile choice for many.
Secondly, learning about the people that came before us may help us understand who we are as a species, why we exist, and other philosophical issues. One of the main questions philosophers ask today is: Why are we here? This question will most likely go unanswered forever, but we can get a better understanding of humanity through the study of past generations of our race. A good example of this is when archaeologists study artefacts from the earliest known peoples, before the Neolithic Revolution. These people were nomadic, and gathered their food from the wild every day. By looking at the items they left behind, we can piece together what humanity is at its most basic. We, in our simplest state, are social creatures, valuing family and teamwork, but are also at the complete mercy of Nature, death, famine and disease being a regular, natural occurrence. From this base idea, we can work forwards into who we are today, to see how we evolved.
Finally, studying the mythology of ancient civilizations may allow us a glimpse into how the human mind interprets the world without the assistance of science to explain it. Through the unearthing of ancient texts, inscriptions in tombs, statues, and other artefacts, archaeologists learn much about the gods of old. Every culture has their gods to worship, but one of the best examples of mythology that shows how humans interpret the world is that of the Greeks. The Greeks had countless myths to explain the weather, seasons, creation of the world, existence of certain creatures, and others, while worshiping a slew of gods that all carried humanized traits, like short tempers and jealousy. These human gods were relatable and understandable by their followers, making them easy to pray to. This is merely one of many examples of humans following gods that they hoped would control the parts of Nature that they couldn’t, so they wouldn’t have to face the fact that they were at the mercy of the world.
In the end, archaeology has many uses for those looking for the truth behind where we came from, who we are, and maybe even where we’re going. History is constantly being made as time flies by, so it would be easy for us to forget our past if people did not study it, even though our past is there to be learned from. It is for that reason that archaeologists carry such an important weight on their shoulders, as keepers of the past, changers of the present, and predictors of the future.
Why Archaeology Matters
by Shannon O’Kelly
Second Prize Winner
U-32 High School
Why don’t we leave the past in the past? It is much more productive, it can seem, to only look forward. If I have no control over yesterday, why wouldn’t I focus on tomorrow? Tomorrow holds promise, opportunity. Yesterday is just memories.
So why do we spend valuable time and resources to research events that happened hundreds or thousands of years ago? Why do we dig into the ground to find evidence of things and people long abandoned or forgotten? There seems to be an infinite list of things that are more useful, more valuable than a dusty, forgotten artifact. Still, we look for them. Archaeologists spend their lives looking for them. And maybe it is just to fill museum shelves, or to give graduate students something to do. Maybe they are all just trying to be Indiana Jones.
Yet it seems like if that was the case all those smart people would become disillusioned by now. There are only so many National Geographic articles one can write before realizing that the old things they pull out of the ground are just old things. So there is only one reasonable explanation: Archaeology is more than that. Archaeology has value today, in our day, in our world.
Contrary to popular belief, archaeology means more than digging through the ground and looking for valuable artifacts. By definition archaeology is the study of material culture. And culture has always been – and will always be – relevant. Culture is what defines us as human beings. It is our knowledge, our norms, our practices. It brings us together and divides us, and it will continue to do so for the remainder of humanity.
Without archaeology, most of our knowledge of past cultures would be lost forever. Without the discovery of sites such as the Cave of Altamira in Spain, we would likely never understand the lives of our early ancestors. The cave’s art provides a lens into lives that we will never be able to observe and people we will never be able to meet. It proved to us that prehistoric humans were capable of so much more than we could imagine – that they had their own art. Over thousands of years their culture became our culture. They became us.
For a long time people doubted the legitimacy of the art at Altamira. How could people who lived so long ago, who were so primitive, produce something so advanced? We like to think that we are the most advanced humans ever living – that we have the best culture there ever was. This idea of cultural superiority not only applies to cultures separated by time but also cultures separated by distance – whether that be a few continents or a few streets.
Archaeology shows us the connections between these cultures by showing us where they come from. Where we come from. Without archaeology we wouldn’t know that we all started in the same place. We wouldn’t know that our cultures grew from the same people. We wouldn’t make the connections that we can now.
There is a reason we don’t leave the past in the past: because we need to know where we came from. So we know where we are going in the future. Archaeology lets us do that.
In conclusion we want to thank each and every student again for their contributions. We celebrate and welcome your optimistic and insightful views about archaeology and we hope that you consider becoming involved in the field in the future as you move on with your studies, and we warmly welcome you to participate in the activities of the Vermont Archaeological Society now to help shape it into an organization that will better serve the future generations of not just archaeologists – but all Vermonters.