Allan L. Maca, Jonathan E. Reyman and William J. Folan (eds) 2010. Prophet, Pariah, and Pioneer. Walter W. Taylor and Dissension in American Archaeology. Boulder CO: University Press of Colorado. ISBN 978-0-87081-952-0.
Some years ago I had the task of creating an encyclopedia of the history of archaeology. Among the many things to be done was to engage in protracted discussions with the publisher about striking the right balance between scholarship, and creating books that would sell. The publishers were very keen that there be a substantial part of the entire project devoted to celebrating the lives and work of significant figures in the field. Archaeological biographies and autobiographies sell very well in the trade market, and the publisher did not want to miss out on a raft of sales that might be 'out there'. It was a stimulating discussion, the sense of which I conveyed in the Introduction to The Great Archaeologists (ABC-Clio 1999). Rehearsing all the well-known objections to 'personalised' histories of archaeology, of context being at least as vital as individuals, and of the need to move beyond 'the great man' theory of history in the history of the human sciences. In addition I was struck by all the really interesting things that can flow from a focus on the life of a single archaeologist, and whether or not they were particularly influential during their working lives. Here I was thinking about patterns of professional association (networks, friendships, institutional affiliations etc.), disciplinary paradigms, the legacies of graduate students and publication, and a host of other 'marks' practitioners leave on their discipline.
One of the sometimes tedious consequences of editing an encyclopedia is that the matter of 'what or who is in and what or who is out' always features in every review or discussion. Given the contentious nature of our discipline I suppose that it would be simply amazing if it were otherwise. Putting together the list of the 'great archaeologists' is a perfect case in point. Of course what was actually published is much shorter and less comprehensive than I envisaged. What we have is what was submitted by the authors that I commissioned. It's also a golden rule of reference book making that contributors let you down! I will avoid the temptation of revealing the original list and simply observe that I was indeed fortunate that Jonathan Reyman delivered such an excellent essay on Walter Taylor. I say fortunate, for two reasons. First, because Reyman was quite fearless in his discussion of such a controversial figure, and second because such a survey without Taylor would be sorely lacking.
I say this because I am one of that legion of archaeologists with an interest in archaeological theory who has read Taylor with real profit. This does not mean, by any stretch of argument, that I agree with his prescription for Americanist archaeology. Rather that in his work you can see a really fine mind grappling with problems that go right to the core of our discipline, problems that continue to challenge us. The fact that Taylor never managed to make the conjunctive approach work places him well inside the tradition of theoretical archaeology, past and present, where grand schemes of superficially great theoretical rectitude sit uncomfortably alongside the empirical phenomena they are designed to illuminate. What marks Taylor out for special consideration is the juxtaposition between an acute intelligence and a personal style that many people found difficult. It is Taylor's fate at the hands of powerful colleagues that engages us most. Others have engaged in radical critique (frequently with far less justification than Taylor) and have not been treated so harshly. When I was a young graduate student visiting the University of Arizona I attended a pot-luck supper at which Taylor was the star attraction. I was given many warnings about Taylor's propensity to make harsh judgments, especially about young graduate students, but I must have been lucky that night and encountered the 'good' Taylor instead of the acerbic one. Perhaps I was being extra careful not to annoy the old man!
Reyman and his colleagues have brought into print the proceedings of a forum held at the Society of American Archaeology meetings held at Milwaukee in 2003 under the banner 'Walter W. Taylor: A Critical Appreciation'. Given the fact that Taylor had been humiliated at the 1985 meetings of that Society, it is instructive what a difference eighteen years can make. But time does not heal all wounds, and the volume is not an extended paean of praise to Taylor and his memory. I think that it is for this reason that Prophet, Pariah, and Pioneer makes such fascinating reading. There are plenty of warts (personal and professional) here, but there is even more high quality reflection and discussion. The book is logically organized into five parts covering the span of Taylor's work and influence. I was particularly struck by the sections dealing with his time at Carbondale and the reflections about his influence, or lack of it. Mark Leone's discussion is particularly noteworthy here.
All of this goes to make Prophet, Pariah, and Pioneer one of the best things I have read in the history of archaeology for a long time. It demonstrates a level of disciplinary maturity in American archaeology where painful memories can be re-experienced and wrongs (on both sides) can be acknowledged. It also reminds us forcefully that we still have a lot to learn from Taylor – about our discipline and about ourselves.