Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Digging for Answers: 5 Big Questions of Our Time


Climate change, race, violence, inequality, consumerism: most attempts to understand and resolve these issues deal with contemporary causes and recent history, often over the last 100 or 200 years. This course looks at the longer term, with an archaeological perspective. It shows that by ‘digging’ down into deep time we can get a new and different perspective on the key questions of our time.

The five questions are:

  • Where do we come from? We will look at how archaeologists use ancient DNA to study immigration and ‘race’ through time. What is ‘race’ and how is it defined?

  • Has inequality increased? Was Dynastic Egypt more or less unequal than today? What causes inequality and are current trends unusual given a long-term view?

  • Have we become more violent? It is often argued human violence has increased over time. We will explore the evidence and see how archaeologists measure violence.

  • Why do we consume so much stuff? Independent and group work will allow you to problem solve ways in which archaeologists quantify our dependence on material stuff over time.

  • What is the relationship between humans and climate change? We will see how we can measure and study the relationship between human societies and climate change.

The aim in this course is to explore the archaeological evidence for long-term change with regard to these five questions of our time. You will be introduced to recent publications for class debate and to the ways in which archaeologists use evidence in order to explore the five themes. We will use Stanford’s archaeological collections on-line so that you can explore artifacts and you will be able to problem solve using data from the instructor’s own excavations. We will also talk remotely to people working in labs (bioarchaeological and genomic for example), local museums, and local archaeological excavations.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Ian Hodder

"I am an archaeologist who for 25 years excavated one of the world's first towns—a 9000 year old site in central Turkey. This exposed me to questions of long-term change, and I have become fascinated with how a long-term view changes how we see the world today. Much discussion of contemporary problems is very 'presentist', and we live in a very 'in-the-moment' world, but I know from my excavations and from archaeology more generally that many of the trends we see today have been building up over millennia. In particular, this is true of human impacts on the environment, increases in inequality, increases in the amounts of stuff we have accumulated and so on. I am interested in exploring these problems with you, but as an archaeologist I am also interested in how we can get data to answer these questions. I want the class to be a way for you to engage with on-line materials in virtual collections and to grapple with some real data so that you can explore ways of helping to answer the five questions yourself."