This is an archived article.

November 9, 2006

Archaeological adventure: New program creates opportunities for scholars of Southeast Asia

Peter Lape describes his graduate school archaeological field work in Southeast Asia as “a total nightmare most of the time.” The work itself was fascinating, but there were constant challenges in conducting fieldwork in an underexplored area.

Now that he’s an assistant professor of anthropology and curator of archaeology for the Burke Museum, Lape is trying to make it easier for students and other researchers to work in Southeast Asia. And recently, he got a boost in the form of a $470,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, matched almost dollar for dollar by the University. The grant will provide a whole package of supports, from a faculty position to graduate fellowships and field schools.

“We were one of 20 universities invited by the Luce foundation to submit proposals dealing with archaeology in either East Asia or Southeast Asia,” Lape says. “It’s this huge area of the world that is largely unknown archaeologically, particularly in the United States. There’s archaeology that’s done in East Asia that’s published in Chinese and Japanese and isn’t known in the western academic world. But for Southeast Asia, there’s very little work done, period. It’s just underexplored.”

Lape submitted the UW’s successful proposal. One other university, UCLA, got a $450,000 grant for enhancing East Asian archaeology. The Bishop Museum at the University of Hawaii got a $270,000 grant for a project in Southeast China, while the University of Arizona received $250,000 for a project in Tibet.

The grant provides three years of support for a new tenure-track faculty position in Southeast Asian archaeology. Lape is currently the only faculty member at the University who specializes in that field. The University will pick up the costs of the faculty position at the end of the three years. In addition, there will be three rounds of graduate fellowships offered, each a three-year package including money for research.

Lape himself is currently doing work in East Timor and previously did research in Indonesia. He says the area has some of the earliest evidence of modern humans outside of Africa, some of the earliest agriculture in the world and abandoned cities that had complex water systems and economies — plenty, in other words, to keep an archaeologist busy.

What the area doesn’t have a lot of is protection for its archaeological sites. “They’re under threat by looters,” Lape says. “That’s partly because there’s been more tourism there lately, and also the Asian economies are growing so there’s a demand for antiquities in places like Hong Kong and Taipei.”

That’s why the grant has built in fellowships for Southeast Asian lawyers to come to the University to study cultural heritage law and archaeology. The Asian Law Center at the UW School of Law doesn’t currently have a cultural heritage class, so the grant will pay for a lecturer in that area. Fellows will also study archaeology while getting their master’s in law.

The grant will also bring Southeast Asians to the University to study museology and send some UW museology students to Southeast Asia for exhibit and collections management projects. Both the law fellows and the museology fellows will come along on field schools that are also part of the grant.

Lape and an Indonesian colleague with whom he will co-direct the first field school will be scoping out sites for it this summer, with the school itself slated for the summer of 2008. It will be either in the Moluccas or Java, he says. Future field schools will be held in the Philippines, Malaysia and East Timor. The grant will pay for six students from Southeast Asia to attend each year, with one American and one Indonesian grad student there as helpers. American students who attend will pay their own way.

“The purpose is to get American and Southeast Asian students to meet each other in a field situation, which is often a real bonding experience for people,” Lape says. “It’s where you develop friendships that last your life. We’re also trying to get people from a variety of Southeast Asian countries to meet each other, which often doesn’t happen.”

That’s partly because of the way funding tends to work — sending Americans or Europeans to Asia rather than Asians to other Asian countries, Lape says. Also, there’s a language problem. English is becoming a universal language, but Asians may not know other Asian languages.

The grant will also provide support to enhance the UW Libraries’ already strong Southeast Asian collection and to bring in lecturers in Southeast Asian archaeology. The first of those speakers — the candidates applying for the faculty position — will arrive this winter and spring.

Lape says the UW’s grant application was greatly helped by the presence of the Southeast Asia Center in the Jackson School, which he calls one of the top two such centers in the country. “We also have excellent language training in all the major Southeast Asian languages. And we have over 60 faculty in different disciplines working on Southeast Asian topics.”

Lape hopes all the grant-funded initiatives will get more people interested in the area, and make it easier for them to study there. “It’s an amazing place to visit,” he says. “I think it’s one of the coolest places on Earth.”