The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Look of mean...Archaeology

I am attempting to determine whether or not archaeology has an image problem. The public certainly has a skewed view of what an archaeolgoist is, and what we do, but I'm not sure whether that works for us or against us.

Most people, if asked, think that archaeologists look like this:

Or perhaps this:

But, of course, archaeologists look more like this,

tired and fatigued after carying heavy equipment a long distance. Or like this,

freezing our asses off at the campsite after a day of conducting fieldwork in the snow.

And obtaining artifacts looks less like this:

...and more like this:

In other words, the reality of archaeology is considerably less adventerous and sexy than the public perception, and considerably more of a daily grind with hardwork and inconveniences. Certainly, there are exciting moments - finding a cool artifact, having the data "click" in your mind and working out a puzzle, or debating with your colleagues and uncovering interesting facts and ideas. But, rather than run from booby traps, we stand around fires to ward off frostbite. Rather than fight Nazis, we contend with bedbugs at cut-rate motels. Rather than find idols of gold in long-forgotten temples, we carefully dig square holes and sift the dirt through 1/8" wire mesh looking for flakes of stone, pieces of bone, or the occassional bead. We don't find lost cities and civilizations, but rather we piece together an ever-more complete tapestry of facts to try to reveal what of the past that we can. We don't look for treasure, we sift the garbage of bygone eras looking for a sign of the people who left these remnants behind.

The question I have is: is this public mis-perception bad for archaeology?

Certainly, it's annoying to have to explain to people that I am more interested in examining collections of old shellfish than in seeking out holy relics. But, at the same time, the notion that archaeologists are dashing heroic adventurers no doubt does play into the fact that we generally do receive public support when Congress is threatening to gut the National Historic Preservation Act or limit archaeology funding via the National Science Foundation. So, is that a bad thing?

My knee-jerk reaction is to say "yes." After all, if we are benefiting from a lie, then it seems to me that we should not be benefiting at all. Of course, it's easy for me to say that when I am benefiting, and I suspect that I might change my tune were the situation to change.

At the same time, if I feel that this work is important, and obviously I do otherwise I would not have expended the time and energy necessary to get to where I am, then is it justifiable to take advantage of public misperception to continue doing said work? On the other hand, if he public misconceptions cause the public to expect something from us other than what we are doing, then might we simply be building up for a dissapointed backlash by taking advantage of this? Also, when we don't deliver on the expectations of palaces of silver and idols of gold, doesn't that just open up the doors to hoaxsters and charlatans such as Erich Von Daniken and Graham Hancock who are more than happy to just make shit up?

I don't know. But I have been wondering.

The reality is, of course, that real archaeologists do try to fight the misconceptions, indeed I have even tried to do so in this post. But I wonder if we are acting in our own interest when doing so - perhaps we are, perhaps we aren't, I don't know. And I also wonder if it would be ethical to change our tact and more actively take advantage of the image of Indiana Jones than we do, I am inclined to say that it would be unethical, but I can see compelling arguments to the contrary.

Regardless, I suspect that, for the near future anyway, things will continue as they have been, with hollywood pumping out nonsense, and archaeologists contradicting it and still benefiting from it.


WoodEngineer said...

Unfortunately I've found misconceptions throughout all the scientific fields..everyone is out for funding and so every group seems to put up a facade that what there doing is actually important (even though a lot of research I've seen is quite useless). At least you guys didn't fabricate your own image, the movies did that..most scientists unfortunately just publish garbage with big headlines to get's a shame that it's come to this.

I really feel like people need to be more educated on what it is we all do so that we can weasel out some of the bad scientists out there who quite frankly are churning out garbage. If archeology was properly understood I feel you would have no problem getting funding, your work is extremely important to us understanding ourselves.

Evan Davis said...

I'm not sure that I agree with the misconception being a bad thing. Take theoretical physicists, for example.

G:"What do you do?"
P:"I use math and observations to test hypothesis that explain what things are made of, how they interact and how this information ties in with the rest of the universe."
G:"So,'re like a scientist or something?"
P:"In essence, but I don't actually do most of the experiments. I just look at the observations of astronomers and engineers to see if anything they've observed matches up."
G:" do you do?"
P:"I deal with the theoretical side of the physical world."
G:"So you only work with theories? Like evolution?"
P:"No I am trying to find the mathematical definition of why the world around you works the way it does."
G:"Ooohkaaay...didn't we know that already? I mean we know about gravity and everything, so why do we need to study it more?"
P:"(fume) I work with lasers and really big particle accelerators that could destroy the planet to discover the secrets behind the universe."
G:"Oooooh. Why didn't you say so? Here's your grant."

No one will get most of what science is doing. Like the Hubble. We don't care about the new soft docking module, gyrostabilizers and science routing module. All we want to know is are we going to get more cool pictures of the universe and stuff.

Lisa said...

I picture all archaeologists with a pet monkey. Don't ruin the image for me....