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The role of archaeology today (as I see it)

October 10, 2018

Disclaimer: this entry is a very personal reflection on how I think archaeology is too often presented to the public, both general as well as the scientific community and what are the risks associated. These are mainly rambling thoughts I have been having for a while and are not associated to a specific particular case but are a reflection on several news that have appeared recently in the press. This is to say: if you are not interested in reading a somewhat confuse stream-of-consciousness type of entry, you better skip to the next one! Otherwise, here we go!

 

Sensationalist archaeology

I bet that if I ask anyone to tell me something about archaeology most people will come up either with pyramids or Pompeii (and no, dinosaurs do not count, they are not archaeology!). Some people might even say something about rock art and hominids, or something about the latests finding of small treasures of hidden golden coins if that has been in the news recently. No one, unless I am talking to an Africanist, will mention Mapungubwe (just to say something). Nobody will marvel at the latest discoveries of NoGAP in northern India, or the ETAP in Ethiopia. What I am trying to say is that people know nothing, or next to nothing, of the unassuming archaeology that cannot display riches, stunning monuments or "the earliest evidence of....(fill the gap with what you like most)". And, let's be clear, I am stunned by some of the finding that are included in this categories and there might be a small part of jealousy in what I am about to say, but let's face it: Boring!!

 

Ok, they have opened another tomb in Egypt and found hundreds of marvellous objects, so what? What effect does that have on our society, apart from the opening on yet another exhibition on Pharaohs? Or someone has found the earliest evidence of beer making in Europe: how does it connect to the modern beer industry? What can these findings tell us about our past and, most important, how can they help us facing today and tomorrow's challenges? There are loads of archaeological projects out there that struggle to provide data that will improve our resilience, as  a society and a species, in the face of all the changes we are facing. But those do not normally get sensationalistic titles in the news.

 

Archaeologists talking to archaeologists and other academics: that's where problem start

This year I have attended several international conferences and one of the aspects that I found most striking is how many people presented just an endless lists of data. I had the feeling that most presenters had to show how much they have done, how much they have excavated, how many findings they unearthed. Again, the need to impress with something sensationalistic rather that with substance (obviously I am generalising here, and it might reflect the type of sessions I attended, but still). How is it that it seems so difficult for archaeologists to connect with the present and our future, aside from saying that we need to learn from the past? What do we need to learn? But most importantly, how do we apply what we learn? That is what I felt is still underrepresented in the archaeology community.

 

In my opinion, this "pitfall" in communication is somehow a problem of humanities in general. For a long period of time humanists have suffered from a sort of "God complex": humanities are important for humanity and if society does not understand that, well, their loss. I could probably make some parallels here with the left-wing parties all over the world but I do not really want to go into it. What is clear to me, is that this sense of superiority that the humanities have displayed since the 19th century has only been detrimental to the humanities themselves. Far from being important for humanity as an absolute, humanities (and humanists) need to engage with other fields, and with society in general to demonstrate that yes, indeed humanities are fundamental for humanity. And that is because humanities (and social sciences) are the only area can give guidelines on how to effectively use scientific discoveries, going beyond the first simplistic evident application.

 

Archaeologists and the press

I might be the wrong person to say this as I do not like the idea of having to talk to journalists about my work, but there are greater communicators than me out there (which probably will never read this post). These people who are familiar with the press and its ways should use their influence not only to showcase great findings but also to go a bit more in depth on the connections archaeology-present/future. This will contribute to change the idea that the general pubic has of archaeology and archaeologists (blessed Indiana Jones, I loved you but how much damage you did!). Having said so, I guess I am, from my little corner, trying to do my part with this erratic blog (or at leats I am trying).

 

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