Sunday, 27 March 2011

‘All archaeologists are evil’. Discuss

So, Dennis the Menace is 60.

For those who are not ‘in the know’, Dennis the Menace (or ‘Dennis and Gnasher’ as he is referred to these days – presumably because ‘the Menace’ sounds a bit ASBO) was (and may well still be for all I know) a cartoon staple character from the Beano, a weekly comic which, before the days of Facebook and Wii, was the highlight of any self-respecting child’s week. Dennis has worn particularly well, in fact his instantly recognisable mop of black hair remains stubbornly free of grey, whilst his red and black striped jumper is still as vibrantly ‘in your face’ as it was in the 1950s. He still lives with his mum and dad, still upsets the local bobby and still gets into trouble with the neighbours. Neither he nor Gnasher, his dog, appear to have aged in the previous six decades, a worrying thought if any archaeologist of the future were to excavate his mortal remains, for he still has the physique of an 11 year old.

Why do I bring this up? Well, I was watching CBBC this morning (don’t ask) when up pops the latest adventure of the be-jumpered tearaway. Before I could hit 'off' on the TV remote, there on the screen was an animated archaeologist, excavating a trench (more like a disordered ‘crater’ if I’m honest) at the end of Dennis’ road. I should of course have been able to guess the profession of this new character, even with the sound down, for he was wearing what any self-respecting archaeologist wears these days: tweed jacket, bow-tie, pith-helmet and Khaki coloured shorts (with long, knee-length socks). This is how all archaeologists dress: this is our uniform; our regulation outfit…isn’t it?

Archaeologists appear with surprising regularity in the world of television; in fact the character, personality and career-path of the televisual archaeologist has become so well defined within western culture, so deeply ingrained within the public consciousness that the stereotype is instantly recognisable, sometimes comical and, just occasionally (at least to those who consider themselves to be REAL archaeologists) vaguely unsettling. The TV archaeologist is always eccentric, upper-class, fashion unconscious and socially inept. Pith helmets and khaki (or other forms of quasi-military camouflage) are de rigueur, sometimes topped off with either tweed or leather jacket. Occasionally they may also have a whip.

Interestingly, no one has ever felt it necessary to ask why archaeologists require unceasing quantities of camouflage, though presumably, whilst on expedition, they really don’t want to be seen by either rival archaeologists (who may steal their ideas) or members of the public (who may ask embarrassing questions). The pith-helmet and shorts, both covered ancient dust, are a fashion stereotype not just of the archaeologist of course, but also of the colonial explorer in general. It is the archaeologist, however, who has kept the pith-helmet-as-fashion-accessory alive into the 21st century. If anything, this particular piece of designer headgear has now become the lazy shorthand for the archaeologist and general ‘searcher of antiquities’. Put such a hat upon a televisual, cinematic or cartoon character and the implication is clear: ‘Adventure’, ‘Exploration’ and ‘Excitement’, possibly combined with a liberal dollop of ‘Treasure’.

Within this world of the curiously-attired adventurer, there are only a very limited number of stock (male and female) characters that the fictional archaeologist MUST conform to. Sadly none of them are very pleasant:

First there is the archaeologist driven by a single goal, considered mad by some, who will, thanks to their discoveries, unleash a curse upon all humanity, perhaps even deliberately to get their own back upon fellow academics who ignored / overlooked / sneered at their work for so long (“ha ha ha!”);

Then there is the archaeologist motivated solely by greed (the treasure seeker), who, in the course of their quest for lost Egyptian loot, will awaken a huge, lumbering, bandage-swathed monster to threaten all of humanity;

Thirdly, there is the gun-toting, hard drinking ‘hero’ / ‘heroine’ who pretends to be “in it” for the purist of reasons (protecting items of the cultural heritage from other alcoholic, gun toting ‘heroes’), but who is clearly motivated by the ‘great discovery’ which will boost their standing and who, in the course of their work, will undoubtedly unleash something rather unpleasant upon themselves (usually in the form of a sudden and extremely grisly death);


Lastly there is the plain, and, if I’m honest, the ever-so-slightly seedy academic with an abiding and incomprehensible love of obscure Byzantine ceramics who prompts contempt and boredom from his / her colleagues but who ultimately unleashes something unpleasant upon their immediate circle through the pursuit of knowledge (an indigestible 32 volume critique on the importance of Norse toe-clippings in 10th century Yorkshire). 

So clear-cut have these figures become, that most broadcast serials or soaps, usually at a time when they are searching for a supposedly ‘new idea’, will often latch on to, and whole-heatedly embrace the character of the pop culture archaeologist, further enforcing the stereotype. If you doubt this at all, just watch such programming stalwarts as Murder She Wrote, Columbo, The Avengers, Doctor Who, Star Trek (in all its incarnations), Bone Kickers, Coronation Street, MI High, Lovejoy, Sliders, Quantum Leap, Babylon 5, even, heaven forbid, Scooby Doo. Look around and see the stereotype everywhere. 

Pretty much all the archaeologists that appear on the screen (both TV and cinema) are thoroughly nasty and wholly unscrupulous tomb raiders; the doom-bringer / curse-invoker is the instantly recognisable stock character, even in something as outwardly inoffensive as Dennis and Gnasher. Archaeologists, and those actively engaged in the pursuit of the past, may like to view themselves as public servants or (in some extreme cases) as heroes bringing the dead back to life, but the media continue to take this rather literally. Archaeologists are the villains: they are the ones tampering with forces that they really do not understand; they are the people who raid the tomb, irrespective of the wishes and warnings of the local population, awaken the dead, activate the curse and bring down some supernatural nasty upon the world. Ultimately it is left to others to clean up the ensuing mess, destroy the curse and put the monster back in its box.

It is perhaps a sobering thought for those of us involved in archaeology today that our pop culture equivalent is systematically portrayed as the villain, the evil eccentric who MUST be stopped.

Archaeologists are the bad guys: should we be worried?

Friday, 25 March 2011

Studying the Passed

Ever stopped to think about poo?

As an archaeologist, I find myself constantly dealing with waste. Waste comes in many forms, for example discarded flint, broken pottery, smashed glassware and half-eaten food remains. Studying ancient rubbish, contrary to how it sounds, is actually quite useful because it can tell us what ate, what they ate off, what they ate with, how they lived, how they died, what their belief systems were and so on.

Unfortunately, one type of human waste product is rarely considered by archaeologists or historians: excrement. Perhaps this is because of the taboos that surround discussion of what is, apart from the desire to mate, one of the most basic of human activities. Perhaps it is due to an almost Victorian-style desire to suppress any thought of poo. Perhaps it is the very words used to describe the act of defecation that are the problem (it is usually impossible to mention words such as poo, poop, crap, turd, do-do, dump or number twos, without an accompanying ‘Sid James-style’ guffaw). As a consequence, excrement is often not treated as a subject worthy of serious study.

This is a shame because the act of defecation is one that, together with birth, eating, drinking, reproducing, breathing and death, links all life on earth. Everyone defecates. Everyone in history (even Queen Victoria) has defecated. Though we may not choose to acknowledge the fact, pooing is important. Our stools could, for example, help those in the future understand how healthy we really were. Where we poo, the taboos that surround the act of pooing, the architecture that we construct to hide those engaged in the act of defecation and the multitude of ways in which we dispose of the end product, can tell us more about the state of society than any book, newspaper or other historical document.

Archaeologists, historians and other guardians of our past are, however, often unwilling to discuss such basic human functions, preferring instead to grapple with seemingly weightier topics such as “peer-polity interaction spheres” or “sociopolitical geographies” (Archaeospeak). These are, incidentally, exactly the same topics that visitors to an ancient monument or listed building are NOT all that keen to find out about. Why be told about the infrastructure of Roman civil administration when you can find out how Roman soldiers wiped their behinds (with sponges soaked in dilute vinegar so we are often told, though the consequences of such an action on a private place do not really bear thinking about)?

Where the potential of toilets and excrement to inform has been realised, the results are often startling. Who can forget the sight (and, for that matter, the realistic smell) of the poor man straining over a pit,

or the human coprolite displayed in all its glory, both at the Yorvik Viking Centre at York?

What about the medieval sentry cheerily defecating in a corner of Castle Rushen in Castletown on the Isle of Man?

Few recreations of the early medieval period are so evocative as these. I am told that the York and Castletown displays are the most popular (they are certainly the most memorable) aspects of each of these visitor attractions.

Discovery of apparently primitive toilet facilities in an ancient monument or listed building can help to reassure us that “things are certainly better now” than they ever were in the past. Beyond the novelty value, however, such places provide a more tangible link with the past (or passed). The acknowledgement that everyone in history defecated somehow makes these people seem more real. More human even. Cleopatra may have been the Siren of the Nile, but she defecated just like everyone else. Alexander the Great was driven, every morning, by a natural force greater than his desire to conquer the known world.

The act of defecation links the past to the present perhaps more strongly than any other human activity. People in the past may have believed different things, worshipped different gods, worn different clothes, spoken different languages, but they all pooed. Just like us.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

History Matters

The philosopher George Santayana is probably best known today for his observation that “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

It’s a powerful and thought-provoking statement, but also one which also goes frequently unheeded.

Early on in his presidency, George W. Bush, for example, was advised to stop calling for “a crusade” against terrorism on the basis that given the loaded nature of the word, it might just make a bad situation a whole lot worse. In Afghanistan, it has recently been suggested that, with the hindsight of history, especially the rather disastrous military campaigns of 1839, 1878 and 1919, that British troops should cease telling the locals that “we are British not American” as that won't necessarily win any friends. 

In Britain, there is a tendency to treat history as a series of interconnected and sometimes occasionally interesting stories, most of which ultimately have little direct bearing on our lives today. In other parts of the world the distinction between past and present is more blurred, historical events being continually discussed, consulted, examined and nurtured as if they happened yesterday. Not everyone, it seems, views the past as being distant, alien or irrelevant.

This is why schemes such as the, now sadly defunct, “History matters – pass it on” campaign, launched in the UK during 2006, represented an intriguing, exciting and innovative development.

The campaign was designed to raise “awareness of the importance of history” encouraging public involvement and building “interest and support in Heritage”. The organisers and founding members, including diverse individuals such as Stephen Fry, Bill Bryson, David Starkey and Tony Benn, urged people to show their support and share their views online

Unfortunately, interest from the national media was ultimately limited, the most significant coverage going to the first results of a MORI poll that indicated that 73% of the British population was interested in history, compared to only 48% in football and a mere 25% in celebrities. This, of course, gave rise to the headline “More People care about Henry VIII than David Beckham”, which I suppose is progress of sorts.

There can certainly be no doubt that public interest in the past is growing year on year. What worries me, however, is the collective amnesia that surrounds key historical events (such as the slave trade) and the excessive glorification of others (such as the Second World War). Turn to YESTERDAY (formerly UK TV History), the free-screen digital channel, or HISTORY (formerly the History Channel) and you can happily gorge on a diet of seemingly relentless World War II documentaries like Battleplan, Gladiators of World War 2, Secrets of World War Two, Killing Hitler, Churchill’s Bodyguard, Stalin’s moustache, Himmler’s underpants (ok, I made the last two up but you get my point).

World War II represents a critical point in human history which should never be forgotten (as indeed does World War I), but do we need continuous in-depth (and largely repetitive) coverage? The World at War, a series narrated by Sir Lawrence Olivier and first broadcast in 1974, was the definitive documentary on the war, its causes and aftermath. OK so it is now   a little dated and some of the key ‘facts’ have been shown, thanks to the release of previously secret government documents, to be different to the ‘official version’, but it is factual, authoritative and thoroughly chilling in detail. It is unflinching and utterly unremitting in the message that war is hell.

It has never been bettered.    

On the main channels, TV documentaries and period dramas seem currently to revolve endlessly around the English monarchy, especially the Tudor dynasty, with the callous,, bloated, opportunistic bully Henry VIII and the self-seeking, PR-mad Elizabeth I taking centre stage. History matters, yes, but not just the official, air-brushed “greatest-hits” history of Britain’s leaders. Better to see more of the neglected alternative perspectives, counter-cultural viewpoints and the stories of the unknown, unwashed and thoroughly down-trodden. Better perhaps to trawl back further into the past as well, for things were happening in Britain way before Henry VIII trashed his first monastery.  

When the History Matters campaign was launched over five years ago, few at the time commented on the relevance of a report published by the Culture Media and Sport Committee, entitled Protecting and Preserving our Heritage. This squarely criticised the UK government for putting Britain’s history at risk. The report concluded that “if the Government really cares about the historic environment, it must give English Heritage the money and the political support to enable it to play a more active part in aiding repair”. The substantial decline, in real terms, of funding to English Heritage as identified in the report was nothing short of scandalous, and yet the scandal remain largely unreported, despite it exposing the former Labour government’s “heritage protection regime”, an intended super register of all protected monuments, buildings, structures, battlefields, parks and gardens, as little more than a calculated (some might add cynical) public relations exercise.

National bodies like English Heritage, Cadw and Historic Scotland need far more significant financial, political and public support if the irreplaceable archaeological and historical resource of England and Wales is to survive into the 21st century. Given the record, to date, of the Conservative Liberal Democrat (ConDem) coalition and their misconceived ‘take a hatchet to the arts’ spending review, this sadly appears unlikely to happen anytime soon.

History STILL Matters…..pass it on. 

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Dangers of Archaeo-speak

As along term fan of the Carry On movie franchise of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s, I must confess to a great fondness for the Great British euphemism, something which, when used well, can not only disguise the offensive, but can also render rude (and socially unacceptable) terms into a multitude of wonderfully comical varieties.

Euphemisms have, however, taken an increasingly darker and more surreal turn of late, especially within political circles, larger corporations and the military, where attempts to obscure meaning have been elevated to one of the higher and more curious forms of art. Particularly fine examples of the genre include “downsizing” (sacking the workforce), “pacify” (to kill), “extraordinary rendition” (torture) and “collateral damage” (murder of civilians – or should I say “non combatants”?).

Such verbal camouflage is, of course, not exclusive to politics, business and the military and can be more frequently found within the world of archaeology and heritage. Here, euphemisms are employed as a way of obscuring the mundane and, perhaps more worryingly, injecting a spurious form of academic credibility. My current top ten favourite examples of such archaeo-speak (or perhaps I should say archaeological doublespeak), where banal reality is disguised by pseudo-intellectualism, comprise (in reverse order):

10) Ground intervention (digging a hole)

9) Limited ground intervention (digging a small hole)

8) Heritage asset (anything that is old)

7) Cultural heritage receptor (someone who likes old things)

6) Spheres of reciprocity (selling things)

5) Peer polity interaction (selling things to your friends)

4) Ritualised hoarding (burying things)

3) Rites of intensification (burying lots of things)

2) Hypothetico-deductive explanation (a guess)

1) Phenomenology (a nice long walk with your eyes open)

Archaeo-speak (or Archaeo-doublespeak) ultimately serves very little purpose other than to impress other archaeologists whilst simultaneously alienating the general public, who quite rightly want facts and a good story, not euphemism, misinformation, verbal camouflage and techno-babble.

Excising simpler phrases and terms through a word-based form of “regime-change” creates what bold users of the art of doublespeak would call a “communication bypass” between practitioner and interested observer, generating an ever increasing gulf of incomprehension. Archaeologists have a duty to speak honestly and directly about their profession avoiding all attempts at euphemism, doublespeak and camouflage, otherwise the public will all too quickly loose interest.

In short, those in the profession have to curb their pseudo-academic sensibilities and call a spade a spade, not a “steel-bladed soil interface device”.

Archaeospeak (rationale)

This is an infrequently updated blog covering sporadic aspects of archaeology that annoy / interest / excite / infuriate (delete as applicable). I do not expect it to be read or commented upon (and I am happy in that respect) but it is an outlet (therapy?) for archaeological musings that do not or are not covered in the 'serious' world of academia.

If it generates comment, brilliant, if not, that's brilliant too.

I use my own name so as not to hide behind a mask of anonymity from which I can attack other people at will (as certain other blogs do - and which I will no doubt comment upon in due course).

There is no philosophy here other than "Question everything" and "Keep an open mind"

There is no soundtrack but please note this blog is best experienced with music that is both loud and has someone shouting (preferably in an obscure eastern European language).