Thursday, 7 April 2011

Found anything yet?

The other day I was asked by a journalist to describe my "most exciting find". It's the kind of question which I usually try to avoid, partly because I don't like bringing the whole experience of archaeology down to the level of a single discovery, but mostly (I suspect) because I can never supply an answer which I think could be termed, in a media sense, as 'exciting'.

There is, thanks I guess in part to the likes of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, a strong belief in media circles that modern archaeologists only pursue artefacts. Not just scrappy bits of Neolithic worked flint or broken Roman pot mind you, but big gold, jewel-encrusted rings, necklaces and bracelets formerly belonging to ancient royalty. Who wants to know about the eating preferences of a 12th century English peasant when you can gawp at some expensive bit of diamond-studded kit? Who wants the imprint of Roman footwear on tile when you can drool over a Roman emperor’s gold plated jock strap (hopefully not whilst he’s wearing it).

The obsession that the media has with rich artefacts and the acquisition of personal wealth, exemplified by the monotonous series of news stories such as “Man out walking Dog finds 10 Million pound Roman coin hoard” or “Woman out jogging finds Saxon ring worth £6 Million!” (and defined in psychological terms as National Lottery Syndrome), may be traced back to the earliest antiquarian investigators in Europe, Africa and the Middle East: in particular, to a comment allegedly made by Howard Carter upon the initial breaking into the antechamber of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.

Lord Carnarvon: “Can you see anything?”
Carter: “Yes, wonderful things.”

Certainly the quantity and preservation of artefacts within the ‘King Tut’s’ tomb was amazing, afterall it took well over a decade to simply catalogue everything, but surely archaeology today means more than this? The contents of a tomb ultimately tells us how less than 0.0000001% of the population prepared for the afterlife. What about the ordinary mortals (the lesser elements in society): how did they live?; what did they eat?; what did they believe in?; where did they defecate, copulate or educate? A rich tomb, coin hoard, or votive deposit cannot always be relied upon to provide such vital information about past societies. This does not, of course, concern “The News”. Rarely does landscape archaeology, environmental archaeology, forensic archaeology or any other “archaeology” for that matter, impinge upon a feel-good news story about how someone ‘made it big’ thanks to the chance discovery of a long dead Viking and his loot. 

This of course manifests itself in the ever common question directed to archaeologists in the field: “have you found anything yet?”. Often the reply “Yes we’ve found 670 postholes suggesting the presence of a major Neolithic timber structure unparalleled in this part of the world”, is met with a blank expression, embarrassed silence, quiet clearing of the throat and a “But have you found anything yet?”. Have you found any nice finds, personal objects to link us with those who lived and died in the past? Found any gold / silver / or other precious things?

Sad to say, but when I go to the car mechanics, hairdressers (I don’t get this look by my own efforts you understand) or supermarket, I tend to avoid saying that “I’m an archaeologist” because this is usually guaranteed to provoke the response “Really? What interesting things have you found?” and I just know that the recording of a major prehistoric flint knapping scatter from the chalk hills of southern Britain really does not live up to the expectation that I should have been battling Nazis in the African desert for control of an important Biblical artefact.  

The legacy of Indiana Jones is immense. The ‘trilogy in four parts’ comprising Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the Temple of Doom (1984), the Last Crusade (1989) and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) have spawned a plethora of books, television series (especially Young Indiana Jones), radio shows, web sites, computer games as well as generating the expected ‘look’ of an archaeologist (moving away from the pith-helmeted figure of 1950s B movies).

Perhaps the most successful imitator of the good Dr Jones has been Lara Croft, star of the Tomb Raider games and movies Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and the Cradle of Life (2003).

Let’s not beat around the bush here, Croft is a grade A1 psychopath. The computer game has been successful because it taps into to what most game-heads want: adventure, excitement, lots of weapons, mass-killing and a heroine who appears to have dislike of sensible clothes (to be fair the same can be said of Dr Jones who rarely seems able to keep a shirt on his back). Archaeology is here the backdrop, providing the initial drive to the story (“you must find the following”) and the setting (tomb / lost city etc) within which a large quantity of wolves, dinosaurs, alligators and other humans may be mercilessly gunned down.

At the end of the day, both Raiders (Jones and Croft) are about desecration of burial grounds and looting of artefacts. That may sound harsh, but although both may represent a rare case of ‘good guys’ in the realm of the Pop Culture archaeologist (good in that: “Yes so they may both be gun-toting loonies, but hey, at least they’re saving important aspects of our cultural heritage from bad gun-toting loonies”), they are both obsessed with the single artefact above any other concern. The object is the key; information about past societies is irrelevant. The Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail represent two such ‘things’ that Dr Jones wanted to possess (even he justifies this as saving them from the clutches of the Nazis in order that they may be placed ‘in a museum’).

Take, as a case for the prosecution, the first time we ever meet Indiana Jones, as he searches for a lost South American tomb at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Did the good Dr, as a well-trained archaeologist, record the context of the tomb or the nature of the wall carvings that he encountered? Did he photograph anything of interest? Did he fill in a context sheet, recording the interrelationship of layers? Did he ever take out his notebook and actually write anything in it?

Did he buggery.

I suppose that Site photographer or Artefact Illustrator would both be significantly less interesting games than Tomb Raider, but at least they would be closer to what it is archaeologists actually do.

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