Monday, 29 October 2012

All Archaeologists are Evil: 2

Most archaeologists I know (and trust me, I know an awful lot) feel as if they are the 'good guys', constantly battling property developers, motorway builders and politicians (the 'bad guys') in order to save a few tantalising morsels of history from the unceasingly ravenous jaws of mechanical diggers. They are the heroes of history, the (literally) underground resistance, the liberators of truth the....well, you get the picture. 

Sadly popular culture, as I think I've noted before, doesn't see the profession in quite the same light. Yes, archaeologists appear with surprising regularity in films, books, radio plays and TV programmes and, I have to say, they are almost always living an extremely exciting existence, solving ancient puzzles, smashing into lost tombs, discovering dead civilisations, unearthing treasure, swinging from trees, battling Nazis, combating conspiracies, avoiding alien incursions etc etc (and many geologists / geographers / anthropologists / mathematicians that I know, and trust me I know an awful lot, often tell me (sometimes quite forcefully) that they wish that their profession was portrayed in film and on TV in such an exhilarating way), but, if you watch carefully and 'read between the lines', you will discover that the archaeologists themselves are rarely (if ever at all) the 'good guys'. 

Usually they are the bad / evil / despicable / warped / malicious / unpleasant guys. The kind of guys you would not wish to meet or share a drink / expedition / tent / bath with. They are the doom-bringers; the curse-unleashers / the destroyers of worlds.

A recent discussion on an archaeological web forum became extremely heated when the topic of archaeo fiction came up. “So what?” was the general consensus of opinion “if the public sees all archaeologists as 'heroic' thieves like Lara Croft or Indiana Jones?”; “So what if the media thinks we’re only after loot / treasure / gold / life altering sums of money?”; “So what if the writers and broadcasters of fiction see us as villains and bad guys?”; “It doesn’t matter. Get a life - its not real!”.

Ok, so Coronation Street, Eastenders, Dallas, Hollyoaks, Neighbours, Doctors, Young Doctors, Pobol y Cwm, Emmerdale and other pop culture TV soaps aren’t real (well done for noticing that by the way): they are all fiction. Most people know this (at least I hope they do). Most of the people who watch and avidly follow such TV series probably prefer the fictional world created within them to the daily grind of REAL life, just as most followers of Sci Fi staples such as Star Trek (in all its syndicated varieties) and Doctor Who know that the worlds presented in these programmes aren’t real, but find them a useful substitute for reality (and why not?). The main issue is, I think (at least from my own slightly warped perspective) is that Coronation Street, Eastenders, Dallas, Hollyoaks, Neighbours, Doctors, Young Doctors, Pobol y Cwm, Emmerdale and Doctor Who regularly attract audiences (in Britain anyway) in the millions whilst Star Trek and other syndicated dramas attract significantly more through broadcast repeats and DVD sales around the globe. They have an impact - certainly one greater than any dry and factual excavation report or jolly popular, coffee-book style photo-filled take on the past.

Every long term TV series has, at some stage in its lifecycle, an archaeologist appearing in it and these archaeo explorers are, more often than not, deeply unpleasant individuals obsessed with only one thing: the acquisition of loot to the detriment of all else (including their own personal relationships and large numbers of innocent lives). More people, I guess, will watch and digest the stereotypical view of ‘the archaeologist’ as depicted in these prime slices of televisual pop culture, than will ever see the reality of the professional at work.

Stereotypes are, by their nature of course, merely exaggerated versions of reality. Stereotypical doctors, estate agents, law enforcers, fire-fighters, teachers and solicitors also all appear with great regularity within pop culture, especially within the world of televised fiction. Most stereotype professionals, however unrealistic these portrayals may be, are deeply ingrained within the public consciousness, to be regurgitated again and again by the writers of televisual and cinematic fiction. In the majority of cases, however damaging or unrealistic the stereotype, we the audience can safely acknowledge that: “REAL Doctors / teachers / solicitors / firefighters / law enforcement agents / refuse collectors etc aren’t actually like that”, because most of us encounter doctors, teachers, solicitors, firefighters, law enforcement agents,  refuse collectors etc on a daily basis.

At least 98% (a guess, but close to the truth I would suggest) of the population probably do not regularly encounter archaeologists in their day to day life, so the reality (or unreality) of the stereotype cannot ever be satisfactorily, or indeed objectively, assessed. The stereotype is plausible. The stereotype is believed.

If the public perception of what an archaeologist is and what they do is coming primarily through fiction, rather than solid fact, then what, if anything, should archaeologists be doing to counter such rampant stereotype negativity? Archaeologists could, of course, acknowledge the fact that their pop culture representative is a treasure hunting hero / gun toting psychopath / doom-bringing villain and perhaps work within this (although perhaps not to the extent of always wearing battered leather jackets and carrying whips), educating people through emotive imagery towards the reality of genuine discovery: “The past is a vibrant and exciting place for a modern audience, and you don’t need Indiana Jones to provide unnecessary and wholly artificial hype”. Not sure it would fact it might even  harden the stereotype, but I put it out there as a suggestion.

Alternatively, the archaeological community could openly reject the pop culture character, explain why, and attempt to create an image that they are generally happier with and which they find closer to reality. To some extent, the recent spate of archaeological and anthropological television programming is successfully achieving this particular aim, bringing archaeological discovery to the fore and altering the whole nature of the fictional pop culture persona. 

Or, archaeologists could (as the majority have traditionally done) totally ignore pop culture (staying firmly in the 1960s and 70s), only sticking their heads above the spoil heap long enough to scoff “It’s just fiction – REAL archaeology isn’t like that”.

After all:

1) The pop-culture archaeologist lives in a world of adventure and excitement

2) They are thrill-seeking egotists, obsessed with the importance of their own discoveries and their own personal fame.

3) They destroy the career of anyone who gets in their way.

4) They desire vast personal wealth through the accumulation of prized artefacts.

5) They are people who refuse to communicate their ideas and discoveries to the public.

6) They are people who care not one jot about society, and who could quite happily endanger large numbers of people just so they could dig the site / tomb / burial ground that they want.

7) They are totally dysfunctional.

8) They are scheming, violent, gun-toting, loot-obsessed alcoholics.

9) They are villains and misfits.

11) They are intrinsically evil.

And we know that, in reality, archaeologists just aren’t like that..... 

....are they?

....hang on....don't tell me, I know this....  

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