The Death of the Archaeologist
The Archaeologist has to die and we have to be the ones to kill him.
Imagine the scene, the windows of the round room are draped in dark velvet curtains, and a porcelain white altar stands proudly in the middle of the room. Several hooded figures slowly raise an ageing body on top of the altar, adjusting hands to hold roman coins in the palms. Ceremonial curved daggers glint in faint candle light as the last conspirator sharpens their blade. There is just enough silence to put anyone on edge, the faint rustle of cloak and soft inhalations were the only sounds to betray their owners’ presence. The knife falls and the deed is done. The new dawn will shine through the window and with faces pressed against the glass, all will finally take control themselves. The body is of The Archaeologist.
Just as Nietsche once pronounced “God is dead… And we have killed him”, we must prepare ourselves for the same maddening cry. It is no wonder in this postmodern (or should I say post-postmodern) world, that we as archaeologists must ask ourselves of our own direction and purpose. This piece is also part inspired by the conversation recently had on the CRM archaeology podcast and Chris Websters blog piece.
Archaeology’s own past is as interesting as the material remains it studies, from cultural history through processual archaeology and its rebellious child, post-processualism. How do we move forward and where is our next paradigm shift? How can we appropriately move forward as archaeologists if we find ourselves languishing in codes and practices that are already decades old? And finally, when did money become such a huge talking point in archaeology?
To begin this deconstruction we must look out from our institutes and companies. It seems that the spirit of archaeology is often marred by the worst of our interactions with the public; take for example the recent fight at Stonehenge for access during solstices, which has put druids against archaeologists. Despite the silliness of the leader’s alleged reincarnated status (King Arthur Pendragon, of course), the arrival of 36,000 people at the site during the 2014 summer solitice is nothing to scoff at. Indeed, it is obvious from the article that King Arthur believes that the damage described by conservationists is merely a ploy to keep people away. I don’t believe myself that archaeologists want to ruin anyone’s fun but this situation seems to lack any negotiation and discussion.
Archaeology to archaeologists has a certain set of values and ideas, which in my experience they hold to very strongly. It seems to me that calling yourself an archaeologist can be an issue for some people, especially when they stipulate certain requirements. I have to wonder, however, why these requirements exist; why does someone have to have a degree, or several months fieldwork or half a dozen papers published? Is it the merit one receives for being an archaeologist? Is it because they haven’t toiled for the number of years necessary, to be considered one of us? Surely we cannot be afraid that one person could take away our whole identity? Then again, archaeologists on TV are few and far between, and therefore could each one represent their first contact with archaeology?
In that case everyone ought to be an archaeologist. In all seriousness, there are people who have degrees and do cultural resource management, and their hard work shouldn’t go unnoticed; however archaeology’s distance to the general public stunts any real growth of value for the public. Archaeology is a vibrant and alive area of work, full of energy and passion; anyone I’ve met who has studied or worked as an archaeologist loves what they do. The ultimate combination of manual labour with the technicality of science and cerebral working of interpretation. In many ways archaeology is a meta-subject, a renaissance subject – picking the fruit of other areas of research in order to better understand the world it explores, but also to better understand itself. We should celebrate this “gay science” (thanks Nietszhe), this yearning endeavour of something wonderful and great that concerns itself not only with the past but with the present and future as well.
The recent sobering images of broken history and smashed up statues in Mosul are, for many, the shocking realisation of the fragility of antiquity; it is often said that archaeology is a destructive process and that in using some techniques we “destroy” archaeological material to understand it better. And although I hasten to condemn the actions taken by these people in Mosul, I try to imagine what difference a world used to archaeology would be. Do objects suddenly gain value when under threat? As if through some vain hope we may extend their lives just enough that we can glimpse the tiniest bit of evidence? That these objects may lie centuries untouched in glass cases and storage boxes until hammers and chisels arrive?
Ultimately archaeology needs to be readdressed and reformed once again. It can no longer be seen as a distant, luxury pastime, but must be a necessity and not only to archaeologists. That is why we all must be archaeologists together, understanding all the twists and turns of time and bringing all people closer to understanding the passing of time.
Although a bitter piece about the prevalence of sports during our everyday lives, this account of archaeology as a main talking point leaves me with a satisfied smile on my face. Despite its sometimes superficial notes on what archaeologists are, it demonstrates the public knowledge of the Archaeologist. The archetypal site, Pompeii, Palaeontology is archaeology and a sneaky Indiana Jones reference. This is the Archaeologist we must kill. This idea no longer represents archaeology. This is not an archaeologist. And it is not enough for us to scoff and groan at this misshapen form of what we are, instead we must kill and destroy and tear limb from limb until we know exactly who we are. Once we have finally completed this cathartic deed, it will be a new rising dawn for us, a new breath of fresh air and, most importantly, space to breathe; because the closer we keep the word archaeologist, the quicker we will suffocate. Consider the Stonehenge issue once again; were all the 36,000 visitors archaeologically mindful, perhaps damage to the stones could be minimised, if people realised how their actions can irreversibly cause harm to archaeological material.
Finally, we need to drive home the idea that archaeology is not just a past time or a burden! It is a passion-fuelled chronicling of everything that humanity is. We are the past, translated and transformed through time, spinning ever further into the realm of the future; as we uncontrollably precess around the orbit of time. In this spin, we occasionally glimpse what came before, but ultimately we are limited in this sight. Most of what came before has rotted into our present and created us as we are today. We must all, as human beings, recognise that the past is important outside of something to study or know. The study of the past is indeed far more than that, we also lose ourselves in the present and future as well.