It doesn’t fit in our box.

On thing that has particularly interested me in this class so far is the history of archeology itself. Throughout that history, the field has evolved not only in its practices, but also in its motivations. The reasons we look at the past seem to be as different and numerous as the schools of thought that have emerged as a result of the looking.

The modern public’s idea of archeology tends toward the misconception that it’s about adventuring and treasure hunting: the Indiana Jones modus operandi. Where this does have some basis in truth if we look at 19th century “archeologists”, it is far from the modern day process. In those days, it seems to me, that there was more a preoccupation with collecting history rather than understanding it. The removal of artifacts and the application of modern ideals and standards to states long decimated by time.

In lecture, we discussed the “legacy of the 19th century” in which the philosophies and social structure of modern western culture have skewed our vision when we look at ancient states. The concepts of progress, technology, racism, elites, bias, and rate of change all change the way we want to understand the artifacts and evidence that we find. We see what we expect to see.

In the last half of the 20th century, the archeological process was shifted. There is an attempt  to avoid empirical assumptions as an answer to the question of “why”. Our textbook, in the first chapter, briefly discusses the realm of physics and other natural sciences, which can offer concrete, testable answers on not only what the natural world does, but why these things happen. In studying human history, we can only make reasonable guesses at most of the “what happened” and even less certain is the “why it happened” and as agreed by most, we cannot know. And yet, these are the questions that archeology seeks to answer.

As we move through the semester, examining  several Ancient States, it will be important to keep in mind that these people are not living in the Midwest of the United States in 2013, and therefor may not think, plan, and live as we do. If we try to fit the evidence we find into our own pattern of thinking, we block the potential for new discovery and may in-fact lead ourselves to making assumptions that are woefully inaccurate. We must resign ourselves to the fact that we may have to say we don’t know.

1 thought on “It doesn’t fit in our box.

  1. fortonma

    You are certainly right in saying that archaeology has come a long way since it’s early treasure hunting days. This Victorian legacy still persists this day. I feel like a broken record explaining what archaeology is, to nearly every person I meet. Most of the public still sees us as the Indiana Jones type, seeking lost treasure in Egypt or the Amazon. In reality archaeology has evolved into so much more.

    Archaeology is a global study, and does not need to focus on everything from the largest state-societies, to the earliest bands of hunter-gatherers. A small Paleoindian biface can provide just as much insight into our human identity as treasure of the Pharaohs. The media still likes to portray archaeologists as the modern day equivalent of treasure hunters, even though our mission has changed from discovering treasure to discovering new cultural knowledge.

    One of the mot important efforts of modern archaeologists has been making amends for the years of exploitation and theft of the cultural heritage of others. For decades there were no international antiquities laws protecting nations’ cultural resources. It has only been in recent years that serious legislation has clamped down on the trafficking of illicitly obtained antiquities. But while the laws may be in place, the high demand for ancient objects makes one of the largest illegal markets in the world.

    Repatriation is one way that Western countries can heal wounds caused by years of reckless excavation. Many museums have returned items in their collections to their country of origin. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, is a piece of federal legislation that gives tribes the power to request the return of any human remains or religious artifacts from museum collections. One can only hope that someday that a similar piece of legislation can someday be provided for the international community. The case of Elgin Marbles in the British Museum is a perfect example of a case of question of ownership and repatriation. Archaeology may no focus on promoting cultural understanding and awareness, but it’s dark past continues to haunt us.

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