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The Romance of Archaeology

Posted by J Foster on Feb 9, 2013 in Cultural Anthropology

“This book is written with the hope of helping to diminish the once rather widespread notion that Archaeology was the unnecessary and fatuous excavation of the broken remnants of a bygone, and therefore superseded, antiquity. It tries to tell the story of the unexpected resurrection of the past into the liveliest and most fascinating form of modern science.” R.V.D. Magoffin. The Romance of Archaeology (1929)

On some level, just about everyone loves archaeology. From salesmen and CEOs who display Chokwe masks or Salado pottery (please tell me that’s a replica) in their offices to presidents and doctors who unabashedly adore Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider, to popular recurrences in episodes of Dr. Who and Star Trek, the curiosity about the nature of just what runs deep in our collective veins more often than not appears in the form of the Intrepid Archaeologist. For some, archaeology and anthropology will remain armchair hobbies, a topic debated and discussed at length betwixt and between the floating introspections our quote-a-day desk calendars see fit to provide us with. But for others, the romance of archaeology is a childhood sweetheart, whose absence evokes an emptiness of the kind only a first love can. For them, even the sorriest task can be met with an enthusiasm typically reserved for singing Dickensian chimney sweeps. Forgive my sentimental prose, but those truly embroiled in the field and in the labs, usually intensely focused realists, almost never speak of anthropology and archaeology in this way. And for good reason.

My own experiences with this kind of intensity of purpose were realized the first time I went on dig. One afternoon, after nearly 7 hours already in the field, in the grip of Belize’s mid-July heat, a colleague of mine came running breathlessly over a hill, dirt-crusted lithic in hand. With a grin that either indicated jubilation or insanity, he asked us if we wanted to see an ‘amazing’ new stratigraphic layer he’d found in a pit dug a hefty up-hill hike away from the main test trench. Without a moment’s hesitation the entire group leapt to its feet and charged after, chattering with excitement, just to see what rocks and mud and clay might finally reveal to us that day. At that moment, it was also a welcome boon, not only from the long work hours of nothing but dirt and jungle debris, but from several difficult moments left over from the previous day when we had discovered that multiple sections of the site had also been previously looted and left completely destroyed by shovels in search of recognizable objects to feed the growing black market demand for Mayan artifacts. Day in and day out, this is the kind of excitement born of dedication, not of romanticization, of a sense of responsibility to our work and not of imagined glorification. It is because a romantic past is a false past.

In the coming weeks and months you will likely see me write quite a lot about the topic of “false pasts”, “false culture”, and pseudo-science, so for that reason I will only briefly touch on the subject in this introductory post by saying this: there is nothing wrong with interest and fascination, but comfortable fables conveniently situated in the present rarely reflect the way things actually work. As Kenneth Feder put it, “only by understanding it can those of us dedicated to the study of the human past hope to deal with it”. I would add that this is equally true for those of us face-to-face with cultural issues in the human present as well.

Therefore, it is not only for myself that I write this blog, but also for the archaeology geeks and linguistics fanatics, religion scholars and anthropology buffs that lurk through the halls of universities, libraries, and social media. This is for all those who understand that anthropology isn’t just a profession, it’s a pathology. This is also for those we are never able to reach. I don’t mean to imply that I’m necessarily aiming for a “popular science” blog so to speak, but part of what it means to engage in scholarship also means making it accessible and I aim to include as many as I can in this discussion by keeping my overall focus in layman’s terms.

Unfortunately, no single commentary could ever hope to encompass everything that falls under the gaze of anthropology and archaeology. We could debate the events of history, analyze the lifeways of a society, argue over the advent of linguistic memes and agricultural mores, follow new developments in semiotics, and discuss politics, religion, theories, myths, and mysteries. Each of these subjects could easily fill hundreds of pages of their own books and blogs, and many do. One of the greatest strengths of social science is that almost anything could be found within its purview. Therefore, limited topics must be selected.

Anthropology and archaeology address a wide range of subjects, from the uplifting, to the uncomfortable, to the otherwise unremarkable. War, religion, the fall of civilizations, and politics integrate with food, media, narrative, symbol, and well, frankly, literal garbage. Even the meaning of “Anthropology” itself could be debated, but semantics aside, I simply endeavor to create an expectation of scope. One can only cover so much.

Inevitably, I expect that there will be questions of academic credibility and analytical legitimacy on my part. I do not typically discuss myself in public forums so I will say only this. I have a degree in Anthropology/Archaeology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I participated in an archaeological dig in northern Belize (Lowland Maya). I am currently a graduate student in Socio-Cultural Anthropology (focusing on religion, language, and gender) at Brandeis University where I have conducted fieldwork on Hindu ritual practice and language in northern India. But assumptions and limitations aside, my greatest joy is sharing my love of culture with the people around me and my greatest wish is to be able to engage in informative discussion about the important topics that anthropology and archaeology address today.  I want my opinions challenged and my knowledge improved. Learning and growing is a team event and solo performances rarely, if ever, rate high.

I make no claims to ultimate knowledge and I expect that this will always be the case. However, silence begets only silence and eventually regret that nothing was attempted and nothing was gained. May this not be a monologue but a community of dialogues. May we learn what we did not know before.

Picasso once said that a painting was never finished; only abandoned. If history is the magnum opus of mankind, then perhaps we are simply picking up where we left off.

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