i-281752aec916fa17cecad9e35634e5a9-covermay09.gifThe readers of popular archaeology magazines have a much more international and escapist view of the subject than most professionals. Indeed, in the popular perception, one of archaeology’s defining characteristics is that its practitioners travel to exotic locales on a regular basis. In fact, professional archaeologists usually only work in one or two regions each, usually located near their offices. So if an archaeologist does travel abroad to do fieldwork, she is likely to go repeatedly to a single place for years and have little knowledge of other countries, let alone other continents. Archaeology does have a universal toolkit for excavation and analyses, but each region and period forms its own specialism, and so archaeology is not a universal discipline like biology or astronomy.

As a specialist in Scandinavian prehistory, I am not well equipped to enjoy Archaeology Magazine. Published by the Archaeological Institute of America, it ranges widely around the exotic bits of the world and rarely touches upon Northern Europe. The current May/June issue has stories from Bermuda, Mexico, Peru, Easter Island, China, Ethiopia, Palestine and Albania. All good stuff, I’m sure, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s Indiana Jones material.

The one story that really caught my interest did so for two reasons: it’s about Modern era high-status burial in the British colonies (making it similar to stuff I know from Sweden), and its spin is completely wrong in an embarrassing way.

St. Peter’s church in the town of St. George’s, Bermuda, was originally built in 1612 and later replaced by the current structure. In an effort to find traces of the original building, archaeologists have excavated under the floor, finding a few late-18th century graves, at least two of which belong to colonial aristocrats, neatly identified by their coffin plates. This is the expected outcome of such an excavation. But the author of the piece paints the discovery of the graves as a sensational surprise. “How did the bodies of two important historical figures end up beneath the floorbords of the church?”, she asks in astonishment. Well, frankly, that’s where these guys and their entire social circle probably expected to end up. Burial inside churches has always been an elite prerogative.

It gets embarassing when we learn that scores of graves had been found under the floor already in the 1950s, and really bad when the author quotes the obituary of one of the buried men, George James Bruere: “The obit notes that ‘the Corpse’ came to rest in the church’s aisle, but doesn’t mention a burial”. What this means is not, as the author clearly believes, that the mourners carried the coffin into the church and just set it down on the floor in the aisle for a while. It means that a few floor boards were lifted there and the corpse buried beneath them, coming to rest “in the aisle”. I might say that my late grandma “rests in the cemetery of Saltsjöbaden”. I don’t need to specify that her remains are actually beneath ground level.

So, my plea to the editors of Archaeology Magazine is this: could we have less sensationalism, more everyday prehistoric digs in the northern temperate zone, and perhaps something about Northern Europe in each issue? I’d like to read about US contract digs as well. That would be relevant to my own experience from railroad and highway projects in Sweden.

Comments

  1. #1 Dunc
    May 7, 2009

    Argh. Perhaps she’s angling for a job with the (Learn Nothing From) History Channel?

  2. #2 Martin R
    May 7, 2009

    Haha, yeah… I haven’t got cable, but I’ve watched two of the History Channel’s recent documentaries on DVD and reviewed them here, and they weren’t very good.

  3. #3 Sam C
    May 7, 2009

    What, are you telling me that Indiana Jones is fiction? And that you don’t carry a whip?

  4. #4 Gitte D
    May 7, 2009

    If you think this a sensationalized approach to archaeology, try the Channel 4 (UK) show ‘Time Team’. Drives me mad.

  5. #5 Harry Buttons
    May 7, 2009

    Would the archaeology field would be better off with no magazines at all, rather than one that skims much of the tedium of the process of discovery and research? That’s likely the trade off.

  6. #6 Kaleberg
    May 7, 2009

    Surely there is a trade magazine for working archaeologists. I mean, there’s Onion World for onion farmers, Iron Age for the steel industry, and I even ran across a trade publication aimed at people who duplicate CDs and DVDs (legally).

    If there isn’t such a publication, have you considered starting one? Perhaps someone might host a blog carnival on working issues. How do you get paid? What sort of stuff do you tend to find? Any surprises? (e.g. finding something interesting or getting paid on time) Did you have any high profile jobs, that is, jobs where the mainstream press covered your work either for its impact or with regards to your finds?

    As someone who found that magazine for people who duplicate CDs and DVDs rather fascinating, I might even check in and take a look. (They have all sorts of weird copying gear in their shops, buy blanks in amazing quantities and can get shafted in all sorts of ways by the people hiring them).

  7. #7 Martin R
    May 8, 2009

    Harry, I’m not asking for articles about tedium. I want to read about exciting discoveries that are relevant to the archaeology I do.

    Kaleberg, archaeology has many research journals and popular mags, but to my knowledge there is no widely disseminated trade mag for field archaeologists in Scandy or English.

  8. #8 DianaGainer
    May 8, 2009

    Have you submitted any articles of you own for publication in the above mag? How about your find, which I unfortunately only semi-remember, which seems to show a human next to perhaps a giant or ogre? And you said back in the old days, folks used to trace their ancestry to some local giant or giantess? That might be the sort of thing that would catch an eye at a local newsstand in the states. The problem is, besides providing a tidbit of actual info on archeology, they have to compete with grocery store fare like “The National Inquirer” which has such newsworthy articles as Devil and local housewife have half-bat, half-horse baby. It’s hard to sell real science in a climate like that.

  9. #9 Martin R
    May 8, 2009

    I haven’t written any pop-sci in English outside of the blog. Haven’t got any publishing contacts and little incentive to try to establish them. But if my academic career should prove unsustainable, then science journalism might be a good plan B.

  10. #10 Zach Zorich
    May 8, 2009

    Of course, Archaeology magazine focusses on stories that appeal to the general public, but we do take care not to hype our stories. I don’t want to discourage criticism, but I would like to defend our writer.

    It was the archaeologists, not the writer, who were surprised by finding the burials beneath the church…”It was an amazing find,” Fortenberry says of the remains. “Something no one had even considered the possibility of. Just astonishing” (Brent Fortenberry is the graduate student who was leading the excavation team). The article notes that there were no church records of the burials as one might expect. Upon discovering the burials, the archaeologists did more research and found the 1952 article and George Bruere’s obituary. Whether or not the find should have been surprising is an issue that should be taken up with the archaeologists. The story, however, was worth running because the burials did provide some interesting information about the history of Bermuda and the Gunpowder plot of 1775.

    If we were really interested in publishing sensationalized stories about graves, we would be running splashy articles on the supposed tombs of Jesus and Cleopatra, not moderately overstating the significance of a former governor of Bermuda’s burial. I do take your point about our coverage of Scandinavian archaeology, and I would be interested in discussing ways to improve it. If you are interested, please send me an email.

    Kindest regards,

    Zach Zorich
    Senior Editor
    Archaeology magazine

  11. #11 Martin R
    May 8, 2009

    Thank you Zach. I suppose your writer will learn that you can’t always count on the person heading an excavation to be an authority on the subject.

    I’ll get in touch regarding Scandy stuff.

  12. #12 Charlotte
    May 8, 2009

    more everyday prehistoric digs in the northern temperate zone

    Because popular archaeology magazines need more postholes. That’ll attract readers for sure :)

  13. #13 Mof
    May 10, 2009

    Underwater archaeology next to some fishing-hamlet on the west coast could sell. One can speculate about rusty old stoves and washers being artifacts of the Atlanteans :-)

  14. #14 meg
    May 12, 2009

    Well if you look at the focus of AIA via their research funding opportunities, it’s clear they are interested in classical archaeology primarily. I read the magazine from the Archaeological Conservancy, but that is America-focused.

    As for the Indiana Jones comparison, Harrison Ford IS on their Board of Trustees, if you didn’t know.

    http://www.archaeological.org/webinfo.php?page=10029

  15. #15 Richard Lowry
    May 18, 2009

    The surprise in finding these bodies was due to the fact that they were found less than three feet from the church floorboards in loose soil. As these remains were located beneath the main part of the Church burying people there would have made the regular church services uncomfortable to say the least (the stench of decaying corpses.)

    The main question would be why would bodies be buried under the floorboards when at the time the church was surrounded by an active graveyard where every other person in the Town, including other another Governor, was buried?

    While two formal grave vaults have been discovered beneath Bermuda churches (St. James Church and St. Peters) these are rare. The St Peter’s vault is in a different location and was probably built over as the church expanded. Indeed one of the theories is that Bruere and Wheate were laid to rest in the cemetery but when the church expanded, always at the expense of the graveyard, in the early 19th century the bodies were relocated under the church floor. This may explain why many other human remains were found in this area.

    In any event Governor Bruere, under the direction of the current Governor, Sir Richard Gozney, and the St. Peter’s Church Vestry, will be reburied in the churchyard in a ceremony on June 6th.

    Richard Lowry
    Archaeology Committee Chairman
    Bermuda National Trust

  16. #16 Martin R
    May 18, 2009

    Complaints about the stench from the burials under church floors were a constant feature of church life worldwide before the Victorian era.

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