Archaeology is Chocolate, not Potatoes

Back in February I posted snippets of an opinion piece I’d been asked to write about the current state and future prospects of Swedish archaeology. Now the thing has appeared on-line in Antiquity (behind a pay wall, but see below), though the journal’s autumn issue has not reached subscribers on paper yet.

For you nat-sci types, I should probably explain that Antiquity is my discipline’s equivalent of Nature. So, getting to inaugurate a new recurring heading there, “Prospects”, is something I’m very proud of.

Archaeology should have a popular/populist slant designed to please tax-payers. We should study site types that are comprehensible to the interested layperson and preferably do our fieldwork in or near densely populated areas. Proximity to population centres should be seen as an important independent quality in a site as it allows members of the public easy access. New archaeological knowledge is much more valuable to a person if it relates to a place they already know.

I advocate archaeological hedonism. While of course upholding our public duties as
custodians of the archaeological record, we should as far as possible avoid studying anything that is boring. Archaeology is after all not useful to anyone in the sense that food and housing and healthcare are useful. The hallmark of good archaeology, instead, is that it is fun. It is chocolate, not potatoes. And if it is not fun, then it is bad archaeology. Of course there is no accounting for taste, but I believe that there are many archaeological sites that nobody, scholar or layperson, could see any fun in whatsoever. Particularly so with poorly-preserved non-monumental sites.

Update 31 August: I’ve received Antiquity’s permission to place the paper on-line for free in PDF format.

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Comments

  1. #1 Joseph Hewitt
    August 28, 2010

    Congratulations!

  2. #2 Martin R
    August 28, 2010

    Thanks man!

  3. #3 Ann Klein
    August 28, 2010

    Here in the U.S., archaeology is primarily a function of universities and colleges. A very small amount is done by state archaeologists prior to construction projects. The vast majoring of Americans have no idea that they are funding archaeology through taxes paid to support public colleges or state engineers. Large numbers of American taxpayers believe archaeology is all fakery and the earth is only 4000 years old. My own experience in field work could not be described as “fun”, but it was still one of the best times in my life. If only “fun” projects were done, who would be digging in the desert to find human origins? Who would care about bronze age villages, or neolithic weaponry? We don’t do archaeology for fun, we do it to increase human knowledge about who we are and where we came from.

  4. #4 Don
    August 28, 2010

    Martin: The links to that sailing camp show a thoroughly idyllic setting. I have forwarded the link to my daughter, Sophia. She is endeavoring to preserve links to her heritage for her young children and will be hugely envious of parents like you.

  5. #5 Sandgroper
    August 28, 2010

    Big ups.

  6. #6 Deborah
    August 28, 2010

    I have to think there’s a balance between what Martin is saying and Ann Klein’s comments. I’m in the USA too. We can’t just look at monuments. That cuts out too much of what we really want to know about the past and the way people lived. Most of our public audience are “common people” if you want to think about it that way, so we ought to be able to tell the archeology of common people in a way that makes it interesting and relates to their own lives. The problem I see is that too few archeologists commit to writing for the public. We need to tell our stories to the public, in books or new media resources, in ways that show the inherent excitement of learning about the distant (or not so distant) past. We have too much jargon and we’re often too pretentious. We aren’t good at explaining how we know what we know (I’ll hasten to interject, Martin happens to be an exception—he is pretty good at this). I’m an advocate of narrative archeology. I’d like to see the profession give more credit and acknowledgment within its ranks to those who engage the public. If we leave this to TV producers and such, we get the dumbed-down sensationalist, and often out-of-date stuff that I am constantly having to say “yes but…” or “no, really…” to my relatives about. Often we do have chocolate to offer and that is wonderful. But when we don’t, our burden and responsibility is to turn potatoes into something really tasty.

  7. #7 Johan Normark
    August 28, 2010

    Congratulations!

    I am curious how to define which archaeological sites are fun if monumentality and exciting finds are the criteria? Who will decide? From a Mayanist perspective, most Scandinavian prehistoric sites lack monumentality and should therefore be of little interest. If you go down the Mayanist path, that definitely is dedicated to what is fun (monuments, spectacular burials, exotic rituals, etc), than I am afraid it will become just as boring after a while. It will be a rather one-sided view of the past and although that may be what the public want that will destroy scholarly interest in archaeology. By this logic a person like Bob Lind should do all research since I am sure his ideas are more interesting and fun to the public than the archaeological interpretation(s). I doubt that the public care about Lind’s lack of archaeological skills.

  8. #8 Martha
    August 28, 2010

    I’m a non-archaeologist in the U.S. who is interested in archaeology. My interest isn’t so much about “fun” as about intellectual curiosity. As I see it, the main problem with taxpayer interests guiding archaeological research is that we don’t hear about some of the most interesting and important research and discoveries until many months after they happen. Also, the popular media oversimplify everything.

    I wouldn’t want to depend on populist interest to guide what archaeological work gets done.

  9. #9 Christine
    August 28, 2010

    Here in Britain, we have a TV program called “Time Team” which proves how popular archaeology is with the lay person. It makes many digs accessible that would otherwise be known only to interested locals. (For some remote sites that might just mean the local sheep, or for marine sites, the fishes :D )

  10. #10 Nick Williams
    August 28, 2010
  11. #11 Art
    August 28, 2010

    I would think that favoring sites near populated areas would have the additional benefit of exploring, if not actually clearing, those areas most likely to be threatened with building as populations and developments expand. Instead of having to rush in and do a hurried job of survey and examination one step ahead of the bulldozers the archeological community could have a good idea of what most sites near population centers contain.

    This would also serve to moderate one of the bones of contention where builders want to break ground and finish ASAP to keep the investors and loan officers happy while the archeologists, knowing you only get one shot, want to work the site slowly and methodically. If an archeologist can tell a builder that the site has already been examined in relative detail and deemed unlikely to contain anything of importance it might keep the builders happy.

    If favoring sites near population centers also allows the citizenry of that locality to be more aware of the archeological process, perhaps even participating, then so much the better.

  12. #12 stripey_cat
    August 28, 2010

    I think the definitions of fun are so personal that it becomes effectively meaningless. For instance, two of my personal favourites are spindle-whorls (and other textile equipment) and kiln furniture, because they’re tools that I could pick up and use myself, thousands of years after their original owner died. Even iron flakes from smithying, or plough marks, give me a thrilling connection and continuity to human industry and agriculture (even if they’re areas outside my personal skills). On the other hand, this all rests on a raft of fairly specialist interest in crafts. Large monuments, unless they’re militarily interesting, or very beautiful, tend to leave me rather bored. Stonehenge, for instance, is a very boring spot in the middle of a lovely upland, IMHO. (I do like fine metalwork and jewellery, though, if the craftsmanship and design is interesting!) This is pretty atypical, but was true even when I was four or five – I was generally much more interested at looking at artifacts and trying to work out how they were made (or how the whole culture as a whole worked, resting on the agriculture and industry that underpin it) than in the things kids are meant to like in museums.

  13. #13 Martin R
    August 28, 2010

    Ann: If only “fun” projects were done, who would be digging in the desert to find human origins? Who would care about bronze age villages, or neolithic weaponry? We don’t do archaeology for fun, we do it to increase human knowledge about who we are and where we came from.

    That knowledge has no practical application and thus only has value to someone who thinks it’s fun. Knowledge that is neither useful nor fun is worthless.

    Don, yes, the Stockholm archipelago is lovely in the summer.

    Deb: we ought to be able to tell the archeology of common people in a way that makes it interesting and relates to their own lives.

    I agree. Let’s dig some well-preserved, informative settlement sites.

    Deb: Often we do have chocolate to offer and that is wonderful. But when we don’t, our burden and responsibility is to turn potatoes into something really tasty.

    Or you can do what I do: turn your back on the whole potatoes side of the profession.

    Johan: I am curious how to define which archaeological sites are fun if monumentality and exciting finds are the criteria? Who will decide?

    That’s a good, practical question. I think the public has too little say in where we dig and what projects get funding. One way might be to try handing over a considerable part of such decisions to the local history movement. Specialists writing about abstruse subjects for other specialists is fine in subjects where something useful comes out at the other end, but archaeology is not such a subject.

    Johan: If you go down the Mayanist path, that definitely is dedicated to what is fun (monuments, spectacular burials, exotic rituals, etc), than I am afraid it will become just as boring after a while. It will be a rather one-sided view of the past and although that may be what the public want that will destroy scholarly interest in archaeology.

    What? You’re saying that us scholars will lose interest in our subject if we concentrate on interesting, well-preserved sites? I disagree. And anyway, there’s always plenty of scholars around to replace anyone who gets fed up and leaves.

    By this logic a person like Bob Lind should do all research since I am sure his ideas are more interesting and fun to the public than the archaeological interpretation(s). I doubt that the public care about Lind’s lack of archaeological skills.

    No, since the Enlightenment search for scientific truth is an independent fun value in itself. Bob is a really bad scientist who has found out nothing about the world.

    Martha: My interest isn’t so much about “fun” as about intellectual curiosity.

    I don’t recognise that distinction. Surely your intellectual curiosity (like mine) isn’t unbounded and indiscriminate? We’re curious about fun stuff, not boring stuff.

    Christine: Here in Britain, we have a TV program called “Time Team” which proves how popular archaeology is with the lay person.

    In the submitted version of the text, I actually said that archaeology should strive to be Time Team without the three-day fieldwork limit. The editor took it out because he felt that not everyone knows what Time Team is.

    Art, archaeologists already do scan areas for sites in advance of building projects. The problem is that the archaeology is everywhere, and we really don’t want to dig it all away unless it’s truly threatened.

    Stripey-Kat, I think you may be unaware of just how nondescript and boring stuff modern field archaeology often concerns itself with. I personally like all the things you enumerate.

  14. #14 Anonymous
    August 29, 2010

    What I mean by saying that if we only focus on what is fun it will become boring after a while is that we will get the same kind of research done over and over again. Once you have seen 500 Maya elite tombs, can we really get that much more information from them? Eat chocolate everyday, all week and all year and you will desire that potato (at least you will be malnourished).

    Maybe what is “boring” at one point will turn out to open up new interesting and “fun” pathways in the future. There is no way to know that in advance. If we focus only on what is “fun”, research will also seek to satisfy expected results (it must be fun otherwise we will not get fun-ds). That can never be good for a discipline that aspire to be a science. So is archaeology primarily science or entertainment?

    What I would like to know is if your own research is fun? It is fun for you for sure but would the public think it is fun if they could compare all Scandinavian projects currently in progress? How large must this public be that finds your research fun? Is it enough with the people showing up on your blog? Or do we have to include the general public that has some archaeological interest or do we have to include the general public with no interest in archaeology? People following your blog probably finds your research fun and people with no interest in archaeology probably finds it boring.

    So where should the boundaries be drawn? In order to be fun research must align with the norms and values of society. It will become a boring archaeology.

  15. #15 Richard D
    August 29, 2010

    I don’t completely disagree with this, after all, Archaeology is only of limited use in a practical sense and is largely paid for by taxpayers. However, I have some issues with the specifics.

    Archaeology should have a popular/populist slant designed to please tax-payers. We should study site types that are comprehensible to the interested layperson and preferably do our fieldwork in or near densely populated areas.

    It really doesn’t make much sense to me that we should be studying things that are already ‘comprehensible’ to the public. Wherein is there scope for the sense of wonder here if all we do is study things that are already well established in the public mindset?

    What we should be doing, is making the hitherto incomprehensible, comprehensible and I would contend that the general level of public intelligence is more than sufficient to grasp pretty much anything that comes under the umbrella of archaeology if we communicate it well enough.

    After all, this isn’t quantum physics, even the likes of me, working on the apparently arcane and complicated world of the cognitive and behavioural implications of ‘bashed bits of stone’ can make an effort to communicate this in a manner that is both simple and spins an exciting narrative that goes beyond those ‘smashed bits of stone’.

    Also, researching near centres of population?! This strikes me as a perfect way to introduce artefacts of research bias, which will skew our interpretation of past activities and their distribution. Granted, we nee to keep people interested in the past but not to the point where we are keeping them interested in an inaccurate past.

    we should as far as possible avoid studying anything that is boring. Archaeology is after all not useful to anyone in the sense that food and housing and healthcare are useful. The hallmark of good archaeology, instead, is that it is fun. It is chocolate, not potatoes. And if it is not fun, then it is bad archaeology.

    We are, I think, back to my ‘smashed bits of stone’ here. I agree to an extent that there are some things so arcane and dull that they couldn’t interest anyone aside from a very desperate graduate student needing a research project at all costs.

    However, in my experience, most researchers both broadly enjoy their subject area and are, on the whole, human beings. If we find something interesting, presumably other people can too, given the correct presentation. In other words, if I want people interested in lithics, I have to tell them why they are important, probably in much the same way someone once told me why they are important.

    I have one final issue with the notion of the utility of archaeology solely as ‘fun’. I realise most of us don’t like to admit it but we do not exist in a political vacuum. Archaeology and anthropology have both been used to support some pretty nasty ideologies in the past and I think there is a degree to which, in the modern world, we need to make damn sure we fight against those who would seek to do this. People are going to construct narrative of their identities from the past whatever we do so perhaps we should try to give them an accurate basis for doing so.

    I can only think of some of the nasty nationalistic sort of archaeology that is conducted by some in the Balkans as an example of why this is important. In that sense, these things are not ‘fun’ or frivolous but they are necessary.

    Apologies for the long rant. Like I said, I don’t wholly disagree with you, our subject should excite and entertain, I’m just not sure that these criteria should be the sole basis for setting a research agenda.

  16. #16 Fredrik Åfeldt
    August 29, 2010

    Martin, your email that you’ve linked to doesn’t work! I was just going to give you some worship via mail and ask for your opinion on an article i was thinking of writing in our archaeological student magazine, about this one article of yours :) Im studying Arch. at the university of gothenburg. Archaeology is a very long word. Have you found any problems with that fact in your professional career..?

    Also, I’d obviously like to see the whole text in a PDF.

    Cheers, och tack, and friendly greetings!

  17. #17 Pierce R. Butler
    August 29, 2010

    Didn’t your mama teach you to finish your potatoes before you could eat dessert?

  18. #18 Aurnab Arc
    August 29, 2010

    Dear Dr. Martin what’s going on in archaeology . May be the researcher on Archaeology seems as is as a funny games or a media of enjoyment or the time passing for the idles as James Hooton’s thinking ” Archaeologists are those snail playboys of science rooting the heap of antiquities . But now a day we know what is our past and what is it’s actual value .Actually we are now standing on and just standing on our past . No way here to find out the pavement towards the past . When we are seeing a beautiful superstructure of a skyscraper no way for us to observe the foundation that is obscure and beneath the ground so do Archaeological basis is hidden beneath the heap of each and every civilization that is easily visible . So no way dear . We have to do and obviously do Archaeology for finding out our own identity . Here we have to do Archeology for humankind not for the nasty politics.

  19. #19 kai
    August 29, 2010

    I’m a little concerned about method development. If all you care about is unearthing nice trinkets—which feels like a very 19th Century approach—you can of course do that with a modicum of care and knowledge, but it seems to me that figuring out new ways of finding out things about antiquity requires going through a lot of “uninteresting” places in order to validate methods and also to come up with new ideas: maybe a “boring” site turns out to be quite exciting once you figure out a new method of extracting information from it, which you wouldn’t have come up with blinded by the gold and monuments of the “interesting” sites.

  20. #20 Jonathan Jarrett
    August 29, 2010

    As someone who does potatoes history, and gets round it by pointing out how tasty potatoes are every now and then, I think I should avoid getting into this argument. But I do want to say, hey, Antiquity is a nice imprimatur, congratulations!

  21. #21 RG
    August 30, 2010

    Two comments – one @Ann Klein – your first sentence is so wrong as to be laughable. Most universities/museums/institutions with field schools or field programs are only active during summer months, with the rest of the year spent (as they should) training the next generation of archaeologists. I would hazard to guess, with no statistics or factoids at my fingertips, that the overwhelming “amount” (whether in terms of cubic meters of dirt moved, people employed at the task, or dollars spent) of archaeology done in the US is under the guise and auspices of Section 106 compliance work. I’m guessing your field experience was not with a CRM firm or you’d know of this year-round industry that spends tiny fractions of project budgets on good, old fashioned archaeological research.
    @ Aurnab Arc – it’s “SENILE playboys” not “snail playboys” though either image gives me a good chuckle.

  22. #22 Martin R
    August 30, 2010

    Thanks Jon! Why do you concentrate your efforts on the potatoesque?

  23. #23 Sandgroper
    August 31, 2010

    As long as I have been aware, Martin has advocated that archaeology should be made accessible, intelligible and interesting to the lay public, otherwise it does not serve its purpose, nor does it give anything of value back to those who ultimately pay for the work. If it does not achieve this, then archaeology might not survive.

    Also, I have learned from him that it is not necessary, or indeed possible, to dig everything out of the ground in order to construct a narrative of the past based on finding and curating material objects – that in fact, the objective should not be to do so, because the very act of excavation often ultimately leads to destruction.

    This is not to say that only those sites and objects which immediately appeal to the public imagination or inclination should be the focus, but rather those things that will yield a basis on which to construct the narrative, and preferably those things which people can experience first hand, in order to put them directly in touch with the past.

    As a civil engineer, I have never been in doubt that the purpose of my work is ultimately to serve The People. How well I achieve that objective is a measure of how good I am at practising my profession, but that is the aim, to serve the good of humanity. That is not meant to be pompous, it is a very practical, down to earth, humble reality. Any civil engineer who does not intend to do that is behaving unethically.

    My question then is, what is the purpose of archaeology, if not to serve The People and the public good? – not with things that are essential to their survival, but with things that enrich their lives culturally and help them to answer questions they have about the past, things that are interesting to them, that are fun to know.

    Perhaps ‘fun’ is not all-encompassing enough – the feeling I have when put in touch with the past like that, in a tangible, almost tactile way, is awe. But then I guess the thrill of being awestruck can reasonably be described as fun.

  24. #24 Jonathan Jarrett
    August 31, 2010

    Why do you concentrate your efforts on the potatoesque?

    Well, let’s see if I can maintain the analogy… In the Middle Ages, potatoes were a lot more common than chocolate. If one wants to know about the vast bulk of most medieval societies, it’s dig potatoes or eat nothing. It’s also always easier to find a patch of potatoes no-one else is digging than to mark a whole chocolate field off for yourself. But also—it’s no good, I’ll have to drop the metaphor, sorry—the mundane is not in and of itself dull. It’s dull because it tends to come in an undifferentiated mass. But my charters (‘my’ charters, get me…), though they are a vast mass of data, are also full of stories of individuals making difficult or quirky decisions, little stories amid the big ones.

    The only way I can bring this back to the anlogy is to say, look: done right, potatoes can be really tasty, and they’ll keep you going for longer than chocolate will too. This is not to deny the attraction of chocolate! But chocolate is never going to make a full meal by itself. Similarly, if you want a broad-based social history, you won’t get it solely from élite burial sites. But you know this, because you talk about the need for full-scale settlement studies above; so I’m not sure what exactly your potatoes are in this discussion anyway…

  25. #25 Martin R
    August 31, 2010

    Now I’m with you. What I meant was that archaeology does not fulfil any basic needs (like potatoes). It is a luxury (like chocolate). Your description of your work places it firmly in the fun & chocolate realm: this has nothing to do with whether you study counts or serfs.

  26. #26 Abbas Uddin
    September 1, 2010

    Thanks To You Martin for your comment . This is a cruel reality in Bangladesh also .

  27. #27 Jonathan Jarrett
    September 1, 2010

    Aha! I obviously should have read the full piece rather than commenting on the excerpt. Some day I’ll learn that…

  28. #28 Sharon Astyk
    September 2, 2010

    Mazel tov on the impressive accomplishment and what a nice way to frame this!

    Sharon

  29. #29 Martin R
    September 2, 2010

    תוֹדָה!

  30. #30 dogteam
    September 3, 2010

    I suppose I am part of the “public” that must be at all costs entertained, rather than being directly involved in the field of Archaeolgy (other than being an interested amateur).
    Interesting point of view; it seems to me that with all the new survey technology available, there are more than enough “interesting” sites to be explored to keep an army of field people busy for decades. Do they really need to be identifying seeds and counting postholes? On the other hand, economics come into play…not everyone can spend their career exploring Mayan ruins, as much as they may wish to…

    FYI: In English, plural of elk is “elk”. ;)

  31. #31 Martin R
    September 3, 2010

    In the Antiquity paper, I suggest that excavation teams should welcome volunteer amateur participants.

    Seeds and postholes are often (but not always) paths to fun info about the past.

  32. #32 dogteam
    September 3, 2010

    Seeds and postholes are often (but not always) paths to fun info about the past.

    By all means, yes. It depends on context. I, for one, would happily count post-holes…opportunities for volunteers are too limited and scarce for my taste…

    Love your blog, BTW. Only just starting to look through the archives.

  33. #33 Martin R
    September 3, 2010

    Thanks Dawg! You’re always welcome to toil on my digs.

  34. #34 dogteam
    September 4, 2010

    :)
    Careful, Martin.
    I’ve shown up on peoples doorsteps based on far less than that…
    I would be happy to find more opportunities here at home.
    But I do heartily thank you for the sentiment.

  35. #35 iolitegirl
    September 19, 2010

    Perhaps the suggestion is not merely about leaving the “boring sites” alone. Perhaps it’s an invitation – to old-school archaeologists who pursue this field for any reason but passion – to leave the site?

    And I find the following from your article regarding Swedish laws to be both mesmerizing and disturbing: “Land owners have no rights to finds that others make on their property and there are no trespassing laws.”

    I (harking from the Eastern Woodlands of the US) recently found a lovely matate on the wooded lot just over my property line. Now I am stuck with the task of crafting a tactful letter to the land owner requesting permission to “borrow” the piece for laboratory analysis. Or I could let it sit there, unnoticed by anyone else, for the next 50 years. But that’s just not fun.