My debate piece in Antiquity has proved popular (many people have asked me to send it over, and now I’ve received the journal’s permission to place the paper on-line for free in PDF format) and controversial (several have offered criticism in comments here). Mainly replies seem inspired by the two paragraphs I quoted from the article in my blog entry. Both deal with my opinion that archaeology needs to be fun and popular, because boring archaeology that interests few people is effectively worthless. In the following I will reply to the most interesting comments. To see if I’ve sneakily ignored any good counterarguments, just read through the comments to the original entry.

To begin with, several commenters seem to believe that I recommend that we only dig monuments and richly furnished graves. What I actually said was “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.” So by all means do dig the abode of the poor man. Just make sure it’s a really well-preserved and informative example. And when we’ve dug two dozens of them from the same period and they start to repeat themselves, let’s do something else. (For an example of a scholar who went into a site, was horrified by the mundane boredom of the thing and pulled out ASAP, see my dispatch from Sättuna in Kaga two years ago.)

Another criticism has been that archaeology is neither about fun nor usefulness but about universal intellectual curiosity. This distinction is moot to me: stuff that satisfies my intellectual curiosity without being practically useful is one kind of fun.

Johan: I am curious how to define which archaeological sites are fun [... ] ? 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 disciplines where something useful comes out at the other end. But archaeology is not such a discipline.

Johan: Maybe what is “boring” at one point will turn out to open up new interesting and “fun” pathways in the future.

I’m not suggesting that we should decide today, once and for all, what’s fun. That’s continually renegotiated. But I am certain that the public will never decide that poorly-preserved non-monumental sites are more fun than well-preserved monumental ones. We’re talking diffuse prehistoric cultivation layers with occasional pieces of burnt clay, OK?

Johan: So is archaeology primarily science or entertainment?

It’s one of many sciences whose value lies mainly in their entertainment potential. Nobody needs interstellar astronomy or archaeology. Lots of folks really enjoy both. (They were actually my two main choices when I selected a career track after high school. Many years later I realised that they are just about the two least useful subjects pursued by academics.)

Johan: 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?

Well, they often tell me that they do think it’s fun when they hear me speak about it. That’s probably due to a combination of qualities in myself and in my work. But I could not entertain a crowd for long with talk of diffuse prehistoric cultivation layers with occasional pieces of burnt clay.

Johan: In order to be fun research must align with the norms and values of society. It will become a boring archaeology.

That’s a non sequitur. In my opinion, research that aligns itself with society’s norms and values of fun becomes fun.

Richard: researching near centres of population … introduce[s] artefacts of research bias, which will skew our interpretation of past activities and their distribution.

I mean on the supraregional level. Within the US, for instance, archaeological knowledge of New Jersey is more valuable than that of Wyoming, because hardly anybody’s around to enjoy such knowledge in Wyoming. I’m not suggesting that you should dig in the suburbs of two neighbouring cities and ignore the countryside between them.

Aurnab: We have to do and obviously do Archaeology for finding out our own identity .

I disagree. The people of the past are not us. Knowledge of their identities says nothing about ours. As Richard pointed out, we must resist all attempts to build current sociopolitical units and ethnic identities on archaeology and history. It can never be anything but propaganda. This applies regardless of whether you are a white Westerner or a member of an indigenous people.

Kai: 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

I can’t imagine a situation where such methodological innovation might preferably be carried out at a poorly-preserved non-monumental site. At a stretch I can envision a type of non-monumental site that is fun to study given a certain new methodology – and where there is not a single well-preserved example available. But that seems unlikely to me.

[More about ; .]

Comments

  1. #1 Richard D
    August 31, 2010

    Thanks for the response to my point Martin. That makes it more clear (and methodologically sound)!

    I am glad you wrote the article, it has certainly been the source of an interesting debate (it certainly made me think about what I do).

    The crux of your argument for me is the comment.

    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.

    Which I am fully in agreement with.

  2. #2 Terry Brock
    August 31, 2010

    I think one of the most important things is to make sure that archaeologists figure out ways to make projects that are fun for them fun for others. I find lots of things to be fun that other people don’t find fun, but if I can present it in a creative, thoughtful, and interesting way, those people begin to see how I find it to be fun. This is, I think, one of the most important parts about doing archaeology: how do you present it to the public? How do you make it enjoyable and interesting for the passerby? How can you widen the audience, reach more people, and engage the public in ways that will make your work enjoyable for everybody?

  3. #3 judith weingarten
    August 31, 2010

    “Specialists writing about abstruse subjects for other specialists is fine in disciplines where something useful comes out at the other end. But archaeology is not such a discipline.”

    Very true. Isn’t that why we are blogging, you and I? That’s part of the public fun part and it brings what we do to a wider audience. Off the blogs, I think it would be a little premature to cancel writing for other specialists. At the very least, it wouldn’t be ‘fun’ for us.

  4. #4 Martin R
    August 31, 2010

    I actually blog more for egoistic reasons than to promote and benefit my discipline. I work alone four days a week with stuff that few people take an active interest in. Aard is beyond all comparison the most widely appreciated thing I do.

  5. #5 Sandgroper
    August 31, 2010

    “Aard is beyond all comparison the most widely appreciated thing I do.”

    But is that true? How many people go to look at the sword in the museum? I bet the inevitable outcome of that is that many of them would love to engage with you about it in a down-to-earth and friendly manner.

    You obviously can’t spend your whole life standing next to the sword telling people about it. Maybe Aard is so widely appreciated in part because when people read about archaeology and see artefacts, they develop curiosity about who these strange people called archaeologists are, how they think, how they go about their work and why they do what they do, and Aard satisfies that curiosity – you are no longer just a faceless name on a card full of small print underneath a museum exhibit. You enable people to identify with you and feel some connection and involvement – which I think is very important.

    I think Judith also does this at Zenobia – she lets people feel involved in some way; engaged, not just mute uncomprehending spectators who see only the tip of the iceberg.

    You may do Aard more to get stroked than to promote your discipline, but ultimately I think it amounts to the same thing. People are uplifted by seeing someone who is good at what he does engaged in the process of doing it, and by being able to have a dialogue with that person, even if, as in my case, that dialogue is very one-sided in terms of knowledge and expertise.

  6. #6 Thomas Ivarsson
    September 1, 2010

    As an amateur and outsider I would like to hear the bigger stories that put archeological findings into a perspective.

    Dig up stuff in the ground, write a map of the findings, put the findings into boxes and then write a dry report without putting that into a context will not increase the interest of archeology outside of the group of people that have this as their professional work.

    I have not been interested in the stoneage period before I did hear of interesting place of sacrifices here in the Malmo/Sweden next to the road that I drive on every working day. That finding was published newpaper with an interesting description of how that area have looked like and it was written by a journalist.

  7. #7 TheBrummell
    September 3, 2010

    “I can’t imagine a situation where such methodological innovation might preferably be carried out at a poorly-preserved non-monumental site.”

    I’m not an archaeologist, nor do I have any experience of such work. But I can easily imagine a methodological innovation that increases the data that can be extracted from poorly-preserved and diffuse items, such as the burnt clay chunks in previously-cultivated fields, more typical of poorly-preserved non-monumental sites. A chemical analytical technique, for example, that allows more precise comparison of differences in ages of clay minerals found scattered around a site. You already have techniques to precisely determine ages of things found at a well-preserved site, but I think it would be interesting to learn some more details about a more obscure site that might be nearby.

    Ancient people presumably didn’t spend ALL of their time in the vicinity of what are now monument sites – they did other things, like grow food, tend livestock, and travel around a bit (I assume). What was daily life like outside of festival days at the temple? Advances in chemistry, geology, and other natural sciences must be leading to innovations in archaeological technique that can be fruitfully applied to the previously-boring areas of the discipline.

  8. #8 Martin R
    September 3, 2010

    Yes, new techniques come along all the time. But we can never afford digging the whole surface of the planet. We will always have to choose a small sample of sites for excavation. And it will always be a better strategy to go for the best-preserved members of whatever site category you wish to study.