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.