Thursday, January 15, 2009

Guest Rant: Archaeology Lists and Bias

Today we have a special treat. Bob Muckle of the Society for Anthropology in the Community College sent out a wonderful rant on their listserve. I asked his permission to post it here. He mentioned something about wanting to correct misspellings and grammar errors but I don't think anyone should let such trivial concerns get in they way of a good rant. Enjoy. (The picture accessory was inspired by subsequent discussion.)

Bob begins now, in blue:

Reviews of 2008 archaeology stories continue, leading to this little bit of a rant. If you aren't interested in archaeology in popular culture, or what I have to say no matter the topic, delete now.

A few weeks ago National Geographic listed the top ten 'most-viewed' archaeology stories. It includes reports on Inka trepanation, the apparent lost city of Paititi in Peru, yet another Egyptian pyramid, a shield that might have belonged to Alexander the Great, a mystery pyramid in Mexico, a warrior tomb in Egypt, the use of Stonehenge as a burial ground, how the ancient Maya caused climate change, how the Great pyramid of Giza may have been built, and the apparent portal to the Maya underworld.

Not unexpectedly, as almost all lists of top discoveries in archaeology are apt to do, they describe stories that tend to appeal to the public's imagination of the things archaeologists do, with a clear bias towards pyramids, well-known civilizations, historical figures, and human biological remains.

Its kind of like watching television news in my opinion. You know..., its only news if there are good visuals. Whenever a really big archaeological news story appears that my students want to talk about, I usually end up telling them something like there are far more significant archaeology projects going on all over the world, but without bodies and weapons and jewellry, and a project director who doesn't know how or doesn't want to play the media, they just don't get the attention outside of academia. And sometimes I can even use those stories to launch into an example of what the scientific significance of discovery reported in the popular media is likely to be as compared to some of the other under-reported projects going on almost in their own backyards.

This morning I was somewhat surprised when I happened upon a story of the six most important archaeological discoveries in China during 2008, as reported in China's People's Daily Online (not that I am a regular reader of Chinese propaganda; nor do I actually have the ability to read any Chinese language). The story was in English. It read, in part "Focus is placed on the scientific value and historical and cultural messages that come with the discovery, as well as on if new concepts and methodologies of archaeological excavation were used." "Wow, that is so unusual to be actually considering scientific significance when reporting on archaeology in the popular media" I thought. But when I looked at the list of six top discoveries, I found that three of the six are burial grounds.

Don't get me wrong. I understand that archaeologists can learn an tremendous amount from human biological remains, and I've excavated and analyzed some myself. I surmise, however, that less than one percent of all archaeology field projects involve the discovery and/or recovery of bodies.

I think that as the media itself is increasingly driving archaeological research, especially that which focuses on things that make good television, archaeologists are going be faced with increasing challenges connvicning people of the value of lithic waste flakes, potsherds, and rusty bits of metal.

Mike Pavlik continued:
I agree - I would further venture that it is a primary responsibility of the intro level instructor to teach that value. Any one who completes a 100 level archy. course should be able to tell you why say, mesoamerican caves with teocinte & pod corn husks are more important, or at least equal to, the temple of the Moon.
(The reponder hasn't, yet, given permission to post his name. I will update as necessary.)
UPDATED to add Mike's name. Thanks, Mike.
BTW. Image Google "archaeology"--first hit is the picture at the top--enough said?

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