The Dualism of Contemporary Archaeology

Time Team was an amazing programme. It was educational yet accessible, undeniably British and true to its discipline. Really, it was everything one could wish for from a television programme. Beyond the screens, it was just as successful in blasting a hole into the ivory tower of academic archaeology, the programme’s lack of gatekeeping and obfuscation opening a realm previously exclusive to university departments.

In 2006, its presenter claimed Time Team had published more reports on its excavations in the past decade than every university archaeology department combined, whilst criticising the shortcomings of the activity (or somewhat lack thereof) within the academic establishment. From the passion of the assembled historians and archaeologists in each episode, it is not difficult to believe this may have been the case.

Broadcaster politics and the pursuit of demographic ‘relevance’ destroyed this British staple rather swiftly in the early 2010s. In retrospect, it was the last hurrah for British archaeology before it wholly sank into the same cultural strife engulfing the rest of modern academia. However, it would be unwise to discard contemporary archaeological activities as nonchalantly as one might do with the rest of the humanities. Due to its fundamental characteristics, a unique dualism now exists within the discipline which merits some attention.

Readers will likely be able to guess many of the negative consequences contemporary culture has imparted onto academic archaeology, chiefly since they are the same as in other humanities subjects. These are focussed on the interpretations made beyond excavations in published writing, thus in the part of the discipline which is closest to modern history’s general malfunctioning. Both disciplines suffer from a homogenous progressive politics amongst academics, so generally hegemonic outcomes of that sort are all but guaranteed for the foreseeable future.

This renders discussion of certain historical subjects completely taboo, even when the tangible evidence is revealed by archaeologists, lest academics be seen to support a supposedly ‘toxic’ mindset about the past or something similarly in contravention of their worldviews. History is neither a story of progress, nor a proof of progressive values’ precedence and inevitability, but such facts are amongst those ignored by a paradigm of deconstruction.

Perhaps more disturbingly, for people of any political persuasion, archaeology can prove civilisations are not immortal and can fall in a wave of decisive violence in the right conditions. The anonymous archaeologist Stone Age Herbalist covered the flaws of contemporary academic archaeology in greater detail in an article for UnHerd last year, which I certainly recommend.

As for the other side of contemporary archaeology, the discipline remains defined by recovering tangible evidence of the past from nature, in other words a bedrock of empirical objectivity. If one puts aside the declining rigour of historical interpretations, the basic role of an archaeologist remains vital for our understanding of the past and its transmission to future generations. The past archaeologists excavate is less ‘living’ than, for instance, an extant Tudor manor, but is still has ample potential to animate the mind about how our ancestors once lived and contributes a great deal to our verifiable knowledge of history.

A couple of examples worth praising are in order. First, the ancient city of Pompeii should be at least vaguely known to all readers. After all, it is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the world, accompanied by the allure of its dramatic demise to Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. About a third of the city remains unexcavated, but is generally off-limits from further work in favour of extensively conserving previously unearthed buildings.

However, excavations restarted over the last few years in areas last dug over a century ago have brought forth a wealth of new discoveries, and digs on a new insula (city block) to relieve pressure on exposed walls have been widely reported for a fresco depicting something reminiscent of a pizza. The story of Pompeii is only growing richer as a result of this new archaeology. Second, a lot less readers will know about cuneiform, let alone be able to read it. Globally, only a few hundred people can competently translate the oldest known form of writing used by the Sumerians and Akkadians, whereas archaeologists have found some half a million clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform. Digitisation projects in recent years have aided the accessibility of these artefacts, but the scarcity of scholars yet hampers our recovery of that past.

Therefore, a paper published in May discussing a new project to translate Akkadian with neural machine translation might revolutionise our knowledge of ancient Mesopotamia. In essence, it uses similar technology to Google Translate to render Akkadian cuneiform as meaningful English phrases or sentences. Accuracy is far from ideal, as formulaic texts are translated with some skill by the program whereas literary texts are practically out of the question, but the prospect of substantial usefulness in the future exists without making Akkadian scholars redundant.

What does all this tell us? Contemporary archaeology derives an ultimately negative trajectory from its academic overseers, but this is indistinguishable from the rest of academia in the current deconstructive paradigm. Whilst the discipline is buttressed by an inherent tangibility and objectivity which still produces new discoveries, it should not be overlooked when discussing a restoration of academia towards renewed sense. Indeed, such a project will start from a better basis in archaeology than any other subject in the humanities.

I severely doubt archaeologists will begin grinding artefacts into dust which reinforce uncomfortable facts about human nature, but similar effects can be achieved more subtly by the custodial institutions. Archives and museums increasingly see their collections through a far more reductive and essentially monochromatic lens, with all the nuance therein of a medieval executioner by trading in absolutes. These institutions have developed culturally modish tactics to bypass their natural approach to tangible history and enable presentism to abound, removal to storage being the bluntest. One should not need to remind readers how much poorer the world will be in terms of future maintained knowledge the longer this persists.

We are almost lucky contemporary archaeology possesses characteristics that cannot let transient perspectives fully dominate. They may become the only tools left in the humanities to fight the entropies of this age, until such time as we remake the others ourselves.

Photo Credit.

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