Why Archaeology in 2019?

By: Samantha Sanft, 
Sun, 04/07/2019


In the CIAMS seminar Methods and Approaches in Current Archaeology Professor Sturt Manning asks students: why archaeology in 2019? Below, four CIAMS students (including Annapaola PasseriniRebecca GerdesLi Bai, and Alexandria Albano) respond in op-ed articles.

Don't believe it until you see it: more archaeology for a more honest past

By: Annapaola Passerini

In the era of ‘fake’ news, a pile of potsherds offers a truth universally acknowledged and a cure for the worst cases of pathological lying. People lie, and they do it all the time. And very often, only forensic ‘hard evidence’ can unmask the big fat lies that would otherwise let a criminal walk away, or obscure the truth behind national scandals. Likewise archaeologists act as the forensic guardians of the human past. Whether shoveling dirt out of a Roman house, or sifting ground from the bottom of a prehistoric cave, we are all essentially doing one thing: we look at stuff. Old stuff. But stuff nonetheless. And, most of the time, that stuff is garbage.

Shit and rubbish — yes, the key to archaeology and understanding of the human past— lie at the center of archaeological analysis. Forget about mysterious lost cities, exotic trips, and maps to hidden golden treasures. Rather, broken pots, metal slags, and dirty floors are more likely what gets delivered to our cluttered desks. Not only can we tell a lot about people from what they intentionally or unintentionally throw away, but we can also revitalize forgotten pages of the human past from the bottom of their garbage cans.

A great part of human history has been uncovered through information found in ancient chronicles and written sources. However, no matter how extraordinary and detailed these historical archives may be, they will always tragically dismiss the unwritten past. Who are we? Where do we come from? Why do we do what we do? The answers to these questions go a long way back before the invention of writing could provide us with a record of some of the most remote, yet fundamental turnovers in human society. For example, the beginning of farming in what is now the Middle East. Archaeological evidence reveled how cereals and dairy products that normally constitute our breakfast meal are the result of a long-term process of experimentation with the plant and animal world, which began around 10,000 years ago in this region. Nowadays, food industry is a global phenomenon, one that not only sustains a good portion of nations’ economy, but also traps consumers in the controversies of third-world exploitation and ecological ethics dictated by the massive growth of food production.

Such events would have remained unknown without the human, animal, and plant remains that are documented and collected by archaeologists according to their forensic protocols. This special relationship with the material dimension of human life grants archaeology a special moral role with regard to the creation of ‘facts’ and historical representation. Although historical accounts often present attractive versions of events, only those events that passed the writers’ filter survive—thus making for ‘no news’, or ‘edited news’. Archaeological remains, on the other hand, are an honest byproduct of all the activities involved in the regular functioning of a social group. This is also the reason why archaeology can provide a more authentic insight into the ‘ordinary’ lives of people in the past. Visitors interested in knowing how the ancient Romans organized their domestic space, baked their bread, and spent their free time can, for instance, find an authentic snapshot of daily life at Pompeii—the famous city located near Naples that was buried under the volcanic ash of Vesuvius in 79 AD. We, as humans, care about these ruins because we may recognize ourselves in those walls and floors, and can call daily objects by familiar names.

As for ‘fake news’, the application of archaeological methods to historical periods—that is, accompanied by written documentation—brought about revelations regarding the life of underrepresented minorities and inaccurate assumptions on gender roles in ancient societies. However, while the material evidence carries its own unedited story, archaeological practice also warns us against the risk of misinterpretation as a result of methodological inadequacy, ideological biases, or, more simply, honest mistakes. Self-correction and understanding are the most important tools in the archaeologist’s profession, and caution us against radical forms of evidence-based manipulation that may justify dangerous political and social agendas. Nazi Germany represents one of such radical examples of the politicization of archaeological evidence and similar projects continue to persist in the rhetoric of militarized powers even today.

The good news is that no lie lives forever and, as archaeologists, we can trust in our ability to pull back from our claims when the evidence proves otherwise. The society of today is fundamentally a skeptic one, constantly questioning official versions of the ‘truth’ and stressing over the acceptance of ‘alternative’ explanations on the basis of supposed ‘facts’. Archaeology can teach us ways to cope with this skepticism, defeat the anxiety of choosing between contrasting versions of reality, and, hopefully, guide us towards an honest present through an honest past.

Globalization is older than you think

By: Rebecca Gerdes

When 13-year-old Alexandria Villasenor started skipping school in December 2018 to protest for drastic action on climate change, she sat alone with her signs outside UN headquarters. On Friday March 15, Villasenor will be leading thousands of teenagers across the world in a strike for the climate. In a few short months, Villasenor’s solo protest has grown into a global movement through the power of the Internet, social media, and kids motivated for a better future. The growth of the Youth Climate Strike movement is a poster child for the unprecedented globalization we’re living with today.

But is it really so unprecedented? Today, the same global social networks that enable worldwide protest movements are allowing archaeologists from across the world to work together to study long-distance integration in the past. What they’re finding is that globalization might be a lot bigger and older than we give it credit for. For example, nearly 1500 years before Christopher Columbus set off to find a western route to the ‘Indies,’ the Roman Empire was already involved in a vibrant Indian Ocean spice trade through Egypt. Archaeological excavations have found black pepper, which was only produced in India at the time, in a sewer in Herculaneum (Italy) and in the ancient Roman and pre-Roman port of Berenike on the Egyptian coast of the Red Sea. It’s even thought that connections between Egypt and India may stretch far back before the Romans into Egypt’s Pharaonic period.

Just as the Youth Climate Strike is using today’s connectivity to challenge global opinions and policies on climate change, archaeologists have been digging up evidence for connectivity that challenges widespread opinions about the balance of power in the past. For example, it’s widely believed that Europe was the center of the story of globalization, but was that really true? Archaeologists studying periods before the ‘Age of Exploration’ that began in the 15th century suggest that history has overemphasized the West and underemphasized Asia and Africa in the shaping of today’s global networks. In his recent book By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia, British archaeologist Sir Barry Cunliffe points out that in the 10,000-year history of Eurasia, Europe is a fairly small peninsula on a huge continent, and it actually received second-hand many of the biggest technological innovations of the past, including farming and metal-working.

Today, archaeologists are building on globalization in the present to continue to expand our understanding of globalization in the past. The FLAME (Flow of Metal Across Eurasia) Project, is a collaborative project led by the University of Oxford and incorporates researchers from universities and museums in Germany, Russia, and China. They’re exploring how metals and knowledge about metalworking developed across Eurasia during the Bronze and Iron Ages. Ancient geneticists who study the global rise of agriculture are finding links in the genetic histories of plants and animals across Eurasia, between Asia and Africa, and between South and Central America. Even as our ancestors were developing what we now recognize today as agriculture, the knowledge, technology, and foods that would revolutionize the globe through farming seem to have traveled long distances in the process.

In his 1991 book The Consequences of Modernity, sociologist Anthony Giddens defined globalization as “the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away.” On March 15, Alexandria Villasenor and the Youth Climate Strike will demonstrate the power of globalization for today when they gather in cities worldwide to demand radical action on climate change. But globalization for today is also allowing archaeologists to explore the power of globalization in our past and the hidden ways it might have shaped our present. As we seek to chart our future as a globalized world, archaeology offers a powerful and essential way to use today’s globalization to reexamine our assumptions about the who, what, where, when, and how of our connected world.


Archaeology as a mirror

By: Li Bai

“Use history as a mirror, you can see the ups and downs of an empire; use people as mirror, you see the gain and lost.”

--- Old Book of Tang

Why are we looking at ruins and remains from the past? Don’t we have a more urgent agenda to solve: problems like climate change and the refugee ‘crisis’? What makes people ask these questions? People ask these questions because it seems like archaeology can’t provide solutions to a better future, or solutions that are not as efficient as sciences, technology and policies provide. What if archaeology does help us to solve problems and crisis?

In this era of bigotry, archaeology helps us understand the past. In the past few hundred years, exchanges among continents have been more frequent than ever. But the contact did not necessarily bring peace to the people who involved in post-industrial globalization. Conflicts and wars broke out not just for plundering resources, but also for dominating the ideological front and securing hegemony. Too often that bigotry rose from circumstances where people were confronting ‘the different’, the new ideologies and new ways of life. People are different, and it is the past that shapes who we are today. By uncovering the past, archaeology explains why we are different and helps us to understand the different pasts which history books haven’t covered well enough. We need archaeology because we need more understanding. Understanding of the past: both of ourselves and others. Being a foreign student, though I’m surrounded by educated college students, there were times when I wish people knew more about the past of where I come from, and this would also make me more open to learn about the past valued by other people. Afterall, bigotry would not exist without the fear toward differences and nothing feels better than being understood.

In this era of materialism, archaeology values the ‘unimportant’ things. Archaeologists are not just looking for shiny stuff, they are searching for clues that stitch the development of history together - both human and natural history. By studying archaeology, students learn about valuable, meaningful and overlooked facts of human society which mainstream history has ignored. And such study often inspires further investigation of history and humanity beyond those glorified legends and imposing monuments. For example, from a piece of 19th century mason jar, one can learn about the history of food storage and patent laws. Or, the dirt from an ancient garden can tell us what the ideal living environment was in the past, and how was it maintained. History can be selective and biased, but archaeological findings speak for a broader truth.

In this era of environmental crisis, archaeology generates new ideas to help build a more sustainable world. Yes, archaeologists are not only dealing with the ‘old stuff’, every excavation brings new knowledge to archaeology and its related fields. Archeologists are uncovering an abundant source of wisdom. One might think of old techniques as outdated, but as a designer, I often find ancient constructions inspiring. For example, without a ‘green building guide’ or a claim of being sustainable, the ancient Chinese controlled floods by placing regional-scale hydro-conservancy mechanisms built adaptively to the natural topography on a delta plain, and the system is still functioning. While we tend to think of design as a modern profession, archaeology casts light on the mentality behind ancient constructions: how the city fabric was woven, how the expansion of a town was planned, why a tomb is facing a certain direction. While today’s architects tend to walk away from their projects after implementation leaving no room for users’ experience and improvement, the blurry boundary between users and designers in the past reminds us of the potentials in changing the workflow of today’s design industry. Archaeology inspires, artists, designers, engineers and scientists... no matter what you do, there is always an ancient equivalent, and one can always learn from reviewing the past.

The benefits of doing archaeology are not limited to the above reasons. Studying archaeology itself has taught me a lot. As a tool of learning and understanding, or a method of researching, it provides me a new way of discovering. Unlike design as a universal practice, archaeology, particularly post-processualism archaeology, approaches history from different perspectives and initiates many thoughtful discussions as we try to define the meaning of Anthropocene.

A continually evolving discipline that connects the past to the present

By: Alexandria Albano

Archaeology is critical to better understanding the past and the present, and should be promoted to enlighten and teach individuals about our very different societies. Archaeology itself is far from perfect, it too suffered from an imperialist/colonialist past, but recognizing this and correcting this is an important educational process.

When one thinks about archaeology, ancient Egypt and King Tutankhamun often come to mind. The western world taking such material is the unfortunate aftermath. Famous Egyptian archaeologist, Dr. Zahi Hawass, recently affirmed that the objects from King Tutankhamun’s tomb on tour in Los Angeles are the last of King Tutankhamun’s objects to travel outside of Egypt. To celebrate the 100th year of the finding of his tomb in 1922, these objects are embarking on their final few years of world touring, before returning to Egypt where they will be placed on permanent display at the new museum opening soon in Cairo: the Grand Egyptian Museum.

This decision shows more respect to the artifacts and may help amend past mistakes where the western world often just took. Today archaeologists and people who are from the country of origin should express their voices with handling these items. Tutankhamun should stay in Egypt where he belongs.

This king’s tomb has also been in the public’s attention. Last month, the tomb was fully reopened after being partially closed for nearly a decade in hopes of conserving it and fixing damage by decades of tourism. The fame associated with Tutankhamun’s tomb since 1922 has had a very negative effect on the tomb itself: the huge numbers of visitors damaged its fabric through carbon dioxide from breathing, moisture exposure, and scratches and bumps.

As a result, conservation efforts were implemented by Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities and the Getty Conservation Institute that allowed the tomb to remain partially open, so visitors could still visit. After being reopened completely, improved signs, lights, walkways and an updated air filtration system were added. This help the safety of both the visitors and the tomb.

Although many of the objects are housed elsewhere, some are in the tomb like Tutankhamun’s mummy, his sarcophagus, his wooden outer coffin and wall depictions. In this discipline’s past, recovered objects were often removed from their original locations and taken to different countries. Although being able to see artifacts in person at museums is educational and an amazing experience for people who haven’t had the luxury to travel far, the morality is questionable.

Archaeology is a field that can affect and connect many other areas of human life as well the economy of tourism, linking the past to the present.

Throughout the years, archaeology has also connected other disciplines such as sciences with history and anthropology through project collaborations. In the case of King Tutankhamun’s tomb which was originally found by an Egyptologist, archaeological scientists and conservators now also play a role as well as tourists, security guards, etc.... Each discipline brings different strengths to the table and collaboration allows for more dialogue and more knowledge.

To me, archaeology is one of the few fields that can relate to all individuals. There is a unique past and history tied to each person, family, community, nation and country. Archaeology can allow for insights into these pasts through the examination of the physical objects themselves. Therefore, archaeology as a field is beneficial to everyone. Yes, history can also retell the past, but I argue that archaeology plays a more intimate role through the very interaction between archaeologists and the objects used in the past – by rich and poor, adults and children, women and men. It does not require written text, and so reaches further into the past than before the written word. Archaeology is important for better understanding humanity as a whole.

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