Stop Saying “Archaeology is actually boring”

I understand the temptation. You want to show the mundane, you feel that there is too much Hollywood glamor attached to the profession. So you begin your article, or your Introduction to Archaeology course, or public lecture with some variation of the following:

I know you all think that archaeology is all whips and snakes, Indiana Jones, and Lara Croft, but it is actually a set of methods that can involve long, boring episodes in the lab, counting things, and general tedium.

STOP. Stop this now. Take it out of your lexicon. Not only is it one of the most lazy, overused introduction strategies, but it actively works against the profession and is terribly bad form in science education.

When archaeologists introduce their work with this cliché, they are attempting one of two things:

1) They are trying to tell their audience that their work is actually Very Important and Very Scientific. You do not need to contrast this with Indiana Jones’ breaking-and-entering approach, you can relate it through your enthusiasm for the science.

DO: “Let me tell you about the magic of Lidar and what it is doing to change everything we know about the archaeological landscape of Brazil.”

2) They are thinking that they can tap into a pop-culture figure as a way to relate to their audience. This is fine, and can be done in interesting ways. But to contrast you and your work with this character in an effort to disabuse your audience of romantic notions of the field, and, further, to offer extreme examples from your graduate career of the 100,000 obsidian flakes that you counted as some kind of badge of honor is wrong-headed.

You are not telling people that archaeology is boring, you are telling them that YOU are boring. Can you imagine a job talk starting with, “Well, I know that you think that the analysis of Bronze Age pottery from the Aegean is all rockstar magic and crazy Octopus eyes, but let me tell you how absolutely soul-sucking it truly is.”

DO: “While digging in Belize I found a vast, incredibly rich cache of obsidian flakes, but the true revelations came in the lab when I looked at them under a microscope.”

Show your excitement, show your enthusiasm, don’t patronize your audience by denigrating their passion for YOUR field. Don’t be blasé in some sort of effort to show how “over it” you are as a big, important archaeologist. Worse, don’t show your deep insecurity or ambivalence about the relevance of your work. If you hate your research topic, it kinda shows. Talk about an aspect of it that you find truly fascinating. By this I am not saying to hide the tedious bits. By all means, after you tell your audience how exciting and important your work is, highlight how your results were supported by sorting 600kg of oyster shell in a museum basement.

As more and more archaeologists become involved in science communication, whether by blogging, or television, or public lectures we cannot have the same failures over and over (and over) again. By calling archaeology boring you are not serving an important function in rectifying pop-culture. You are not imbuing your work with some kind of scientific importance. You are not showing a reaction against positivism with your post-modern indifference. You are stealing the limelight from the parts of your research that are absolutely fascinating. You are diminishing the reasons you became an archaeologist, and the reasons that you are compelled to tell people the story of your research.

Tell me what you do and why it is important.

The New Gig: EUROTAST

Two of the research fellows in the EUROTAST project, looking at samples in the lab at the University of Bristol.

Last December I had the immense good fortune to join the Archaeology Department at the University of York as a EUROTAST Marie Curie Research Postdoctoral Fellow. I’ve been finding my legs in my new job for the last few months, getting the required equipment, and generally settling in. In practical terms, the position is familiar territory for me—digital media and public outreach—but the subject matter is a radical shift: new scientific methods of investigating the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

While my first excavation investigated the home of formerly enslaved Dallas residents, with Dr. Maria Franklin at the University of Texas, and I have worked on historically disadvantaged and enslaved populations since that time, it was not my major research focus. Also, I understood (to a certain extent) the developments in archaeometry of the last decade, but the specifics were a gloss: I put the sample in a bag and sent it to a specialist who dealt with it.

It has been incredibly eye-opening both in terms of the vast wealth of information that DNA and isotopic analyses has to offer in archaeological research and the emotional toll of studying what can only be described as one of the most tragic chapters in history: the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

(After I finished that last sentence, I sat and looked at it for ten minutes. The TAST takes all the words away.)

So. While my postdoc is incredibly amazing—I heard that it was called the “unicorns and rainbows job”—there is…this. How do I digitally remediate difficult heritage? What considerations do I take when I disseminate research on this incredibly sensitive topic, heritage that hurts? There’s also contending with the rather large new body of literature. I find this a benefit, as it provides an outside perspective that is valuable in outreach in demonstrating the interest and vitality of a subject that feels tedious to a long-term expert in the subject. Anyway, I’ve taken to calling my new job digital heritage on hard mode.

Finally, it is fantastic being at the University of York. There’s great momentum in the Archaeology department and beyond, with the Centre for Digital Heritage, the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past, and the presence of top researchers who are willing to try new things. And we do have some delights in store.

A-Z Archaeology Films: The Antikythera Mechanism: Decoding an Ancient Greek Mystery

Title: The Antikythera Mechanism: Decoding an Ancient Greek Mystery
Year: 
2008
Length: 14 minutes 
Made by:
  McMillian Publishers Ltd. 
Genre:
 expository 
Authors:
Martin Freeth worked for the BBC, but is now producing short documentary films for Nature and the British Medical Journal as well as corporate clients.

Sadly, the video seems to be broken on The Archaeology Channel, so I watched it at this slightly disturbingly named website:

https://shootingpeople.org/watch/54489/the-antikythera-mechanism-decoding-an-a

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Nothing like starting your film with a citation. So this film appears to be an overview of an article about…you guessed it…The Antikythera Mechanism in Nature. Cool.

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Oooh, nice CG of whirly clockwork things inside the mechanism. Nature must have a capital-B Budget. Of course they do! And the the professional narrator tells us that the video is timely–it tells us about the time table for the earliest Olympics.

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Possibly a relation of Martin Freeth, our filmmaker? Anyway, Tony is one of the authors of the paper, and according to his website, a mathematician and filmmaker.

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No beards yet, but just LOOK at this photo of Derek de Solla Price. The very soul of an academic. He’s a physicist, by the way. So far we have an astronomer (Mike Edmunds, a mathematician and a physicist checking this thing out. Anyway, de Solla Price figured out the basics of how the mechanism worked, but now we have…BIGGER AND BETTER SCIENCE!

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I bet you wish you had a forklift-load of Science. I certainly do. It’s an 8 ton x-ray machine that they brought to Athens to get high-rez data of the mechanism.

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The images that the x-ray produced “provide the basis for many of our revelations.” Heeeey, visualization in action!

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Tony Freeth sits with an engineer of medieval clocks and they explain the dials to us. There’s an eclipse predictor, a moon phase calculator, and the Olympiad dial shows which games are going on that year.

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We are told that the elderly clockmaker (Don Unmin?) will produce a reproduction, but I wasn’t able to find anything about it online.

The Antikythera Mechanism, as an impossibly old, incredibly complicated bit of gear-filled wonder, brings out both the hardcore scientists and the lunatic fringe  for theories about the thing. As such it is fantastic to have a video as an exact explanation of what it is, how we know what it is, and how it works. Would that more journal articles would have accompanying videos that show how the written results came to be. This video shows the interdisciplinary nature of research and how incredible things can happen when you bring together different academic fields, technology, and ancient artifacts. Oh, and large wads of cash.

5/5 – Movies about complicated peer-reviewed articles that also debunk theories about aliens and time travelers and show how ancient people did amazing stuff without extraterrestrial help get full marks from me.

Beard count: 0, zilch. No archaeologists featured. But it was full of older white dudes, natch.

BONUS:

Here is the Antikythera Mechanism…in LEGO.

EUScreen: A treasure trove of multinational archaeology film

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A film from 1957, simply titled “Excavation”

I was recommended EUScreen at a meeting, but I’ve only just now had time to check it out. I was happily surprised at the huge amount of archaeology videos they have.

A simple search for archaeology yields 167 films! Here are a few:

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3000 year old coffin found in Jutland, 1939

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Excavations at Paestum in Italy, 1957

 

A-Z Archaeology Films: The Anglo-American Project in Pompeii

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Dude…nice tiger!

Title: The Anglo-American Project in Pompeii
Year: 
2002
Length: 8 minutes
Made by:
 Black Cat Productions
Genre:
 expository
Authors: 
Arthur and Jennifer Stephens are archaeological photographers.

Glum pan-pipes, and then BANG, we’re in. A flat-voiced narrator tells us straight up, no hesitation, that Pompeii dates from the 6th century BC–we get apprised of the conquerers, the Romans, the population. It is truly the robotic almanac of narration. I hope you are taking notes, this will be on the pop quiz after the film.

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The sinister peak of Mount Vesuvius, lurking in the background.

We are introduced to the Anglo American Project in Pompeii director, Dr. Rick Jones, who is white, as billed. Beard count so far: 1.

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There’s some other guy, but you can tell he doesn’t matter as much because he’s sitting on the floor and filmed at a subordinate azimuth. Don’t worry about the lady in the background, she’s not important in the slightest.

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We get to hear about the lofty excavation goals, somehow transmitted through this illegible plan:

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They plan to study an entire city block! Okay, that’s pretty cool. And they have a field school…oh holy crap that’s a lot of students:

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So we are introduced to the block of Pompeii they’ll be studying. There are bars, houses, a communal fountain, an inn…man those folks are spoiled. So much to look at! Such fantastic preservation! So what are they going to dig?

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A possibly modern ramp.

Okay, fair enough, I know we can’t all dig the gold-trimmed bathhouses of the world. This is the kind of task that I’m familiar with. Eighty-year-old toilet? I’m on it. Actually this ramp would be older than that toilet if it was built during the excavations in the 1860s. FML.

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The other excavation area is of a pilaster and down pipe that could lead to a cistern that could be used for water storage or a cesspit.

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Beard count: 2. I never understand why people wear shorts on excavations.

Spoiler alert: the mystery feature turns out to be a cesspit:

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Kinda unsurprisingly, as there was a toilet on the other side of the wall, as they now disclose. Intense infrared video footage confirms that the two connect. This is archaeological magic, y’all.

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Let’s go looking for treasure! First, the make-shift tools:

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PROTIP: If you have to modify your tools like this, you are probably doing something unsafe. And you will probably hurt your back.

(I would also like to mention here that the glum music is still going, making this the most depressing tale of archaeological discovery ever)

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OH GOOD LORD. At least they are wearing hard hats? And not 70s speedo-stylee archaeology?

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Nice drain though. And we hear about the finds that came out of the drain and we get to see them as they came out of the dirt and the more official lab photos:

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Then we are taken through the various artifact types and the specialists (women, mostly) clean, sort, and analyze the finds.

Overall, the Anglo-American Project in Pompeii does a good job showing the research goals of an excavation, and the execution of these goals, and the conclusions and future questions that arise from such a project. It was well filmed, and the videographers did a good job creating the site narrative and collecting appropriate footage. This is harder than it seems.

Yet the video also reproduces the man-as-digger-and-director and women doing all the household chores of archaeology–they had 60 students and 40 staff on site and we get to see two half-naked dudes in a trench digging a toilet. Where was everyone else? The single voice of the narrator removed all dissenting views and alternate experiences and interpretations. It makes me wonder who they thought the audience was? Government officials? Funders?

Beard count: 2
Beer belly count: 2
Overall: 4/5

Podcasts of Note

Visualising Radio Pop - Tristan Ferne

Visualising Radio Pop – Tristan Ferne

As my bitter rivals in the Archaeologists’ fitbit group (join us!) can attest, I usually walk a few miles a day. While I listen to a lot of music while I write, I let podcasts transport me across the landscape. They’re my television, I suppose. Back in 2010 I recommended a couple of Archaeology Podcasts, and the field has grown considerably since then, but I draw interest and inspiration from other topics.

So, my favorites:

New Yorker: Fiction – These are authors who have published in the New Yorker discussing the short stories of other authors. There is a long prelude and sometimes a long discussion afterwards that talk about the author’s life and the meaning of the story. These can sometimes grate, sadly. Still, I love reading the short stories in the New Yorker and the podcasts are a welcome jolt of incredibly good writing. They’re only uploaded once a month though, so I try to save it for a time when I can listen to it straight through on longer walks & bus rides.

AnthroPod – A newish podcast from the Society for Cultural Anthropologists with very pithy, involved conversations between anthropologists about their research. Particular favorite was John Hartigan on Race, Genomics, and Biology and Michael Fisch on Tokyo Commuter Train Suicides.

Thinking Allowed – A slightly quirky sociology podcast with Laurie Taylor that explores current research articles, generally bringing in the authors of the publications. Can be overly folksy and pseudo-populist, but I like the update about what is going on in one of our sister-disciplines.

This American Life - Yes, I am a member of the cult-like following of this show. For non-Americans, it has a lot of stories that are not necessarily American-specific. If I could only listen to one podcast, this would be it. Good thing there are over 500 episodes.

Radiolab – A broadly-conceived science podcast that follows interesting stories with odd resonance. They also do a lot of overtly reflexive audio editing, which you don’t see very often–compare with Jai Paul’s str8 outta mumbai. They broadcast a mix of in-depth hour-long podcasts with 20-30 minute “shorts” that can be less formal.

Fun stuff:

Escape Pod – Speculative fiction short stories of all stripes–so much so that sometimes they get complaints that the story isn’t actually Science Fiction. One example is The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu, a lovely story steeped in Chinese culture about origami that comes to life. I’m often jealous of the stories, able to describe human interaction and possible realities better than any archaeologist or anthropologist I’ve ever read.

PodCastle – A companion podcast to Escape Pod that I only recently started listening to. The quality, to my ears, is a little bit mixed, but I enjoyed The Calendar of Saints, which is an incense-laden homage to Catholicism and a lady with a sword.

Friday Night Comedy – Dan and I like listening to this political comedy show while we’re cooking dinner. It is, in my opinion, a pale shadow of The Daily Show, but keeps me relatively up-to-date with British politics. May be slightly indecipherable if you don’t live in the UK.

Honorable mentions:

These are podcasts that I’ve downloaded with the intention of listening to them, but haven’t quite gotten to them, or have only listened to a couple of episodes: Welcome to Night Vale, On the Media, Material World, The Heritage Podcast, and From Our Own Correspondent.

In the Manor of Kings: a walk

It starts out among tightly-packed terraced houses that are built right up to the sidewalk. They’re all painted white on the front and I’ve learned to looked at the doors as I pass by. Red one, wooden one, blue, window on top, white–a solid wall of dwelling only punctuated by a single door and window for each house. The windows look directly into the front rooms, and sometimes you are startled by a person, standing a foot away, directly at eye level. It feels like an invasion, so I don’t look at the windows, just the doors. From the top my neighborhood looks like tangled zippers, long blocks of two-up, two-down dwellings (in America, a house is a free-standing structure; in England it just means that you have stairs and so therefore it is not a flat) that were built for workers.

My walk then takes me down a busy street that reeks of diesel fumes, and past a stately pub that was once a train station. It is red, red sandstone and brick, and would be the prize of any city on the midwestern plains in the States. Here, it is slightly shambolic and has a pub-manager-wanted sign covering the entryway. But then I climb up into the neighborhoods, and I watch a crazy mixture of concrete, asphalt, paving stones, tile, cobblestones, and blue iron furnace slag pavers that remind me of Puerto Rico pass beneath by feet.

Up and over the railway bridge. I’m just barely too short to see over the walls, but if I jump, I can get a glimpse of the fat ribbons of railways and yellow and blue trains beneath my feet. If there is a train thundering past, the whole bridge shakes a little bit. This may be why so many people seem to get sick on the bridge. It’s hard to say, but the evidence remains when I walk by in the morning.

At the other end of the bridge there is a dedicated pedestrian/cyclist lane that wends through industrial yards and parking lots and goes behind the train station, and is probably more presentable in the summertime. But at the moment it is bare, and stark, and I pass this stretch by concentrating on whatever is playing on my headphones, and looking at the red-pink painted wall that sometimes has graffiti. The courses on the wall are slightly strange, and I think that maybe the brick has been recycled, alternating courses of soft-ish rounded bricks, and crisp, smaller, squared-off bricks. I could probably find out, but I let my brain meander through the archaeological steps each time anyway.

I pass through a long, white-tiled tunnel, under the train tracks this time. I like the over and under and through of my commute, the varied terrain, weaving through the brick and steel industrial background toward the soft stone heart of the city. My walk takes me past a lot full of sturdy red Royal Mail bicycles–I occasionally see a postal worker take off, panniers fat with mail, and I am delighted every time.

I walk over the Ouse, which I always spell out (and probably pronounce) as the Oooooze, and in the wintertime it is flat and brown and disrespectful of its banks. The center of the river is at a constant, slow-motion simmer, making flat circles that blend and fade and reemerge to break the surface. When the Oooooze becomes too threatening, gates go up that block all the walkways to the center of town, and a line of pedestrians forms, boosting bags and bikes and each other over the barriers.

The walk shifts abruptly when I turn away from the river, with the precinct walls of the ruined St Mary’s Abbey rising on the right. Through the gates and into a garden with small green hills, where I walk through the broken arch of St. Mary’s. There are frost-rimed squirrels that lazily bob about, but it is usually too early for many tourists. Even a non-archaeologist would see that the area is ripe with archaeology, jagged walls coming out of the ground, bits of discarded stonework lining the gardens.

I walk alongside the museum, past a crumpled Roman tower, and up and around to the gates of King’s Manor. They’ve just redone the crest above the door and it is gilded and glorious.

And this is where I work.