Dismantling a Van in the Name of Contemporary Archaeology

Archaeology is commonly associated by the masses with the ancient, intangible, and ultimately “unimportant” past. However, in the field of study known as contemporary archaeology, this could not be further from the truth. Contemporary archaeology “focuses on the most recent (20th and 21st century) past, and also increasingly explores the application of archaeological thinking to the contemporary world” (“Contemporary Archaeology.”). As the real-world applications of this new discipline have become apparent, more and more attention has been paid to this emerging field, such as when Jason De Leon, a professor who researches, among other things, contemporary archaeology at the University of Michigan, won the National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2013 for his work in this field.

The van being excavated.

In 2006, a group of archaeologists from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol explored the potential of contemporary archaeology by performing an archaeological excavation of a Ford Transit Van (Schofield).

Some of the artifacts found during the excavation process.

Over a several month period, researchers Schofield, Bailey, Newland, and Nilsson excavated “three main stratigraphic layers in the rear of the vehicle: a carpet, a plywood lining and the metal body” (Newland). Some of the more unique artifacts discovered during the excavation, “a seventeenth century potsherd, slag, a Victorian threepenny bit, and the types of pencils typically used by archaeologists”, were evidence of the van’s past service as transport for field archaeology projects by the university (Schofield).

They also used forensic methods, such as dusting for fingerprints on the body of the van, to conduct their research (Schofield). This unique form of investigation led to an interesting discovery: no finger prints were found on the body of the vehicle (Moran). When they researched further, it was discovered that this particular model was one of the first in the country to be built solely by robots, thus coinciding with a number of layoffs at a local plant and the increased movement towards automated labor (Moran). This is an interesting example of how contemporary archaeology can reveal patterns in modern society and shed light on their effects

Some fingerprints revealed on the driver’s door.

.We live in a material culture, one which produces a vast amount of waste and puts a large amount of emphasis on the importance of ownership. It follows that because of this, archaeological sites are being mass-produced daily. It seems only logical to use the tools of archaeological inquiry to study our culture to better understand that issues that we face today. The van study was a unique expression of this new area of research and its potential to take archaeology in a radically new direction.

Summer school students visit the excavation site and learn about its significance.


Schofield, John, et al. “THE VAN – Archaeology in Transition.” Archaeolog, 2006, web.archive.org/web/20101007211822/http://traumwerk.stanford.edu:80/archaeolog/2006/08/the_van_archaeology_in_transit.html.

Newland, Cassie, et al. “British.” Feature: British Archaeology 92, January/February 2007 Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, 2007, web.archive.org/web/20110716195349/http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba92/feat2.shtml.

Moran, Joe. “Remains of the Day.” New Statesman, 19 Feb. 2009, www.newstatesman.com/society/2009/02/garden-remains-excavation.

“Contemporary Archaeology.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Aug. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contemporary_archaeology.

Further Readings



The Dangers of Pseudoarchaeology

What do the so-called “theories” about ancient aliens, the Lost City of Atlantis, and eBay postings about “rare Native American art pieces” have in common? Each one of these are products of pseudoarchaeology, a counterfeit version of true archeology whose proponents rely on bias, ignoring accurate scientific methodology and evidence to produce unrealistic ideas about the past. Though it is impossible for archeology to be completely free of bias, those who subscribe to pseudoarchaeology are taking it to a whole new level. More often than not, pseudoarchaeological ideas are produced in the face of the inaccurate interpretation of evidence, such as in the case of the Nebraska Man, a famous example of pseudoarchaeology in which the tooth of an extinct species of peccary found at a dig sight in Nebraska was touted as evidence of a “missing link” in human evolution in North America for several years in the 1920s.

An artistic representation of what the Nebraska man was thought to have looked like.

The tooth that the above drawing was based off of.

Though this particular instance of poor scientific method and pseudoscience may seem more humorous than harmful, the ramifications of this bad science still had adverse effects. Besides hoodwinking a number of professionals, “evidence” of the Nebraska Man was used during the infamous Scopes trial to combat the teaching of evolution in schools. No matter how well intentioned those who endorse pseudoarchaeology may be, the fabrication of a bogus theory based off of scant evidence, as well as using that theory to promote ignorance among the general populace such as in the Scopes trial, is inherently harmful.

As we discussed in class, pseudoarchaeology rears its gruesome head for more instances than just the far-flung, highly publicized bungles like the Nebraska Man. Indeed, this kind of bad science is widely propagated, and even accepted, in everyday life. Misrepresentation of artifacts to fit modern stereotypes of past cultures and peoples, such as selling a broken piece of a common-place object used by Native Americans as an ancient piece of artwork, disenfranchises and creates a racist view of their capabilities.

This is the more sinister side of pseudoarchaeology; bad science aside, it spreads racist sentiments, thereby justifying certain actions that otherwise would not be justifiable. For example, how is it possible that almost 200 years after the Greek government requested it, a large portion of the frieze from the Parthenon, an important piece of Greek cultural heritage which was purchased from the Ottoman Empire in the 1700s by a British archaeologist, has yet to be returned and still resides in the British Museum? How is it possible that stereotypes about African cultures being perpetually less evolved than those of Europe could ever have been propagated when sites such as great Zimbabwe still stand after hundreds and hundreds of years? Pseudoarchaeology will always exist where people are looking for sensationalism or support for their own theories instead of the truth. The best way to combat this is to look to science as a guide and maintain a high level of respect for the people and cultures that we seek to study.

The Elgin Marbles, where they are currently housed I the British Museum.


“Elgin Marbles.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Sept. 2017,   en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elgin_Marbles.

“Creationist Arguments: Nebraska Man.” Creationist Arguments: Nebraska Man, Jim Foley, 30 Apr. 2003, www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/a_nebraska.html.

Forestier, Amadee. Evolution Hoaxes – Nebraska Man. N.d. ThoughtCo. 30 Mar. 2016. Web. 28 Sept. 2017.

Chrisomalis, Stephen. “What Is Pseudoarcheology?” PseudoArchaeology Research Archive (PARA). N.p., 2007. Web. 28 Sept. 2017.

Sánchez, Juan Pablo. “How the Parthenon Lost Its Marbles.” National Geographic. National Geographic Partners, LLC, 28 Mar. 2017. Web. 01 Oct. 2017.

Gregory, William K. “Biographical Memoir of Henry Fairfield Osborn.” (1937): n. pag. National Academy of Sciences. Web. 30 Sept. 2017.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology Essentials. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015. Print.

Further Readings