In order to figure out why archeology is popularly misunderstood, we need to begin our discussion with the primary source of our education about archeology: namely, pop culture.
Human love for entertainment has caused society to pick and choose the aspects of archeology to portray. We love adventure, and we are very much intrigued by the remote past: to us, ancient cultures are mysterious and exotic, simply because their lifestyles were very different from our own. Humans are often not nearly as interested in the “recent past” (let’s say the past century or two) because the system of values put in place during this time is familiar to us. Societies that contradict our worldview are much more interesting: for example, many are shocked by the ancient Mesoamerican practice of human sacrifice. This shocks us and compels our curiosity; the ideas of vast treasure, ancient rituals, and curses thrill us in the same way. Popular portrayals of archeological endeavors will often appeal to this.
A complementary force at work here is our modern tendency to brutalize past cultures in order to separate ourselves from the “less civilized.” We don’t want to believe that the Native Americans that we so insensitively displaced had such advanced cultures. In elementary schools, the histories of the most advanced Pre-Columbian cultures—such as those of Cahokia and Pueblo Bonito—are ignored. For the sake of fostering patriotism, we teach that this land was mostly uninhabited, and that the few who lived here were nomadic teepee-dwellers with little accomplishment to speak of. The archeological discoveries (the monumental structures, advanced trade networks, and splendidly crafted artifacts) that tell us otherwise are pushed out of sight.
Combined, these two forces create a culture that pushes real archeology off to the side, and invites pseudoscientific, entertaining “archeology” to fill that void. What we are left with is the stereotypical, pop-culture based archetype: an adventurer, decked out in khakis, who braves rough terrain and unspeakable perils to dig for the lost treasures of the ancient world. In the fictitious worlds of these brave heroes, the goal of archeology is to search for wealth or mysterious objects and to take them away to a museum for display.
It’s our responsibility to remember that this image is false, and that real archeology is about studying the trends and behavioral processes that set us aside from other species of homo – that construct our identities as human beings. Additionally, archeology almost never involves removing an artifact from its context, or provenience, without careful study of the context (as Indiana Jones’ go-fetch style might suggest); an object outside of its matrix and away from potential associations automatically loses its meaning ( Ashmore).
The uncovered information can then be used to help us reflect on decisions and issues that we encounter during our lifetimes; for example, if we can look at how past cultures dealt with the changing climate, we can make informed decisions about how to deal with climate change now. In other words, archeology brings the lessons of history to light so that we can actually use them.
Side Note: On the way to visit the Ashokan Reservoir this week, we drove on “Clayton Peg Leg Bates Memorial Highway,” and were curious about the man behind the name. It turns out that Mr. Peg Leg Bates was a black man who lost his leg in a cotton gin accident. He turned his tragedy into a blessing, however, and learned to tap dance on his peg leg (which was carved by his uncle, Whitt Bates). He led a career on Broadway. Later in life, he and his wife Alice ran a country club in Kerhonkson (thirty miles from here), hence the memorial highway in this area.