Originality and Age

I’ve never lived in a house that my family has owned, my entire life we’ve rented our home for whatever tenure of time we were spending there. Before us another family had lived there, and after we left somebody else would move in. But for the period of time that I lived there it was my home and I felt ownership of it. For this reason I take personal issue with a focus in personal culture and history of possession being determined by ‘firsts.’ Who first lived in the house? Who built it? Bought the land that it was on? Popular culture has a misunderstanding of archaeology that whatever is older must be more important.

This misconception can have drastic implications. As we read last week in Ayodhya, Archaeology, and Identity, arguments over primary ownership of land can erupt centuries later, creating violence and heated debate. When the investigation of the Babri Mosque destruction was undertaken there was a large dependence on archaeologists to provide information concerning the original use of the land and the possibility that an important Hindu temple had once stood there. Attempts to condone the violence committed in 1992 by reference to past wrongdoings or disputed entitlement to the land does not excuse modern acts of terrorism. This demonstrates the danger of relying on past ownership. People develop strong emotional connections and cultural identity through history. This reliance on history can help inform modern life, but it can also be used as justification for modern wrongdoing. Therefore the understanding that primary possession is chief cannot only be misleading but also dangerous.

If an archaeologist is not frantically digging in Rome or Egypt attempting to find the first ever toothbrush do they not have any value to modern man?

Store Catalog from 1902. The earliest description of a toothbrush has actually been found in China, dating back to 1600 B.C.

An emphasis on the original can be useful, knowing when a technology first came into use or the development of an object can reveal a lot about post-processual archaeology, investigations into the social classes and roles of individuals in a society. But the implication that if an artifact is not the oldest of its kind or at least from an ancient civilization ignores the significance of countless archaeological discoveries. Archaeology is not, as depicted in the media concentrated on finding the oldest artifacts possible, a single ancient object will not provide the context of an entire civilization and population that existed there previously. Opposed to the depicted treasure hunt, archaeology is more of a puzzle, piecing together the lives of previous societies and carefully documenting and learning from them.

Why does society have the impression that if something is older or original it must have a greater value? In some cultures there is an automatic assumption that age signifies wisdom. Asian cultures give a great reverence to their elders on the basis that their age demonstrates a greater wealth of life experiences. Their importance comes not from mere antiquity, but cumulated knowledge. In Western culture there appears to be an enthrallment with things of great age, evidence that humanity extended through eons, an almost egotistical claim to ancient ancestors. Regardless of where the fascination with originality and age stems from, it can damage understanding of the science of archaeology and how archaeological analogy is constructed.

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