A Cautionary Tale

Heinrich Schliemann.  Few have given and simultaneously taken so much away from a field of study.  Today Schliemann is best known for being the man who found the likely site of the previously assumed mythical city of Troy, the very same city that was supposedly besieged for ten years by Aegean warriors led by Agamemnon, the city that saw the death of Hector and Achilles and was burnt to the ground after accepting a inconspicuous wooden horse into its walls.  The very mention of its name conjures up images of a time when gods spoke to men and a species of heroes fought to the death for glory.  And this man, Schliemann, is the one who found the city Homer sang about, and what a magnificent find it is.  If only Heinrich Schliemann weren’t also the man who destroyed it.

Sophia Schliemann wearing "The Jewels of Helen"

Sophia Schliemann wearing “The Jewels of Helen”

To modern archaeologists, Schliemann serves as more of a cautionary tale than anything else.  His overly ambitious attitude in the Troy and other digs exemplify a disposition that seeks to confirm preconceived notions about the past rather than discover what the evidence actually suggests, one that desires treasure, fame, and a compelling narrative more than anything else.  Having set out with the intent to find the city of Priam in all the glory Homer lends it, Schliemann became unable to see anything as he dug into the hill known as Hisarlik but gold.  Indeed, he dug and dug, destroying the stratified ruins of many past Troys until he came upon a layer he deemed acceptable of the name.  The Troy he took to be the one of legend (today referred to as Troy II) shows evidence of a fire and contained “Priam’s Treasure” including the “Jewels of Helen.”  As would later be discovered, Troy II also happened to flourish about 1000 years before the Trojan War supposedly happened, meaning the remains of Homer’s Troy were likely largely destroyed by the spades of Schliemann.  (Fields 10)

The many Troys at Hisarlik

The many Troys at Hisarlik

Broadly, the story of Schliemann can be used to highlight particular challenges faced by archaeologists if impartiality is to be preserved.  Schliemann was a product of a culture that revered classical Greece perhaps excessively.  Without any reverence for the history of the site beyond his narrow interpretation of its importance, he not only failed to find the information he sought, but also disregarded and disrespected the millennia of civilizations that existed on that hill in Turkey.  Regardless towards whether or not Hisarlik is the location of Troy in actuality, the sheer volume of material evidence found in it is large enough to be invaluable to a study of past cultures of the region.  But as far as Schliemann was concerned, there was nothing of importance there that wasn’t related to one ancient Greek myth, ironically causing him to ignore the only layer of the site that possibly could be related to it.  His story should serve as a lesson to all archaeologists: Don’t allow biased expectations get in the way of what the evidence suggests.


Further Reading

  • Fields, Nic.  Troy c. 1700-1250.  Osprey Publishing.  Oxford, UK.  2004.
  • Wood, Micheal.  In Search of the Trojan War.  University of California Press.  Berkley and Los Angeles, California.  1998.


The Evolution of Archaeology

When you think of archaeology, what comes to mind—treasure, gold, ancient mummies, lost civilizations? While this is not what modern archaeology is (despite the many stereotypes surrounding the field), it is how archaeology began. Evolving from both curiosity and greed, archaeology has blossomed, though only recently in the 19th century, into a widespread discipline of discovering and preserving the past. Thus, compared to most scientific fields, archaeology is still relatively young and developing.

Before the Renaissances of the 14th-17th centuries, there was little interest in learning about the past. People, like the Romans, were only interested in collecting artifacts or finding treasure. During the time of the Roman Empire, regions in the Mediterranean were looted and destroyed in search of artifacts to beautify palaces. However, as more discoveries were made, some wanted to look past monetary values and learn about the past cultures. For example, in the 15th century B.C., King Thutmose IV of Egypt ordered the excavation and restoration of the Great Sphinx. Once completed, he left a stone tablet, known as the Dream Stele, so that others could understand and learn from his discovery. This as well as other excavations set the groundwork for what would eventually become archaeological research.

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However, as the number of archaeological finds grew, so did the number of interpretations of past. Evidence began to disprove the long-held view of the Old Testament creation story. However, disliking this, most simply ignored evidence that was brought to light. It was not until Charles Lyell’s work (about TWO centuries later) that the theological view of creation was successfully rejected. Lyell proposed the theory of uniformitarianism, stating that the processes in place today are the same ones from the past. Along with Lyell’s theory, human tools, dating back from far longer than 6,000 years (the estimated age of earth according to the Old Testament), were discovered with extinct animals. With that, the search for link between the past and present civilization of Europe began.

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By the 19th century, archaeology was becoming a professional discipline. People became full-time archaeologists, using facts rather than speculation to understand the past. Archaeologists began using models to put together puzzle pieces of the past. The first well-known model was the three-age system—the belief that civilizations developed gradually through the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. However, this model could not be applied to the Americas (which lacked historical record). Thus, archaeologists began using the unilinear cultural evolution model—which stated that civilizations were barbaric before transforming into a civilization. Yet, with this model came a great deal of ethnocentrism—the belief that your way of life is the best way of life. Simply stated, this model was bias. Because archaeology developed in a Western culture, it centered around the idea that Western culture was superior in evolutionary development. However, modern archaeologists now recognize the dangers of their own bias and try to eliminate it from their work.

What began treasure hunting has developed into a complex field that works to fight ethnocentrism, preserve past culture, and learn ways to better the future. That is archaeology.




Ashmore, Wendy, and Robert J. Sharer. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. New York: McGraw- Hill, 2012. Print.

Image 1: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sphinx/stel-05.html

Image 2: http://catalystruser.tumblr.com/post/12286376592/charles-lyell-uniformitarianism-and-evolutionary

Further Reading: http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/archaeology/history_of_archaeology.html


Whose artifacts are those?

When did archaeology become the respected profession it is today? What gives archaeologists the authority to excavate in a land that is not their own? Archaeology has transformed significantly throughout the years into a respected science that teaches us about the past and how we have progressed into today’s society.

Civilizations, modern and old, have always been fascinated with the people who sewed and toiled on the land before them. Even thousands of years ago, people wanted to understand the past. For example, during 15th century B.C, an Egyptian pharaoh by the name of Thutmose IV led the first excavation of the Great Sphinx at Giza. With archaeological fascination growing and new artifacts being excavated at every turn, archaeology has progressed from antiquarianism (basically treasure hunting) to using the scientific method to investigate and understand more about the people of the past (Ashmore 26-27).

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Indigenous archaeology is a branch of archaeology that collaborates with the people of the area being researched. Although this method of archaeology considers the heritage of the people living in the area of study, many indigenous people do not want their ancestors’ “things” being excavated or disturbed. Because of this, indigenous people have fought for change in the way archaeologist conduct their research. Every year more and more indigenous people are making their voices heard, some even becoming archaeologists.

Considering all the modifications archaeologists have made to their science, the debate of to whom the cultural artifacts belong, remains an ongoing issue. Those who sympathize with the native peoples have worked diligently to return ownership of graves and artifacts uncovered, back to them. Although there seems to be a large effort in assisting the indigenous people, there are still some who believe archaeological research is causing them harm.

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This historical debate will most likely continue on as long as archaeology exists. Indigenous archaeology is one solution that tries to level this debate, but this type of archaeology is not yet fully established. It continues to change and develop with the collaboration of both indigenous people and archaeologists.

Archaeological practices have come a long way since Thutmose got curious about the Sphinx at Giza, and it will continue to transform in an effort to return the culture to as many groups of people as it can.  Challenges still remain, but archaeology has become a source of great understanding and respect for the past. From the lowliest cracked peace of pottery to the great Sphinx at Giza, archaeology has opened a world of understanding about the past. Every little piece of history holds a story, and possibly even the key to understanding an entire civilization. There is never old news in archaeology; it will always continue to unearth new mysteries and it will always attempt to solve them.

-Ava Sadeghi




Image 1: http://sacredsites.com/africa/egypt/images/sphinx-1900.jpg.

Image 2: http://news.mongabay.com/bioenergy/2007/09/researchers-explore-why-conservation.html

Ashmore, Wendy, and Robert J. Sharer. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. New York: McGraw- Hill, 2012. Print.

Atalay, Sonya. “Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice.” The American Indian Quarterly 30.3 (2006): 280-310. Print.

Ethnocentrism in Archaeology

In the world we live in today many point to Obama’s election as proof that racism is no longer a problem in American culture, especially when one considers the outright discrimination and racial tensions of the 1960s, just 50 years ago. Keeping with this ideal of a post-racial society, ethnocentrism is often considered a thing of the past, something we look upon as a mark of our progress. Ethnocentrism is judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture. By another’s assessment that is heavily biased, the assumption is contemporary Western culture represents the pinnacle of evolutionary achievement (Ashmore 36). We are supposed to look at each other as equals; unfortunately, there is a considerable section of archaeological literature that propagates Western culture at the top of the ladder. (A ladder that was created by Westerners in the first place!)

We discussed in class that everyone, and I mean everyone, is ethnocentric and our cultural biases can limit our understanding. Since it is inherent we suggested that being aware of our bias differentiates those who would rather ignore theirs. Awareness of cultural biases in archaeology is not only extremely pertinent to the field of anthropology but also is critical when conducting archaeological research. Archaeologists cannot fully study and understand another cultural group’s society, customs, and language if they are passing subtle judgment against the very cultural group they are studying.

Are we?

Sonya Atalay explains the problem of ethnocentrism in archaeology in her article, “Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice,” and proposes numerous suggestions to change this ongoing but veiled practice in archaeology. Atalay suggests that indigenous archaeology will make the field more inclusive, represent America’s national diversity in archaeology, and involve indigenous communities in archaeological studies. Overall, the goal of indigenous archaeology is to dismantle the “long-held Western way of viewing archaeology, the past, and heritage” (Atalay 284).

Ethnocentrism has no place in archaeology because one is already studying the past meaning there is already information that is unknown; when ethnocentric ideals are added one is further limiting the amount of knowledge that is possibly obtainable. Thus, there is an overall lack of understanding for a cultural group which is detrimental to the overall goal of the discipline of archaeology.

Well, there goes his argument.

Wendy Ashmore and Robert J. Sharer state in their book Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introdcution to Arcaheology, “each society’s development is conditioned by the natural ecological setting in which it occurs, the neighboring societies with which it interacts, and its own traditions” (Ashmore 37). Every group has a unique set of circumstances that shape the development of its society; therefore, it is impossible to compare a society to another because too many factors impact and shape the society itself. The process of decolonizing archaeology is an extensive one but it can be done; the growing number of indigenous archaeologists have already made headway. Ethnocentrism is inherent in everyone but that does not mean it should be ignored.


Dismantling Oppression with Archaeology: Concepts of Paulo Freire

Just like any other academic discipline, archaeology is not immune to the ills that have plagued the past and continue to infect the future. When applying Western analysis to a separate culture, there is an inherent power structure that devalues that culture in comparison. Attempts to view indigenous societies, both modern and historical, from the seat of the oppressor serves to further perpetuate bias. The question becomes, how can we accurately understand the history of a culture without placing it on the Eurocentric cultural continuum of the West?

Recife, Brazil (Freire’s birthplace)

Paulo Freire’s work on popular education illuminates the possibility of understanding the past without the prejudicial frameworks used previously. Using participatory research, Freire worked to empower the locals in his homeland of Brazil (Atalay 298). Participatory research involves communication and active involvement of the culture being studied, which is a stark contrast to the traditional method in which the researcher makes observations without necessarily engaging those being studied. He particularly engaged in dialogue that targeted sections of society often missed in research, ultimately increasing awareness of the situation of those living in the margins.


Freire stressed informed action and continuous dialogue. In other words, Freire is a good example of how outside researchers need to leave behind their own opinions and questions, and incorporate the voice of the oppressed group in question. In Freire’s studies, action was centered on collaboration with the colonized and oppressed. After all, power is not merely given away; it must be taken by active demand by the oppressed. Focus finally shifts to allowing the groups in question to explore their own history and social situation, and in doing so, enables the researcher to understand the cultural reality of those being studied.


By combining popular education and collaborative research, Freire was able to show indigenous groups and academics alike how powerful indigenous archaeology can be. Indigenous collaboration in archaeology gives a clearer, less biased picture of the present and sets the stage for a more egalitarian future. Enabling groups to examine history on their own terms increases communal sharing of the past, as well as helping rewrite inaccurate narratives, and finally by spreading agency to those who previously lacked it. Expanding the audience also serves to overthrow injustice caused by years of biased education. Freire worked to correct past wrongs through solidarity and inclusion during the research process. Ultimately, he was able to answer questions of and for the society of which he was studying. Thus, archaeology and the knowledge it provides can be used for more than just understanding the past. Considering how influential the past is upon the future, archaeology can be used as a tool for empowerment and as means to fight oppression in the present day.



Indigenous archaeology:

Atalay, Sonya. “Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice.” The American Indian Quarterly 30.3 (2006): 280-310. Print.

Paulo Freire’s biography:


Freire’s contribution to popular education:


Freire’s concepts in social justice:



-Kathryn Marshall ’16

Living with Ruins, The Greek Dark Ages


Imagine living in a mud brick house in complete poverty and walking past colossal stone ruins every day on your way to the watering hole, in the Mediterranean around 900 BCE the small rural tribes did just that. Seeing these gigantic structures, extremely foreign, and never knowing where they came from strained the small tribes’ understanding to the point where they designed myths to help explain. They believed that the monumental structures were created by a great race before them that had died out. They did not believe humans like themselves had the strength (or technology) to build such massive architecture. This idea is called ethnocentrism and will be explained in greater depth later.

The historical period between 1200 and 900 BCE has been labeled the “Greek Dark Ages” or (more precisely) the Submycenaean Period. After the Mycenaean Palaces fell, because of multiple devastating factors (such as war, bronze drought, water drought, and the destruction of trade routes), civilization thinned out. Without the Palace structure as anchor, the city’s urban center rapidly decentralized and the population settled in small groups, building mud brick houses. The time of monumental architecture was over and, soon, forgotten.

Civilization in the Mediterranean practically started over again. History was lost, writing was lost, and technology was lost. Faced with the ruins of such monumental architecture as the Lion Gate at Mycenae[1] and the “Cyclopean” walls at Tiryns[2] the people of the Submycenaean and Early Geometric Periods came up with a way of understanding that modern archaeologists would call “ethnocentric.”

Ethnocentrism is cultural bias. Ethnocentrism entails judging the practices of another culture using the standards and values of one’s own society. Everyone is susceptible to ethnocentrism; being aware is the only way to fight it.

People of the Submycenaean Period called the time before them the “Heroic Age” because they judged the ruins to be too grand for humans of their day to build. In this case they are being ethnocentric because they judged the race before them to be incapable to build such structures, unless they had superhuman abilities. They attributed the structures to a race before them, a race of heroes and monsters, long extinct. Hence, the gigantic walls at Tiryns were called “Cyclopean” because only a Cyclopes could have lifted bricks so large.

Although most of us do not live in mud brick houses and walk past monumental ruins (if only we did!) on our way to town, ethnocentrism still exists. What we need to understand as a whole is that past cultures were not LESS civilized then our own, nor MORE civilized. We, as archaeologists, need to analyze civilizations using an open mind, logic, and unbiased data.


Further Reading:

Neer, Richard T. Greek Art and Archaeology, A New History, c. 2500-c.150 BCE. Thames &        Hudson. New York, New York. 2012.

Fitton, J. Lesley. The Discovery of the Greek Bronze Age. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA. 1996.



Youn Fruneau @ whc.unesco.org

Youn Fruneau @ whc.unesco.org



Doucin & L. Lalait @ whc. unesco.org

Doucin & L. Lalait @ whc. unesco.org