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Why Archaeology is Dangerous

Is Archaeology Just an Entertaining Pastime?


Workers Attempt To Restore Buddhas Of Bamiyan

A worker adjusts his radio in front of an alcove which used to contain a giant Buddah overlooking the area September 5, 2005 in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

John Moore / Getty Images

At a conference recently, I fell into a rather surprising discussion with a fellow archaeologist. My colleague argued that the relative importance of archaeology is essentially unchanged from its first days, that it still is, and always will be, no more than an entertaining pastime. She said she felt fortunate to be making a living in such an entertaining way, but essentially, she feels that archaeology is a triviality in the greater scheme of things. Because I have always secretly believed this to be the case, I was vehement in my denial, ranting on for an extended period on the importance of preserving the past, and eventually proclaiming in a loud voice that "If I felt that way, I'd never be able to write a single column!"

In the intervening months and years, I have had occasion to mull over our conversation, in fact several times I have done so. After all, what is the essence of archaeology? Shouldn't that be something I've already decided, if I'm going to practice it? Here's what I believe. Today, anyway.

A Critical Point of Awareness

I think archaeologists are reaching a critical point of awareness right now. I think that for the last 150 years or so, our whole reason for being has been to describe and elucidate the differences among us--the religious ceremonies, the subsistence systems, the gender distinctions, the approach to status, the burial customs, on and on. All to help define who fits into the category of the "other," and if you get a shiver from this sinister reminder of colonialism, you ought to. In fact, if there were no differences between ethnic groups, or if no one cared about them, we’d have nothing to study at all. At the same time, archaeologists are becoming more and more aware that there is no physical reality to ethnic designations, that in fact, culture is the only thing that separates us humans as one from another.

Case in point? Kennewick Man. Everyone wants to know if Kennewick Man was European, despite the fact that there was no "Europe" 10,000 years ago. There's no working physical definition of "European" today, let alone 10,000 years ago, and it is certainly not possible to determine this on the basis of anything at the genetic or morphological level, because such designations are meaningless. What determines a European is not her genes or the shape of her head but the customs and the religion she chooses to practice.

What is Ethnicity?

Don't believe me? Try this experiment. Go to work tomorrow and tell everyone that you've discovered that you were adopted, and that your mother or grandmother is from a completely different ethnic classification than you've believed before. Presto, instant ethnic identity. Funny, you don't look Albanian.

As members of the global society, archaeologists simply can't ignore the fact that ethnic identity can get you killed. Rwanda, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Pakistan and India, North and South Korea. Alabama in the 1960s. Germany in the 1930s. Iraq in the 21st century. Mexico in the 16th century.

You think that has nothing to do with archaeology? Think again. Archaeological sites and historic buildings which are tied to particular ethnic designations (and aren't most?) are often the first targets of internecine wars, and always have been. The Taliban destroying the Bamiyan statues in Afghanistan. The Spanish building over the Aztec temples in Tenochtitlan. Jerusalem. Ayodhya.

In many countries of the world today, designating an archaeological site a UNESCO World Heritage site is tantamount to painting a big red bullseye on the ruins.

The Real Purpose of Archaeology

Celebrating diversity or maintaining the cultural other? As ethical archaeologists we have to recognize that what we do makes a difference to other people, may even endanger or destroy the very cultural tangibles we are trying to save, or the people of the land in which we work. I don't think we can afford to believe that archaeology is a trivial pursuit.

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