Sunday, 8 December 2013

Archaeology in the Public Eye: Ooo shiny...

I noticed a while ago an article on the BBC about the "hairdo archaeologist" (see here). Why has this woman's fascination with hair led to a media sensation, and why don't other archaeological news stories across the world, which are more impressive and arguably more important (see here for dolphins discovering a 19th century torpedo in the USA!), get more attention? In a more recent set of articles from the same University, emphsising my point, a set of 18 skeletons were found next to Durham Cathedral (see here), while a relatively unoticed excavation in Asia by the same University will redate the birth of one of the world's most important religions (see here). Which of these stories did you hear about?

In my perfect world, everyone would be fascinated with the periods just before and after the Romans (particularly in Britain), or anywhere around the world that looks at the cultures that existed just before writing occurred, and then push back the boundaries of our knowledge further. Maybe I grew playing too many games in the Total War series, where grand armies could sail from Norway (or France in Rome: Total War) and conquer large parts of Britain to my (their?) hearts content, distorting my interests in historical periods. In one sense though, this is virtual archaeology- the games themselves provide a small, yet interesting amount of history (rarely archaeology though) as to how certain weapons were made, and how and why some buildings were built, and some historical battles. Of course in the grand scheme of things, this comes across as a minor point when you are beheading virtual foes with your mighty huscarl regiment. There is also the small issue of the Total War series not explicitly telling us where they got this information from!

My point is Archaeology is everywhere, usually you just don't recognise it! See that field over there outside your window? If it has small earth mounds that run across the length of the field in a linear fashion, chances are that it is medieval ridge and furrow. If you see a pond surrounded by trees, or respected by hedgerows, the chances are again that it has a longer history than you think, and may have provided fish for a local lord or monastery back in the day. If you live by the seaside, you will usually spot some pre/historic feature that indicates the area's function, no matter how small it may be. However, most of the time, because you aren't told about these things, then you won't recognise this "heritage".

Do some research into your local library; look at old tithe maps, parish maps, local landowners, and any previous historical or archaeological investigations, and prove me wrong. Shiny things, such as gold torcs or Roman coins, in contrast, provide a different side of the story, usually reflect elites, and other important individuals in society. Metal hoards may reflect multiple people, or the collective efforts of multiple people for one person. Objects in a hoard often belong to the same culture. Because they are often well made and haven't rusted too much, they often lend themselves to presentation in a display cabinet. It is also easier to illustrate the individual with this shiny object rather than with the landscape, like the field I mentioned above. "This coin was produced by the Romans during the rule of Emperor Severus" conjures a more vivid image than "This field would have produced crops in a 4-field system, an idea taken from Dutch farmers, that would have kept the local area well fed...", for example. The individual is easier to illustrate than an entire community.

This brings me to the hairdo archaeologist and the dolphins. While she has no shiny objects, her knowledge is like a shiny object- it glitters in the light of the media, and it provides a unique perspective on individuals back in the classical period. It can also be put in a display cabinet and be taken to various places. In contrast, the dolphins, while displaying a frankly astounding level of intelligence to find a 19th century torpedo, will probably not get the same coverage. Why? Does the BBC's North America editor have a hair fetish? Surely with military considerations on the top of the list at the moment with the unrest in Syria and terrorist attacks around the world, surely being able to use animals to find bombs is going to have more value in society? A simpler explanation is more likely to be the uniqueness of the woman's discovery. Even though it addresses individuals specifically, these hair styles were being used all across the Roman and Greek empires. 

The bomb in contrast is much more difficult to relate to an individual, despite it's relevance to modern day scenarios. Perhaps the US military has kept records of the suppliers of military hardware from the 19th century, but less work has gone into identifying individuals, nor are dolphins good at talking in English. With a relatable modern day person to relate the skills to as well, it can be argued that these skills can now be replicated, preserving this knowledge. I haven't even mentioned King Richard III, who has captivated the imagination of huge numbers of people, who have now visited his skeleton. I would like to contrast this with the very few people who visited the site of the Bosworth battlefield, where he died. Leicester University are missing a trick here! This landscape, as bloody as it is, represents an excellent opportunity to illustrate a landscape with famous individuals, especially since we know the story of Richard III; where he stayed the night before, where he died, where he was buried and so on. These could all be linked into a "heritage trail", and tied into the major exhibition that occurred a while back. 

Ultimately though, going back to my main theme, it is, or course, how the news articles get media attention that often dictate how much of the public see these archaeology stories. A lot of the news stories I see on my internet feeds are archaeology, because I signed up for groups, newsletters etc. about them. Alas, these are often specialist groups, and not to everyone's taste. But that's not all; news reporters are human; they too only have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to get the news to write into their papers etc. Their biases will be distorted towards their personal likes, political agendas, and how good their sources are at following up major discoveries/events. So a number of things stop a good news story from getting into print. Also luck.

So the public like individuals. They also however like objects which display great organisation, such as Stonehenge, Hadrians Wall, or natural wonders like Ayers Rock, or, before 2001, the Bamiyan statues of Afghanistan ( These often involve entire communities, usually multiple communities, and over time, multiple cultures, like today's landscape of the Baniyam valley, with a mixture of Buddha statues (now destroyed) and Muslim buildings. Who made these decisions to build these monuments? Would this tell us any more about the cultures? The contrast between the monuments I have just described and the ridge and furrow I have described above are huge, but mainly that it is likely that your local field is not protected by international law from development. What I am saying is that any landscape can provide a new perspective on your local, or in some cases, national history/heritage.

The Bamiyan statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 for representing a different religion. Considered to be one of the Asian wonders of the world for their sheer size and skill of the craftsmen (the holes are c.60 and 35m high respectively, which held massive statues!) The buildings are Islamic in origin.

I believe that the public can't take too much information in about the past, which limits the detail somewhat. Individuals are easier to remember than landscapes, but that doesn't mean archaeologists and heritage specialists should stop trying. Indeed, in the last 60 years or so, landscape studies in archaeology and history have become considerably more popular. Populating this landscape is one way to bring the archaeology to life. However, this article is far too short to cover all of the aspects of the "individual" against "the landscape", and in academia, we tend to make the distinction between sites (arbitrary areas of archaeological activity) and landscapes (vast sweeping areas with varying degrees of archaeological activity), which until recently, was uncritically accepted.

So my recommendations for the public? Embrace the landscape, but don't forget the individuals who lived there! As you can imagine, this is much easier to do for any period that contains writing, and this is the challenge I accept; to populate the landscape as far back as I can go. Knowledge can be your shiny object, illuminating the lives of those before and around you.

Please leave any comments below and I will endeavour to respond!

P.S. I admit that the sources I chose here are biased; the two more "obscure" ones come from specialist archaeology sources, and the other two come from a mainstream news site! But it still serves to prove my point.


BBC, last accessed 08/12/2013, "Hairdo Archaeologist" Solves Ancient Fashion Mystery,, Last updated 26/05/2013

Archaeological Institute of America, last accessed 08/12/2013,Dolphins Discover Ancient Armament, http:// last accessed 08/12/2013,, last updated 21/05/2013

BBC, last accessed 08/12/2013, Remains of 18 People Found on Dig Medieval Dig in Durham,, last updated 30/11/2013

Durham University, last accessed 08/12/2013, Archaeological discoveries confirm early date of Buddha’s life,, last updated 5/11/2013

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