Monday, February 13, 2012

Archaeology and Popular Culture ... What?

Many people would question what kind of relationship can exist between archaeology and popular culture. After all, the common perception of the discipline of archaeology is “the study of ancient people through their material remains, usually as discovered by excavation”.i As will be seen though, archaeology and popular culture, coexist in a very complex relationship.

Consider where in popular culture one can find archaeology. It is is in movies (Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider), books (Martin Mystere), the news, theme parks (Jorvick, Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure Ride), and so on.ii Archaeology is all around us and is intrinsically part of our everyday lives. 

In fact, it could be argued that “archaeology, in all its various manifestations, does not offer a perspective from which our own present can be understood in the light of its past. Instead, archaeology offers a perspective from which the past and its remains can be experienced and understood in the light of our present”.iii It is our present which affects how we understand what comes to light with archaeology. When an archaeologists excavates, and find the remains of an ancient culture, the immediate questions to be answered centre around what the artifacts found were used for, who used them, and why. To answer these questions archaeologist and experts have to use interpretation. The ideas they use to make these interpretations are influenced by what they have learned in present day society. They are therefore influenced by the popular culture of today’s society. They create a theory for the artifact using these influences and then present it to society who accepts it even though there is no way to prove it as valid, as we were not present when the artifact was used or created. Society accepts it caused the theory was created using the popular ides and beliefs of the culture.

Another way that this relationship can be seen is in how popular culture presents archaeology, and how in turn this affects and changes archaeology. As a discipline, archaeology is controlled by a large amount of ethical and legal policies which must be followed.iv Yet, according to popular culture, archaeologists are carefree treasure hunters and heroes. They carry around whips and wears fedoras. They go on adventures to exotic places and always win in the end. Unlike real life archaeologists, they never have to worry about the laws of the country they are treasure hunting in, or how the nearby people and environment will be affected. They do not have to hand over artifacts to the people who have legal possession of them. In fact, they can plain out disregard laws and ethics and do as they wish. Popular culture has, and still is,creating stereotypes of archaeology as a fun and adventurous experience, while disregarding the academic and ethical side of it.

It is not to say that this has had a purely negative effect of archaeology. In fact, the effect has been largely positive. Due to the influence of popular culture, interest in archaeology has increased, resulting in larger amounts of funding. This results in more sites and artifacts being documented and preserved. More people are going into archaeology and the discipline is growing.

This presentation of archaeology is also beneficial to society. By presenting archaeology as a fun, adventurous experience, tourism industries have grown. People are interested in participating in a real archaeological experience. So parks such as Disneyland have created rides to provide this. There are even parks, such as Jorvick Viking Centre, which are completed centred around this experience.v Las Vegas is perhaps where one can most easily see this relationship. In Las Vegas one can find replicas of Egyptian pyramids, of roman coliseums, and the Sphinx. The replicas are not exactly like their originals, but nonetheless, tourist come to see and experience them. They appreciate them as though they are the real deal.
Through the creation of stereotypes, to the use of archaeology as an experience in tourism, one can see that the relationship that exists between archaeology and popular culture is very complex.

iDrewett, Peter (2011). Field Archaeology: An Introduction. New York: Routledge. pp. 1
iiHoltorf, Cornelius (2005). From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
iiiHoltorf, Cornelius (2005). From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. pp. 14-15.
ivVitelli, Karen and Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonn (2006). Archaeological Ethics. Oxford: AltaMira Press.
vJorvick Viking Centre. “Take Hold of the Past”. Retrieved February 12, 2012. <>

No comments:

Post a Comment