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Monday June 2, 2014

“You call this archaeology?”
Henry Jones, Sr. to his son, “Indiana” Jones, in the middle of a tank chase and fight in the desert
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989

When you think of archaeology, what comes to mind?  Indiana Jones?  Lara Croft?  Tales of bravery and thrilling heroics as archaeologists race to beat rivals to famous treasures in booby-trapped tombs?  Mummies and curses and cities of gold?

Visitors to the VMNH library will be greeted by all of this and more, as the current display takes a light-hearted look at the way archaeology is depicted in popular culture – in books, movies, television shows, video games, online humor sites, and even children’s toys.  In addition to Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider, the display features representations of archaeology such as Doctor Who’s Professor River Song, Amelia Peabody and her dashing Egyptologist husband, Emerson, and even a Playmobil toy set depicting the looting of an Egyptian tomb.

Indiana Jones tie-in novel and archaeology books currently on display in VMNH library.

Archaeology has a fairly significant presence in our popular culture – and why not?  After all, it’s about daring men and women who risk life and limb to battle evil rivals and overcome ancient curses, occasionally saving the world in the process.  They find hidden temples and forgotten cities containing artifacts straight out of legends and myth.

Or do they?

Archaeology is the scientific discipline that seeks to learn about people and cultures of the past by examining the physical things they left behind.  While these things can occasionally be gold and jewels and once-in-a-lifetime discoveries, usually they’re not.  Instead, they’re things that were dropped, lost, forgotten, overlooked, abandoned, and thrown away.  People tend to keep up with valuable objects, and often hand them down to their children.  Often, archaeologists are studying the things no one bothered to keep.  (Break a gold necklace and you’ll probably get it repaired.  Break a drinking glass, and you’ll throw it away and buy a new glass.)

For most of us, once-in-a-lifetime is exciting and fun, but a pretty far cry from how we spend our day-to-day lives.  Generally, archaeologists are trying to learn about the routine lives of average people.  Written history often focuses on famous people (more often than not, famous men), powerful leaders, and memorable events like battles, regimes changes, revolutions, and natural disasters.  Most archaeologists are trying to learn more about how the rest of the people spent the rest of the time.   They’re looking at what daily life was like for women, children, workers, farmers, servants, artists, and other common people.

Archaeologists want to know how people lived in the past: what they ate, how they built their homes and other buildings, how they made their clothes and tools, what sort of religion they practiced, what types of art they made, how they defined and understood the world around them.  All of these things taken together make a culture unique over space and time, and make up the routine lives of the people who are a part of that culture.  Archaeology can help answer these questions: a discarded animal bone may indicate the type of meat they ate, a broken needle provides information about sewing, and the manner in which the dead are buried can give insight into the culture’s religious or spiritual beliefs.

As VMNH Curator of Archaeology, Dr. Elizabeth Moore, explains, archaeologists learn about these things through very careful excavation of sites and analysis of the artifacts that are found.  Field work at the excavation sites is often hot, dirty, and physically challenging.  Lab work is tedious and repetitive.  Both are time-consuming and need to be done methodically.  Grabbing the gold and jewels from a mummy’s tomb tells us nothing about the person who was wearing them, or about the people who performed the burial, or why it was performed in that particular manner.

The reality of archaeology: tedious and repetitive lab work.

Smashing through walls, destroying artwork and other artifacts on the way to a “prize” at the end of a mysterious tunnel may make for an exciting action sequence, but in real life, it would mean losing all the context for that prize – where it was found, how it was found, what was around it, what other artifacts were found with it, how were they arranged, and so on.  Context allows archaeologists, and the rest of us, a better and more complete understanding of what they’ve found.  Indiana Jones may have literally found the Holy Grail of discoveries, but he repeatedly lost the most valuable thing of all – knowledge about the people who made the sites he loots.

Tags: Archaeology, Dr. Elizabeth Moore, Library, Mary Catherine Santoro, Research and Collections