05 July 2010

The misuse(s) of archaeology

An article by Dr. Robert R. Cargill from UCLA's Center for Digital Humanities raises a number of interesting points concerning what he calls "the misuse of archaeology for evangelical purposes." He is, of course, speaking in particular about Evangelical Christian organizations that have mounted their own expeditions across the Middle East to uncover proof of the biblical stories, the most recent and news-worthy being the (re)"discovery" of Noah's Ark by the Hong Kong-based group Noah’s Ark Ministries International (NAMI) and their partner, the Media Evangelism Limited.

Cargill sums up his beef with this latest Noah's Ark claim as, "perhaps the most egregious, premeditated, blatant, and irresponsible misuse of archaeology in recent decades," providing evidence that NAMI is openly using their search for the ark as a method of proselytization. Cargill calls for greater participation by the scholarly community to forcefully and swiftly deny such pseudo-scientific claims as these and offers "tips" for those interested in doing Biblical Archaeology the "correct" way.

My opinions about using archaeology to prove the Bible are well documented on this site (here, here and here), so I will skip over that rant to instead focus on what I think the true short-coming of Cargill's proposal is. NAMI and other organizations like them will only continue to raise insane amounts of money and go on these expeditions (note: participants of NAMI call themselves "exploration teams" and not archaeologists!), regardless of whether or not the academy is vocally opposed to them. By his own admission, Cargill says these refutes "by 'godless' scientists" only emboldens their fund raising efforts, helping them claim religious persecution "in an effort to 'suppress the truth of the faith.'"

What archaeologists need to do is learn how to reach a broader public. We are loosing this PR battle precisely because of the guarded nature in which Cargill and others approach our field with statements such as this: "The true archaeologist does not seek the big discovery that changes all we know in one amazing find, but rather gives his or her life to seasons of excavation and discovery, letting the evidence speak for itself until the larger picture of the social, economic, and yes, at times, religious makeup of the society is slowly revealed."

Wow, what a snooze fest! I am all about a scientific approach with clear research questions/agenda and trying to be as objective as possible, but we also need to remember what it is we are doing: we are uncovering the story of human history. It is a narrative, with multiple threads and viewpoints to be sure, but an exciting narrative none-the-less that we need to be more actively sharing with a wider public. People love hearing these stories--why do you think Discovery and History Channel are so popular?--and we can give 'em to them based on our methodical, scientific research.

What does all this mean? Me inside a 6,500-year-old house

So where to begin? Daniel Lende over at Neuroanthropology has some very useful suggestions about being specific, building appeal, and establishing relevancy. To that I would add a shift in language as the very first step. Our archaeo-babble and scholar-speak is only impressing ourselves, so cutting out the jargon will go a long way in making us more understandable. This does not mean, however, resorting to sexy headlines and sensational journalism to reach the public at large. I think it can be done tactfully and thus go a long way in combating the surge of pseudo-archaeologists that currently hold public fixation (and purse strings). 

As scientists and story tellers, I think we are totally capable of gaining the public's interest by focusing on topics that most people can connect with: food, religion, family life, relationships, sex, globalization, communication, etc. etc. etc. Most likely the research project you are already heavily invested in is actually tied to one or more of these broad topics, lurking just below the highfalutin surface.

A final thought actually mirrors that of Cargill and his focus on methods. Archaeologists are terrible at actually relating how exactly we know what we know based on the materials culture we excavate and study. Just last week I had a dinner guest asking me, "how do you know what life was like back then just from the X (= animal bones, pottery, etc.)?" Totally legitimate question and since it came from a middle-aged rather worldly guy, it cannot simply be written off based on age, education, or experience. It underscores the fact that what we do and how we do it is still a mystery to most--a sad fact that lets pseudo-archaeologists and exploration teams come out with claims that seem plausible to the general public, simply because they don't know better! Archaeologists should be more transparent with our methods, not just for accountability within the academy, but to add clarification for everyone else. 

Perhaps you are wondering whether I "practice what I preach?" You'll soon find out because things are in the works.


  1. I agree with you. It's hard enough settling arguments within the field, changing the minds of people who have an established angle outside of 'scientific enquiry' is an unwinnable proposition altogether. The problem is how do you explain archaeological/overall anthropological stories without losing people in the jargon or mistakenly dumbing it down/sexing it up? TV shows and magazine articles are great, but personally, I feel like we should have more hands on opportunities for people. Within the last couple weeks of working summer retail, I've met several people who wanted to be archaeologists but for some reason life took them in a different direction. These same people would love to help out with a dig at least once just to experience that career they could have had. I wish volunteer opportunities happened more often and were made more widely known to the public.

  2. Hi pipsqueak, thanks for your comment! I also run across people all the time who lament, "oh I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was a kid" but most finish that sentence with, "but I wanted to actually make money."

    Financial concerns aside, you bring up a good point that most people likely do not pursue archaeology because it is unclear about what archaeologists actually do. Hell, I still think my father-in-law has no idea what I do!

    I think the answer lies in our public (and private) school system, in embedding information about archaeology and ancient history totally within the curriculum and not just for 6th graders (in California at least). We should (and can) show how today's world, a world of human cultures, are the latest iteration of processes that have been developing for millions of years. Talk about relevancy!

  3. I think you are right and now I have an idea of what things may be in the works for you ; )

    My program has been taking part in outreach programs during the summer (and even during the regular year) with local high schools, universities, and the other month we had 3rd year law students over to the lab. Our focus is forensic anthropology, but we tailor our presentations to fit the group we are meeting with. The high school kids (and really everyone) are the most focused and involved when we have more hands on demonstrations. I wish we had something like that available when I was in high school and I wish it could be more than an hour long program they have once.

    On a side note, I've always felt like history was too flat in school...its a 3 dimensional thing taught in 1D. You focus on Rome, next week you focus on Egypt, next week you cover all of Asia. But these places existed at the same time. I always wanted to know what everyone else was doing while Rome was conquering Britain.

  4. Same here..history is always presented as this disjointed thing that we skip around when learning. There is not enough reference back to what was happening in China, for instance, when Rome was conquering Britain as you mentioned. Perhaps world civ courses are better at that these days, but not when I was in school.

    I think it is fabulous you get law students in to your lab! There is a demographic I hadn't even considered.


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