The Death of Archaeology?

Think of everything that’s ever made you want to do archaeology – lost shipwrecks, Stonehenge, a golden Moche lord gracing the cover of National Geographic, Lara Croft and Indiana, the thought of coming up a rise and seeing at your feet an ancient city.  Probably not ambitions of wearing a lab coat and counting granules under a microscope.  Hence the challenging question mark Brian Fagan stuck at the end of his editorial’s title, “So You Want To Be An Archaeologist? in the 1996 summer issue of Archaeology.  Wait, don’t we?

If whiskey is the genial beverage, Intro to Archaeology is the genial class.  Where else do you daydream for ninety minutes watching smiling archaeologists tramp across a desert landscape (probably after a night of whiskey) and contemplate portraits of bearded white men?  It usually provides a pick-me-up.  Usually.  This morning I walked out of class shaken, having heard as scary a lecture as any in my experience – and I’ve sampled USC’s departments voraciously, from Math (do numbers exist?) to Philosophy (do WE exist?) and even the classic doomsday discipline, Environmental Studies.

The panic was two-pronged; Dr. Boytner first planted the fear that archaeology is going to be so overladen with big business and data crunching that no one will care about it anymore, and then actually uttered the word “death” as he collated our insecurities into a snazzy blue slide featuring the ever-prescient Brian Fagan.  Yes, he said gravely, many scholars are of Fagan’s opinion that archaeology is going the way of geography – a thriving discipline with no audience.  “How many articles have you read in National Geographic that are actually about geography?”  Looks around.  Silence.

Which means, other than diminished hopes of appearing in the pages of a national magazine, that the resources and public support vital to eager young archaeologists taking up the quest for knowledge might, by the time we get out of Ph.D. school, have shriveled up like a charqui in the Tarapaca sun.


It’s not that archaeology is actually rock-stopped, flatlining, clinically dead, but the discipline as we know it may not exist in the future.  We might be digging under freeways instead of into temples, going through old excavation records instead of drawing new ones.  The search for buried treasure will have to bow down before the search for climate-controlled storage rooms to hold decades of thoughtlessly dug up treasure.  To a serious archaeologist, these concessions sound okay.  It’s still artifacts and theories, immersion in the past.  But can you seriously imagine a murder mystery centering on the priceless diadem of Ruler X being conserved, pockmark by bronze disease pockmark, in the flourescent-lit basement of some chemical lab?


One thought on “The Death of Archaeology?

  1. The time: Shortly after midnight.
    The place: The basement of the Tsai research lab
    The priceless diadem of Ruler X (yes, that’s his actual name) has been transferred under heavy security to this, the foremost conservation lab in the nation. Ownership of this artifact is hotly contested, as it was found years before when X-Land was an occupied territory. Now, both local and foreign powers claim ownership. But before its final deposition can be decided, it must be conserved…
    Conservationist Tiffany is in charge of this secret project. She is, in fact, the only person apart from her assistant, Sarah, even aware of the diadem’s current location. As she cleans the metal carefully, she imagines for a second that she hears footsteps behind her.
    A muffled thunk, and then the sound of something hitting the floor. Concerned, Tiffany turns from the diadem for a second.
    In an instant, a cloth smelling of chemicals is placed over her nose. As Tiffany struggles against her unseen assailant, she begins to succumb to the fumes. Her last thoughts before she slides into unconsciousness:
    Who knew that the diadem was here? How did they get in? And, may the gods help her, what do they plan to do next?

    I think it has potential.

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