A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
(Illustration by Richard Tuschman)
More than any other scholarly calling, archaeology surfs the crest of our obsession with heritage. Cults of bygone times and relics are omnipresent. Links with personal and communal legacies extend the desirable past from great monuments to humble shrines, from relics of architecture and art to remains of everyday folklife, from state and church archives to records of neighborhood groups and family life. Harking back to the most remote and forward to the most recent times, we embrace every epoch from the Palaeolithic to Elvis Presley.
The civic landscape reflects these burgeoning concerns. Themed museums and historic sites proliferate; history and genealogy multiply their devotees; historic preservation becomes a bellwether for urban renewal. Tragedy is hallowed along with triumph; today's ancestral past is as much mourned as cheered. Empathy with medieval serfs, dispossessed indigenes, African slaves, and Holocaust victims haunts popular consciousness. And in most of these backward-looking ventures, archaeology plays a unparalleled role.
What accounts for the discipline's new-found salience? Archaeology has long capitalized on public fascination with death and treasure, but its current popularity stems, I suggest, from three further attributes specific to the field. One is archaeology's unique focus on the remotest epochs of human existence, imbued with an allure of exotic, uncanny secrets hidden in the mists of time. A second is archaeology's concern with tangible remains, lending it an immediacy and credibility unique among the human sciences. The third is archaeology's patent attachment to pressing issues of identity and possession--of post-imperial hegemony and of ethnic cleansing, the retention or restitution of land and bones and artifact--that embroil First and Third World states, mainstream and minority people.
Devotion to priority, to tangibility, and to contemporary relevance have brought the discipline many genuine benefits. Archaeology, however, would benefit from acknowledging the harm as well as the good that such devotion has wrought. It might enable archaeologists to face up more frankly to often justified public doubts about the rectitude of the discipline.
David Lowenthal, professor emeritus of geography at University College London and visiting professor of Heritage Studies at St. Mary's University College, Strawberry Hill, is an occasional lecturer at London University's Institute of Archaeology and Cambridge University's Department of Archaeology. With Peter Gathercole he edited The Politics of the Past in the One World ArchaeologyThe Past is a Foreign Country (1985) and The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1997), both Cambridge University Press.
David Lowenthal's complaint about archaeologists, characteristically wise as well as mischievous, is misdirected. It isn't actually about what archaeology is or what we do as archaeologists. Partly it is a grumble about the nature of time, partly about the nature of the present human world; for the rest, his complaints apply more to the document-confined historian than to the archaeologist working with evidence from the field.
The fundamental thing about time is simply that it runs one way. There is no going back. Everything we can know about the past depends either on material traces that survive in the present--computer files, tape recordings, photographs, documents, artifacts--or on human memory. Like many of us, I have gone back to a place I vividly remember from my childhood and found it is not as I remembered it. Distinct memories of some childhood events in the family are at odds with those of my siblings. That is why I no longer trust those autobiographies that report, word-by-word, conversations as remembered from 20 or from 40 years before!
Archaeologists have a valuable role, as David Lowenthal rightly notices, through three special aspects, its concern with remote as well as recent epochs of human experience, its concern with physical remains that are tangible relics of what once was, and its concern with pressing contemporary issues of identity and possession. Welcome to archaeology, David! Can we tempt you out of your text-historian's study into the experience of fieldwork with real, physical artifacts in the company not just of other academics but of indigenous people with their own understanding of what the past was and of what it means for them in the world today?
Christopher Chippindale is a field archaeologist and museum curator. From a post at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, England, his fieldwork mostly concerns rock-art in Aboriginal Australia and prehistoric Europe.