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15.1: Introduction to New Frontiers in Archaeology

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    While archaeology is the study of the material culture of past peoples, modern issues such as immigration, warfare, and homelessness can be addressed and studied through the lens of archaeological research. In response to inaccuracies about archaeology presented in the media, archaeologists have had to take a more active, and at times activist, approach to their discipline and work. This chapter examines how archaeologists have worked to correct misinterpretations of their discipline and to actively promote the science as a way to investigate complex issues, demonstrating how archaeology is relevant to modern issues.

    Though informing the public about the past has long been a major goal of archaeology, archaeologists as a group are really terrible at it! In the United States, archaeological work is not a common feature of the evening news or frequently printed in newspapers. And when new finds are brought up by mainstream news outlets, they tend to be either barely noted or exaggerated and sensationalized. Sites representing day-to-day life tend not to be picked up by the media, which would rather focus on sites with lots of spectacular artifacts or that can be interpreted in a multitude of ways, many of which are not scientific. Some networks have tried to present good science TV (e.g., The Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel) but have ended up hyping the science to excite viewers and gain ratings. Consequently, some archaeologists have taken a more active role by announcing new finds and holding open houses and public displays of artifacts. Even then, they sometimes have been motivated as much by attracting funding as by educating the public.

    Most people know what they know about archaeology from watching and reading stories in the media, and many of those stories have promoted incorrect and even alternative explanations that are pseudoarchaeological. Pseudoarchaeology uses selective bits of archaeological evidence to promote non-scientific, false accounts of the past. Examples include the films “National Treasure” and “The Da Vinci Code,” which promoted false stories about real archaeological data. Other areas in which pseudoarchaeological stories have confused the truth include the idea that crop circles and megalith sites such as Stonehenge, a Druid worship site, were constructed by aliens. Another example is the lost city of Atlantis, an amazingly advanced society that supposedly vanished overnight according to Plato’s story in the fifth century BC. Atlantis continues to pop up in fake archaeology stories despite the fact that there is absolutely no archaeological evidence to support its existence.

    While archaeologists have a duty to share legitimate finds with the public and need to expose pseudoarchaeological stories, the public also has an important part to play! We need to be smarter consumers of archaeology in popular media and take a default position of skepticism. Naturally, archaeologists want the public to join them in being excited about their research. With the trove of genuine archaeological resources available online, members of the public can research what they have seen and read to verify its accuracy. They also can support real archaeologists at work by attending their public lectures and museum exhibits and by donating to archaeological work at local colleges and universities. Archaeologists want everyone to be involved in real archaeology!

    Perhaps the most common way members of the public become engaged with archaeology is by visiting archaeological sites such as the Colosseum in Rome and Mayan ruins in Central America. As tourists, we are enthralled by the creations of past people but rarely think about our impact on the archaeological sites. What damage is caused by thousands of people visiting the site? What about misinformation and stereotypes that are shared by turning the site and the past peoples who occupied it into commodities? These are important things to think about as you consume archaeological information.

    For example, archaeologists excavating a site in California during the 1970s and 1980s held an open-house event to give the public an opportunity to share in their finds and to ask questions about actual archaeological work. The event was publicized in the newspaper and on local television broadcasts. The night before the event, looters broke into the site, stole numerous artifacts, and aimlessly dug into already open pits looking for more treasures to sell. The project lost important artifacts, including some that were extremely rare for the time period and location, and, worse, archaeologists lost their faith in entrusting access to the public. That project is ongoing, but the archaeologists working it are much more cautious about sharing information, and their collection is contained in an unmarked laboratory that is relatively unknown even to other campus staff members.

    Some archaeologists have begun to monitor archaeological sites to prevent looting and to record damage done as a result of looting. Dr. Sarah Parcak, a professor of archaeology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has used satellite imaging to identify potential archaeological sites across the globe. The $1 million she received for winning a TED prize allowed her to create an online portal called GlobalXplorer that trains anyone interested in how to identify potential looting activity in satellite images. After a six-minute training, these individuals are allowed to view small sections of actual satellite images to look for potential signs of looting. Images flagged by several reviewers are passed on to archaeologists to confirm the reviewers’ suspicions. Dr. Monica Hanna, head of the Cultural Heritage Unit and associate dean of the Arab Academy for Science, Technology, and Maritime Transport in Aswan, Egypt, is an important activist for protection of archaeological resources in her home country of Egypt and globally. She documents looting events by photographing them and posting the photographs to social media. Her goal is for everyone to understand the irreparable damage done to archaeological sites by looting.

    Other archaeologists are developing new lines of inquiry that demonstrate how archaeology can be used to explore some of today’s major problems. For example, Dr. Craig Lee from the University of Colorado is an ice-patch archaeologist. He is studying the edges of glacial ice as it melts in response to warming global temperatures. His study area, centered in the Rocky Mountains, has largely been under ice for thousands of years. As that ice begins to melt, previously undiscovered archaeological sites are being revealed. In addition to documenting past living habits and patterns of behavior denoted by the artifacts, he is documenting the rate of melt of high-altitude ice.

    Archaeologists are also looking at how their unique training can give a voice to groups of people who have been disenfranchised or even treated as invisible. Archaeologists are trained to examine material remains and infer patterns of behavior from them. Now, they are beginning to use those skills to tackle current issues, including strongly disputed political questions, to provide new perspective. For example, Dr. Jason de Leon, professor of anthropology and Chicana/o studies at UCLA, runs the Undocumented Migration Project. He is using his archaeological training and ethnographic observations to study people crossing the U.S./Mexico border from northern Mexico into Arizona. He studies the artifacts they leave behind, including water bottles, backpacks, and clothing. Dr. de Leon and his team pieced together how the artifacts were specifically used (e.g., the water bottles were filled from stagnant pools and livestock watering tanks) and discarded and, ultimately, have been able to tell a detailed story of their difficult migration and dangerous border crossing. Another example is the work of Dr. Larry Zimmerman, retired professor at Indiana University – Purdue University, Indiana, who used his archeological training to study people living in homeless encampments around St. Paul, Minnesota, and Indianapolis, Indiana. He noted evidence of alcohol consumption at all of the encampments but found no evidence of drug paraphernalia, directly contradicting the common stereotype that all homeless people are drunks and “druggies.” He also noted numerous unopened and unused sample-sized bottles of hygiene products such as shampoo and conditioner that are commonly given to the homeless. He realized that these items are not terribly useful for people who do not have reliable access to water and that other types of goods would be more useful and appreciated by individuals who are homeless.

    Terms You Should Know

    • GlobalXplorer
    • ice-patch archaeologist
    • pseudoarchaeology
    • Undocumented Migration Project

    Study Questions

    1. What is pseudoarchaeology? Why is its popularity problematic?
    2. How are some archaeologists taking an activist role to protect archaeological sites?
    3. How are modern technological developments and crowdsourcing being used to support archaeology?
    4. How has climate change altered the field of archaeology?
    5. Describe one of the ways in which archaeologists are using their unique skills to give a voice to populations frequently overlooked and ignored in our culture?
    6. Imagine a friend tells you about a recent post on social media describing “research” on aliens and Atlantis. Explain what you could tell your friend about such research’s reliability. What actual new archaeological frontier could you share with your friend?