Archaeology, Oddities, and Tropes

Today Archaeological Oddities turns one week old!  Such a milestone!  Thank you to all of you who have stopped by, checked out the site, and read my posts.  On this momentous anniversary, I would like to take stock of what I see to be the purpose of this blog, and just what it is I’ve been talking about.

As an archaeologist, I am of course notably interested in the ancient world.  It turns out, however, that many other people share that interest!  Archaeology as a discipline has often struggled with how to speak to public audiences.  The nature of ongoing research in contemporary archaeology is niche and academic, while public audiences want to hear about the grand and wondrous.  That is to say, when I speak publicly about the nature of the Mesoamerican ballgame, and how myself and Marijke Stoll have argued that this game held an important communal role, the questions afterward inevitably come down to, “Yeah, but weren’t the winners sacrificed?”

I make this comment not to make fun of public audiences, but instead to point out that archaeologists are often missing the mark and leaving our audiences befuddled.  This is where I see so called “archaeological oddities” creeping in.

For archaeologists, our discipline is a serious methodological examination of past human behavior.  But, for many people in the public, archaeology is instead more closely aligned with Indiana Jones.  This often frustrates archaeologists who, if I may, think “But, there’s so much research that’s been done, why do people keep coming back to these silly pop culture references.”  The reality is that archaeology has a deep, rather than superficial, pop culture legacy.  As a result, for archaeologists to reach public audiences, we need to understand that legacy.

Archaeological Oddities, for me, are when archaeology shows up in the media or pop culture in weird, strange, or discordant ways.  Take for example, the Chipotle Burrito restaurant, which now advertises their stores with giant Maya glyphs (I apologize for the ridiculous nature of the photo below, it was taken at 6:00am in the Atlanta airport after a red-eye flight, Thanks SAAs!).  Why did Chipotle choose to do this?  Because it’s eye catching, and Americans make vague associations between the Maya, Mexico, and thus burritos.  If you watch the world around you, I promise you too will start finding that you are surrounded by archaeological oddities!

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These oddities survive and thrive in our contemporary media landscape and often become tropes.  A trope is a symbolic expression for a concept that is often, if not always, overused.  I have previously written about the “Lost City” trope“Lost City” trope, where we see media outlets repeatedly refer to any archaeological site as a lost city.  The device works because of its repetitive nature, and the reality that the symbolism of a lost city is far more interesting to the readers at home than simply referring to the site as a “city” or “settlement.”

Tropes are important in that they simplify a message and allow more information and imagery to be carried with fewer words or expressions.  Yet, in their simplified and repetitive nature, they can start to distort reality.  Thus, I see the danger of the Lost City trope as presenting archaeology as adventure romance, rather than legitimate research.  Worse still, that distortion can start to make it difficult for people to distinguish between archaeology and pseudoarchaeology.

A recent poll found that 39.6% of Americans believe that Atlantis might be real.  Given that Plato directly implies that Atlantis is a legend used for the sake of a parable, and that there is literally no evidence for Atlantis (future posts, I promise), the results of this poll should be considered an emergency for the archaeological community.  I hope with this blog to start taking the necessary steps to speak out about these problems!

Cheers, and thank you for coming along for the ride this far!

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