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Kent Archaeological Review extract

The Archaeological Ostrich --
A quizzical look at modern archaeology.
by Ralph Mills.

To those who glance occasionally at the back of the Radio Times or at the inside pages of the Guardian it is apparent that archaeology, in jumping on the environmental band-waggon, has achieved a revival comparable to that which occurred in the French-polished and top-hatted days of its middle Victorian antecedents. If the media are reliable indicators of the opinions of their public, then the graduation of archaeology from panel games to documentary, from Illustrated London News to Sunday Supplement, and from interval talk to series, points to a considerable increase in public interest in their past. Perhaps, it might be said cynically, that we are catching the North American syndrome which, as more and more of our world disappears beneath concrete, makes us desperate to capture some of the romance of a less aseptic and pre-stressed existence. However, as it squeezes between the adverts and gobbles up column inches in the Times, it is worth pausing for a moment to examine the impressions made by all the outward show of modern archaeology and also to look hard at its reality.

I have little doubt that, to the layman, archaeology is a mixture of mummies and pith helmets, beards and long shorts, Hammer Films and Dr Who, lantern slides and elderly ladies. Reports appear regularly enthusing (almost automatically, it seems) about the biggest this and the longest that, the oldest something and the first something else, in such profusion that most of the excitement is diffused and lost. Museums display dust and the frowns on their attendants' faces, or attempt to act as advertisements for plate glass and spotlights, while some become better known for their snack bar than for their contents.

Is our layman's muddled and only partly correct impression changed if he examines archaeology rather more closely? Unfortunately not. He might wander in the deep pile of the carpet of the Society of Antiquaries, or don anorak and suitably big and mud-caked boots and squint into the Siberian mud of an Eastern England winter "dig", or sit amongst the canons, the epidiascope and the luke-warm tea of a historical society, or stand, shuffling sheepishly on the fringe of the jolly cliques at an ebullient London meeting, where the sound of people rushing out to catch their trains is more entertaining than the self-adulatory lectures, or peer over into the trenches of a score of hectic, helmeted rescue excavations, without reaching a conclusion as to the present state of the subject.

Archaeology is today a confused creature, resembling in many ways the Axolotle, an animal which is sexually mature and can reproduce although it has the body of a juvenile. Apart from the fact that we cannot make up our minds whether archaeology is an art or a science (being an art means that you don't always have to be sure of the truth!) we have, in many ways, not progressed from the days of the "Gentleman's Magazine", a find being a suitable subject for discussion over sherry and providing a form of diversion on a sunny Sunday. The antiquarian image still looms large. The large number of small amateur societies, with their coach trips, Saturday "digs" and cold lecture rooms are closely aligned, however much they protest, with this image, as is the strongly vocal force made up of academics, who are usually thought to reside in dark-panelled studies or glass boxes, both of which they are understandably loth to leave. Finally, nestling uncomfortably somewhere in the middle are the "professionals," energetic and intense, surviving on starvation salaries and leading a life somewhat akin to all-in wrestling. That all these aspects are necessary and indeed vital is obvious, but at the moment each section rivals all the others, and each section is itself full of turmoil. The whole may be compared with a disturbed ants' nest -- each worker rushing about with his own particular egg and achieving little but chaos. In its two centuries of existence archaeology has failed miserably to achieve the direction followed by its fellow sciences.

It should be remembered that science began amongst the amateur thinkers, be they ancient Greek, or Victorian clergymen, and survived every sort of opposition and personality-dash to become the monster it is today. Remember too that, despite its complexity, science still accommodates and welcomes the enthusiastic amateur, who makes a valuable contribution in fields as diverse as natural history, palaeontology, astronomy, electronics and environmental studies, to name but a few. (Very few professional scientists would show the contempt for amateur workers that I have seen in archaeological circles, a state of affairs, due as much to envy on the part of the amateur as to suspicion on that of the professional). Despite its present exalted position, science hasn't adopted the toffee-nosed attitude that archaeology has presumably inherited from its artistic adherents. For example, the interest of the public in animals and the welfare of exotic and threatened species is due to the determination of workers not to talk down to them -- there is no Gerald Durrell or Hans and Lotte Hass of archaeology.

We are still beset by an upper-class donnish attitude (think of the number of people who hark back to "Animal, Vegetable and Mineral"). Those who slave away in the slime of a neglected canal, or haul rails about Welsh mountains, or thresh about in overgrown nature reserves, or patiently guard osprey's nests, or clear litter from beaches, do so knowing that their efforts are not going to be belittled by some envious opponent, or be used to boost the reputation of a publicity-conscious director, or disappear into an archive or a stiff-necked journal or a badly produced, scruffy broadsheet.

We know that a very large number of people find the past fascinating and thought-provoking. A great many people think the same about wild life. At the present moment I would give a near-extinct animal a better chance than a Roman Fort and this is the fault of the archaeologists, not the public. Where are the Naders, the Rachel Carsons, the Erhlichs of archaeology? Motorways, airports and other catastrophies jump from place to place with preservation societies growling and biting at their heels, but the bulldozers rip through our history without so much as a whimper from the majority of people. As inhabitants of a country which destroys a unique site immediately outside its seat of government we have little to be proud of.

At a recent meeting in London the probability of archaeology becoming a unified profession was looked on with pessimism -- perhaps we ought to look rather more closely at the examples shown us by our sister sciences and realise that until the present state of gimmicry, hysteria, wizz-kiddery, snobbery and mutual distrust has been overcome, the future of archaeology itself must be looked on with pessimism.

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