Archaeology: Belongs in a Museum?

The popular perception of Archaeology seems to fluctuate between bearded men knee-deep in brown sludge or rummaging in dusty museum cabinets, and the boulder-dodging, snake-throwing and Nazi-bashing antics of a certain Dr Jones. Not helped by this image, many on an academic or policy-making stage deem it “unscientific” and unworthy of diligent study beyond recreational dalliances with a metal-detector. It is perhaps not surprising then that Archaeology, along with other Humanities and Social Science subjects, has seen its governmental funding cut across the UK in recent years. You might be forgiven for thinking then that Archaeology as a prominent subject is something confined to the Temple of Doom. However, a closer look demonstrates the prominent role Archaeology still plays in the public interest, media, economy, politics, ethics and environmental understanding of global society.

Look at the BBC news page, or the science page of any reputable newspaper, in any given week and you will see at least one story directly related to Archaeology. Ranging from the discovery of new human ancestors to the dragging of a shipwreck from the ocean floor, these stories demonstrate the constant demand for Archaeology in the media and public eye. The tenfold increase in visitors to Leicester Cathedral after the ‘discovery’ of Richard III, increased worldwide travel to the British Museum following the display of the Staffordshire hoard, and a plethora of BBC and Channel 4 documentaries on Ancient Egypt, Prehistoric Britain and a huge variety of other topics, indicate the substantial economic and popular potential of Archaeology beyond the Lost Ark. Indeed, while the Chinese superpower has criticised the waning authority of the UK, it retains admiration for the wealth of our heritage that draws many Chinese tourists to make thousand mile round trips each year.

However, perhaps more importantly, Archaeology has important practical lessons for our own society that policy-makers often fail to appreciate. For example, while many squabble over whether humans are or are not causing climate change, Archaeology has demonstrated time and time again that climate has changed, and climate will change, significantly at high frequencies independent of human influence. The study of the successes and failures of our own species when faced with these changes arguably provides a better repository for public money than the political point scoring soon to be further funded by an increase of MP wages. As a wise man with a whip once said, the 200,000 years of our past represents a very long story, “better hurry up or you won’t get to hear it.”

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For more on Archaeology in the news visit bangscience.org