Anyone affiliated with archaeology eventually faces a comparison with Indiana Jones. While I certainly don’t mind being compared to Harrison Ford, the comparison between modern archaeology and Indiana Jones style archaeology isn’t quite fitting because each understands the purpose and goals of archaeology in radically different ways. Jones-style archaeology, a none-too-kind parody of Classical archaeology, sees archaeology as a search for objects of value. The type of archaeology I strive to practice understands archaeology as an attempt to use objects we find as tools to tell the stories of the people of the past. The key difference, then, between Indiana Jones and me is the difference between a treasure hunter and a story-teller.
At rock-bottom, Indiana Jones is a treasure hunter. He galavants off to faraway locations in search of powerful artifacts on behalf of the U.S. Government. This depiction of archaeology as a hunt for objects leads the public to presume that the product of archaeology is an object of value and thus that the goal of archaeology must be to find these objects. Just as Indiana looks for an important artifact, so too must all archaeologists. While Indiana Jones may look for objects that have value because they are powerful (e.g. Ark of the Covenant) most archaeologists that practice a type of archaeology similar to Indy’s search for objects which have value because they are beautiful. This type of archaeology, broadly termed Classical archaeology, sees archaeology as something akin to “field-art history.” Its goal is to uncover objects that are beautiful in order to provide evidence for an interpretation of the history of art.
While I admire Classical archaeology’s appreciation for beautiful objects and see it as a powerful tool for encountering past cultures through their art, I prefer to think of modern archaeology as an attempt to use objects to tell the story of the past. I prefer this understanding of archaeology for three reasons. First, there’s no guarantee that what we find to be beautiful is the same as the things other cultures found beautiful. While there’s a good chance that both modern and ancient Athenians found the Parthenon beautiful, its unlikely they find it beautiful in the same way. Interfacing with past cultures primarily through their art becomes difficult if and when we realize we may not see their objects the same we they saw them.
Second, focusing on objects as tools to tell a very human story broadens the scope of archaeology. If one is primarily looking for objects of beauty – art really – then the vast majority of the objects one finds are unhelpful or irrelevant because they aren’t art. But if one sees archaeology as an attempt to tell a story, each object has relevance and value in shaping what kind of story can be told.
Third, seeing archaeology as a story-telling enterprise restores agency to the people of the past. At times, it seems that the focus on art and beautiful objects becomes so narrow that we can lose sight of the people who made the objects in the first place. Focusing so heavily on the value of an object as art places the value on the object, to the detriment of the human who created it. Viewing archaeology as a story we tell about the past allows us to place the people of the past front-and-center, where I believe they belong. The objects they left behind – all of them, not just the pretty ones – become ways for us to help others see their full humanity despite the great differences in time and cultures. For me, telling that story is something worth doing, even if it makes me a little bit less like Indiana Jones.