Why the dark academia aesthetic for the archaeologist doesn’t (but could) work

I’m not one for internet aesthetics. Before I studied archaeology, I was very much into the mainstream. I spent most of my time not reading the great classics, Fitzgerald, Carver, Dickens, but Sophie Kinsella, Helen Fielding and oh god R.R Martin. I rolled my eyes when anyone mentioned Plath or Hughes, there was very little time for anything much else but attending ritzy media parties. When I was at university for my postgrad, archaeologists fell in two camps, the pseudo academic always with a book in his hand or the scruffy muddy handed digger. Unfortunately for me I probably fell in the former category, although I found my tweed collection was lacking in comparison to everyone else and my knowledge of Latin was subpar, but who knew that almost a half a decade later that this image of the pretentious scholar would somehow end up being an internet sensation? Dark academia as it is known as is a popular academic aesthetic on social media that revolves around classic literature, the pursuit of self-discovery, and a general passion for knowledge and learning.

At 33, I am beyond the pursuit of an idolised image, but what intrigued me about this weird corner of the internet was how much of archaeology, most importantly an era of archaeology known as cultural history revolved around this aesthetic. Did the understanding of the origin of archaeology play almost ironically in this aesthetic? For those who don’t know, cultural history was based on the idea of defining historical societies into distinct ethnic and cultural groupings according to their material culture. It was first developed in in Germany among those archaeologists surrounding Rudolf Virchow, culture-historical ideas would later be popularised by Gustaf Kossinna.  A staunch nationalist and racist, Kossinna lambasted fellow German archaeologists for taking an interest in non-German societies, such as those of Egypt and the Classical World, and used his publications to support his views on German nationalism. This makes the idolisation of scholars from this period, problematic. There are numerous articles on this subject, most criticising the European aesthetic of the academic. And much like cultural history, it is defined by elitism with undertones of racism and classism.

Bruce Trigger argued that the development of cultural history in part was due to the rising tide of nationalism and racism in Europe, which emphasised ethnicity as the main factor shaping history. Childe introduced the concept of an archaeological culture (which up until then had been largely restrained purely to German academics), to his British counterparts. This concept would revolutionise the way in which archaeologists understood the past, and would come to be widely accepted in future decades. The pictures that encompass this aesthetic mostly focus on the European ideals. There is nothing intricately wrong with wearing tweed and reading Homer’s Iliad, but there seems to be little awareness of were this aesthetic borrows heavily from the colonial period of British history.  Dark Academia glorifies the long relationship between colonialism and archaeology. Even if one is not studying archaeology, the aesthetic (predominantly the fashion and décor) borrow almost exclusively from culture historians. From tweed jackets to pith hats, certain items of clothing are enduring emblems of preconceived notion of “European intellectual supremacy”.

A famous archaeologist Dr Manassa Darnell also known as the “Vintage Archaeologist” has a large Instagram following, and presents herself as a 1920s Egyptologist of course from a white European or American with a particular socio-economic background. During this period, archaeological practices not only sidelined African people’s heritage and knowledge. They also resulted in many important fossils and artefacts being held in institutions outside Africa most notably America and England. The obsession with the aesthetics of a particular culture and era are questionable, there is of course nothing wrong with appreciating beauty and aesthetic on any level. The issue arises when people who follow this aesthetic celebrate colonial-era archaeology and erase the presence of people of colour. Dark Academia promotes the marketization, and consumption of these type of colonial aesthetics.

With a focus on the idolisation of classical art and philosophy arguably beginning at the same time as cultural history or at least in colonial era archaeology. The Elgin Marbles of the Parthenon for example were removed between 1801 to 1812 by agents of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, as well as sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechtheum. The resurgence of Greek and Roman imagery by extreme conservative, white supremacist groups show how these types of imagery are still powerful at degrading people of a non-white background. Presumably, the problem is then not the aesthetic itself, I own a patchy armed tweed jacket, and my khaki’s are what I pack during archaeological excavations, it lies is in the complete idolisation and ongoing popularity of and nostalgia for colonial imageries among large segments of western audiences. By replicating this period down to the Harris Tweed and ignoring the the Eurocentrism apparent in Dark Academia makes it problematic in the context of the contemporary archaeology.  In this light, it almost callous for scholars of this field to out rightly appeal to the white-washed, elitist nostalgia of cultural history without context. It is up to us to instead point out the irony of internalised coloniality, and wear those tweed jackets while rewriting the damage done by those before us.