Like nearly everyone else in the UK I have spent most of the last year either indoors or in a park. Gone are the days when I would take detours through the British Museum to get to my part time job. There hasn’t been a day when I haven’t thought about the exhibitions that have been cancelled, or the empty spaces within those walls that I used to escape to when the stress of everyday life got too much.
The hiatus of not visiting my favourite cultural spaces has allowed me to rethink about why I spent so little time focusing on my needs away from work and study. My life has revolved around archaeology for such a long time that I had forgotten about the other parts of me that made me well me. How many exhibitions can I attend? How many books can I read this week? It was mentally exhausting, and while I still have guilt pangs about how much I’ve missed, the truth is so has everyone.
The freedom not to focus too much on keeping up to date with the latest research and exhibitions has allowed me to focus on myself, reading for the love of it, writing because I want to and not because of a false pressure to get published. Prepandemic I was only focused on how aspects of cultural heritage could either improve my knowledge or how it could impact my work. There’s much more to cultural heritage than what people are finding or how it looks in pretty display boxes. It’s about how we connect with it. Do we see our ancestors faces when we read about their ideologies? Do we see current patterns emerging when we walk around the ruins of fallen civilisations? This is what makes cultural heritage relevant to the world.
Detoxing from it, has allowed me to take a step back and consider what I enjoyed about it initially. The truth is people perspectives on it has always grabbed my imagination. How video game designers create spaces in historical environments. How people look at monuments and decide what people were thinking within that time and landscape. How writers use historical events and places to create narratives that connect with audiences.
The pandemic has allowed lots of us to look more inwards and to think about our happiness and contentment. The lives we were living before might not have actually been the best for our mental health, we’ve (or most) had the opportunity to slow down and reevaluate our goals, this inevitably means we’ve discovered something new about ourselves or that we don’t actually know ourselves at all. Cultural heritage won’t be the competition I wanted it to be. I will read books, attend exhibitions, and watch documentaries but in healthy moderation.
The media is often our strongest ally and often our greatest enemy. Drones of students decide to follow the footsteps of their heroes (Richard O’Connor, Lara Croft, Indiana Jones), allowing them to break the norm and enter a world quite unlike their own. The media has painted archaeology as a profession of discovery, uncovering visually attractive finds, sites and civilisations. But often the journey to find our truths leaves many unanswered questions and because of this archaeology is often linked to mysticism and mystery. These mysteries are often supernatural in nature and it’s often up to the archaeologist to figure them out, think Relic Hunter, Bone Kickers, and of course Tomb Raider. It’s a victim of the Bond-effect creating a powerful brand for the the archaeology profession but posing no resemblance of reality.
I suspect not many people watched Indiana Jones believing that archaeologists went around destroying archaeological sites and shooting sword wielding henchmen, but you’ll be mistaken if depictions like Indiana have little impact on the profession. Despite producing a sharply divided reaction among archaeologists, media representations of us are some of the most powerful.
These stereotypes allow for more than just an appealing career, they form the public opinion on the profession. You can often find TV programming which focuses on the words like Ancient Lost Secrets Reveal the Hidden Mysteries of the Dead. There is a reason for this, if archaeological programming used words which reflected the profession it would be along the lines of Excavations Identify Farming Tools Reflecting Migration Patterns which of course sounds far less sexy.
However, these depictions of archaeology inspire real interest across the world. We want people to be motivated by the past, enough to support our work or even venture into the profession themselves. Even if these embellishments are far from the truth, they are the catalyst to get interest in the human past. And no matter what my colleagues might say, Lara Croft will always be my favourite archaeologist.
Despite years of studying, months in a muddy field, and endless days counting fragments of bones in a lab, I was still not a professional archaeologist. And as I mingled with new acquaintances or bumped into old school friends I constantly referred to myself as an archaeologist. I felt like I was telling some insidious lie, and have perpetuated it throughout the last two years. I had tried and tried like most graduates to get a job within the heritage industry that paid more than just above minimum wage. If I complained, I kept hearing those words that archaeologists hate: “you do it because you love it” as if love alone could pay the rising interest on my credit card bills. But then I realised; that archaeology was more than just a way of paying the bills it was how I came to view the world; it had become my religion.
Archaeology goes beyond interpreting the material culture of the past, there is something about studying archaeology that changes your way of thinking in current society. You start to assess everything around you as though you were seeing it from the future, the questions of what, how and most importantly why become everyday occurrences. The need to constantly assess human behaviour becomes part of everyday life. It becomes just another cognitive function.
When I worked as an office worker, I constantly referred to myself as an archaeologist. This may be as some have pointed out as a form of self-validation, but to me it was true. I was never going to be the world’s best admin assistant, I was going to discover something no one had ever seen before, because archaeology was and always has been my end goal. Like those “writers” starting their first novel at a cafe, exchanging ideas with fellow writers. It’s the same premise, when you see another archaeologist drool over a piece of flint, or another jump for joy over a worked deer antler – the only bone that has come out of a tonne of soil – you start to understand what archaeology means, not just to our understanding of the past but to the people who do it.
In a modern world so fast and self-involved, I think we all feel a little disconnected from the past. My way of thinking has been shaped by my experience on the field, by my life counting bones, by the conversation post-lecture. Archaeology becomes more than just what we interpret about history but how it’s directly relevant to us.