Do you remember your first encounter with archaeology? Quite likely

Do you remember your first encounter with archaeology? Quite likely it was a movie, TV show, or perhaps a book. Regardless of the medium, the first few encounters with archaeology likely shaped your conceptions about the field as a whole. As a result of the overarching giants such as Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider, parts of the general population view archaeology as an adventure, a dramatic experience full of danger and hardships at every turn that leads to a priceless artifact.

Movies such as these are examples of popular culture, elements of culture or media that are widely available to the general population and are not restricted to educated professionals. In Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), Damien “DJ” Drake Jr. (Brendan Fraser) is on a quest to find the Blue Monkey diamond, an artifact that possess supernatural powers, after he learns that his father has been kidnapped. His father, a famous actor who is actually a spy in real life, leaves a cryptic message and tells his son to finish his important mission.

The quest for the Blue Monkey diamond leads DJ to team up with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman). On their way to locate and destroy the artifact, they are taken to various locations around the world and face trials and hardships at every turn. Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) highlights an assortment of popular archaeological stereotypes that are used in a variety of media, such as movies and books. Although popular culture has allowed for the increased awareness and interest in archaeology, it has also introduced various stereotypes that are detrimental to the working professionals in the field.

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First and foremost, the theme of adventure is commonly depicted in movies pertaining to archaeology. In some cases, the journey is almost as important as the artifact itself. Even though a sense of adventure may make the movie more interesting, it takes away the reality of archaeology. In the majority of popular culture, “the archaeologist is seen as a hero and role model, competent and resourceful, through new discoveries and important revelations serving the interests of society and occasionally of humanity,”(Holtorf 2007):62) . An archaeologist is viewed as an adventurer before they are viewed as an academic professional. Other professions, such as physicians, are also portrayed in an almost romanticised way. Physicians are shown to perform complex, life-saving surgeries and diagnosis rare conditions on an almost daily basis. However, in real life, the career is not nearly so glamorous. Cinematic works rarely show beyond the ‘cool’ and ‘exciting’ parts. In reality, the so-called ‘boring parts’ are the majority of the workload. Regardless of whether or not the ‘boring parts’ should be focused on during films, it glorifies the career and moulds the perception of aforementioned career. Consequently, the general population are only exposed to the ‘exciting’ parts, and soon are under the impression that is what the discipline entails.

Furthermore, in Looney Tunes: Back in Action, the main characters can be seen walking through a dense jungle in a remote area of Africa on their journey to the Blue Monkey diamond. They are depicted as heroes on their way to save the world from utter chaos and destruction. On their journey, they face dangerous trials and barely manage to arrive unscaved. Their adventure to the artifact takes up the majority of the movie and, after the group obtains the Blue Monkey diamond and save the world from destruction, the movie is over. Just like that. No further inquiry into the artifact or its mysterious powers, no explanation as to the origin of the artifact. No questions as to why no one had attempted to retrieve it before then if it was previously established that the location was known. The adventure of searching for the artifact was more important than the artifact itself. In order to build suspense and amplify cinematic theatrics, the reason for the entire quest was minimized to favour the difficult and dangerous journey. Although this allows for a more theatrical movie, it takes away from the reality of archaeologists.

Secondly, artifacts are crucial in understanding how people lived in the past. It gives context and insight to what people thought, behaved, and valued at that point in time. Artifacts can be seen almost like a physical snapshot of the past, a momento left behind for their descendants to uncover. With the aid of artifacts, archaeologists are able to piece together a puzzle with missing pieces. Every archaeological site could hold the next missing piece. The problem lies in finding those puzzle pieces. Not all artifacts are created equal; some are very important and aid professionals in making new discoveries, whilst others may be essentially useless. Artifacts are widely varied and, “many times, objects facilitate prejudices and strengthen stereotypes because they speak to visitor pre-existing knowledge and misinformation, especially when context is ambiguous,”(Aenasoaie 2012):28). Without archaeologists, it would be quite difficult in differentiating between artifacts and how useful they are to modern humans. Personal biases and preconceived notions can alter the interpretation of artifacts, so it is crucial that archaeologists remain neutral at look at the artifact from an outside perspective. However, at the same time, they must be able to understand the position of the people who were alive at that point in time in order to reach an objective conclusion. In popular culture artifacts are usually rare, beautiful, and priceless. These artifacts play into the stereotype that archaeologists must make meaningful and ground-breaking discoveries all of the time. Every discovery is important and significant in some shape or form. Evidently, these stereotypes lead the general population to believe that each artifact can garner meaning, and that each archaeological site is the ‘next big thing’.

Moreover, the act of looting furthers this idea. If an artifact is taken out of context, the original significance of placement or surroundings is lost. Additionally, media portrayal of the discovery of an artifact may result individuals uneducated in the field of archaeology discovering an artifact and deciding to recover the object on their own. This is detrimental to the artifact that was discovered, as the artifact is no longer useful to the archaeologists after it has been taken out of its primary location and context. Although some artifacts are actually ground-breaking and challenge the preconceived notions, other artifacts are essentially useless. However, archaeologists and other professionals are the individuals qualified to determine whether or not an artifact is useful. If the general population believes that they are able to determine the significance of artifacts they encounter, than many possible archaeological discoveries will be lost. Even though it may be exciting to uncover a potential artifact, unqualified people overestimating their own capabilities because they have seen archaeology in media is detrimental to the legitimate field of archaeology.

Thirdly, archaeological sites can be discovered in various places all over the world. These sites are usually buried and hard to find to the untrained eye. Sites can be located anywhere, and there is no telling where the next site will be discovered. Archaeological sites aid in painting a picture of the past. They provide a more objective perspective of our ancestors. Often, the books that are written in the past are usually done so by the victorious party and, therefore, they lose that objectivity. The archaeological record consists of the compilation of evidence gathered from archaeological sites. Not all civilizations keep a written record, such as indigenous people who opt for a history passed down through oral tradition, but a majority of civilizations leave behind physical evidence of their presence. This evidence is ultimately responsible for understanding the past as we know today. However, the evidence they leave behind is only useful because of preservation of these archaeological sites. Preservation of sites is varied depending on location and circumstance. As extractive industries -the operation of the removal of raw materials (Anonymous ) – expands, the need for proper preservation becomes more important. Although increased extraction of natural resources has resulted in economic growth, “the discovery of substantial deposits of minerals, petroleum, and natural gas resources… presents a growing challenge to effective heritage protection, conservation, and management,”(Dominguez 2017):130). It is becoming progressively more important to think about preserving these sites. Without proper dedication set to discover, maintain, and understand these archaeological sites, many important sites may never be uncovered and understood.

Consequently, the archaeological record that is known today is a result of the archaeological sites and artifacts that have withstood the test of time. There is no telling how many sites have been destroyed, whether by humans or the Earth itself. As more time passes, less and less archaeological sites remain of the past. That is why we have so little evidence farther back in time. There are just so few artifacts remaining that a definitive conclusion cannot be reached. However, the archaeological sites that have been preserved long enough to be rediscovered are an invaluable tool to modern archaeologists. As a result of preservation, anthropologists are able to look into the past of our ancestors and find meaning in the data collected at various sites. Additionally, the portrayal of archaeological sites in popular culture paints a very closed-minded narrative of these sites as a whole. In reality, archaeological sites are not just comprised of pyramids and vine-covered ruins. There are a wide array of archaeological sites all over the world, and no two sites will be the same.

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Do you remember your first encounter with archaeology? Quite likely. (2019, Dec 17). Retrieved from

Do you remember your first encounter with archaeology? Quite likely
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