Why we need Indiana Jones

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.

Passion is useless without strength

The depth and strength of a human character are defined by its moral reserves.
People reveal themselves completely only when they are thrown out of the customary conditions of their life, for only then do they have to fall back on their reserves.
– Leon Trotsky

There were so many times in my journey where I reflected on my actions and my thoughts and wondered am I a good person? The journey that I’m talking about isn’t a literal one. It’s a journey that a lot of people go through; its one of changing careers. I wasn’t happy being a journalist, that’s why against my better judgment I decided to pursue the idea of becoming an archaeologist, a process which took almost 4 years. When I begun the journey I was filled with a lot of anticipation, aspiration and excitement. I was going to the university of my dreams, I was pursuing the career of my childhood. I’ve heard that saying so many times, “it’s the journey there that counts”,  but is it really? Did I go through so much anxiety, stress, regret, depression, self-loathing for the end goal, to achieve my happy ending?

It was a journey that had been delayed for so long, while I travelled, dabbled in pursuing a writing career, settling down with my boyfriend. But despite this acknowledgement of time wasted, I still wish I had gone about things slightly differently. There were times where I almost had forgotten why I took the journey to begin with, as I fell in out of love with the subject (and with people). I dragged myself along at the worst of times I’m not even sure if it was the PTB or god sometimes, but I often felt like I was being tested; there were plenty of tears, plenty of agonising decisions, insidious thoughts. The problem was someone had stolen my strength, I had lost it and without it I had become a bitter and resentful person.

‘Tis true; life happens, things change. While I was in the most distressing time of my life, I’d lost that focus, the drive, hell I’d even lost the will to wake up in the morning. I wanted to avoid everyone, and all responsibility, and even worse I didn’t want to do archaeology anymore.  The quest had almost stopped, the drive within me had died.  Despite the bitterness I harboured towards many people, there was one person who made sure that drive didn’t die completely that anger and resentment didn’t fully consume me. He would accompany me to study at the British Museum, he would make sure that I had completed my assignments, he even helped me submit my dissertation. I relied on his support because I knew deep down strength isn’t something you are naturally affiliated with. Strength is something you earn, something you gain. Something you have to go through hardship to achieve.  I needed someone who could allow that strength and perseverance to emerge once again.

When I look back even as recently as this year I wonder if the journey had changed me, am I worse person than before? During the hardest of times, my passion and strength were replaced with anger and resentment.  It takes another sort of enemy – yourself – to make you change. While I blamed another person and  drowned in self pity, almost allowing myself to be yielded to it.  My support structure, the one person who had made me realise my own potential, who encouraged me, once told me, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”  He was right, there is great strength in allowing yourself peace.

 

Archaeology as my identity

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.