Perceptions about Archaeology

As the only non-archaeologist graduate fellow in Campus Archaeology Program (I am a medical anthropologist in training), I wanted to investigate the attitudes that others outside the discipline have toward archaeology. Interestingly enough, when I tell people I am an anthropologist, it is usually assumed I am an archaeologist. These assumptions sometimes diverge further, with people thinking I am a paleontologist. I am sure this is a phenomenon that anthropologists from all subfields experience, but I thought I would turn to the literature to see what documented assumptions about archaeology exist.

The Society for American Anthropology published an article entitled Exploring Public Perceptions and Attitudes about Archaeology. The findings of this study were congruent to the assumptions I hear about anthropology as a whole and more specifically, archaeology. These findings point to the importance of Campus Archaeology Program to include our students, staff, faculty and readers of our blog in the investigation and preservation of our campus’ history and, if previously unaware or uninterested, of introducing them to the greater value of archaeology.

Archaeologists working, via Boston University

Many of us reading know the correct answer: archaeology is the study of the human past through material remains of human action. As for the American public, the findings of the article were surprisingly hopeful. The authors argue that Americans have a fairly accurate understanding of what archaeology is, however the depth of that knowledge and understanding of what archaeologists actually do is lacking and often displays misconceptions, which matches what I shared previously in my personal anecdote.

The article highlights one finding that may explain why people assume I am a paleontologist: the word that comes to mind when an American thinks of archaeology is the word “digging.” Most can correctly decipher that this includes digging artifacts from past history, heritage, and ancient cultures and civilizations, but 8 in 10 would agree that we study dinosaurs and geology as well.

This study was helpful in gauging general knowledge of archaeology and in illustrating a need for a deeper awareness and understanding of what we do and why it is important. The majority surveyed in this article believe archaeology is valuable and should be included in school curriculum. These issues of importance range from conservation laws to preserving remains from past cultures in history. Campus Archaeology Program has been granted the privilege and resposiblity to keep track of changes occuring on our campus and to know who we were in the past and how this shapes where we are going in the future.

Francis Pryor, a British archaeologist asserts, “I believe passionately that archaeology is vitally important.  Without an informed understanding of our origins and history, we will never place our personal and national lives in a true context.  And if we cannot do that, then we are prey to nationalist, fundamentalist and bigots of all sorts, who assert that their revelations or half-truths to which they subscribe are an integral part of human history.”

As archaeologists we have the charge to know human history with deeper understanding of how human behaviors produce real consequences. Now as for why the general public assumes that all anthropologists are necessarily archaeologists, this is still to be discovered.



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