It’s not all Indiana Jones, but we wish it were

Archaeology has something of a following and a reputation. We can thank Indiana Jones and his constant refrain “that belongs in a museum” in his quest to stop artifacts from getting into the hands of private collectors.

He has a point. It is a little odd we need to go to Berlin to see the Gates of Ishtar. As for the British Museum, the continued existence of the Elgin Marbles on display there is never going to make the Greeks happy. Lord Elgin (hence the name) purchased the friezes from the Turks who at the time were an invading force.

From the Brit perspective, a price was paid (note there was no use of the word fair).From the Greek perspective the Turks had no right to sell them. From a common-sense perspective, one imagines that if someone had removed the Salisbury Stones, as Stonehenge could so easily have been called, the Brits would be bleating for their pre-Brexit return. It seems sensible to reunite the Parthenon Marble with the Parthenon, even if only down the hill in the museum.

If it is not Indiana Jones, what is it?

Archaeology is centered on understanding human activity through the analysis of artifacts, architecture and the cultural landscape – hence all the digging. It also has a start date, beginning in East Africa 3.3 million years ago, and of course, continues to the present day.

Someday, the coastal cities which will be submerged by the ever-rising seas will be some new generation’s Atlantis. The only difference being they will find it.

Not paleontology

If the digging mentioned above confused you, archaeology is not concerned with dinosaurs. The search for fossils belongs to the paleontologists. This is Raiders of the Lost Ark, not Jurassic Park.

Controversy

Like all proper academic topics, archaeology has its share of controversy. Some of the better ones follow. The bust of Nefertiti, like the Gates of Ishtar, resides in Berlin, these days. The Egyptians seek her repatriation.

Tikal Temple 33 is a Mayan temple which at the time of discovery was 33 meters high, hence the name. Archaeologists decided to take it down to see what lay beneath.

The Piri Reis map is in question because of the accuracy of the New World and the Antarctic coastlines. Piri Reis was a contemporary of Christopher Columbus and an admiral of the Ottoman navy. Could he have sailed to these places? Undoubtedly. Were his cartographic skills as good as the map suggests? Definitely not.

Archaeology is ourselves writ large

It is little wonder that we have this continued interest in our own past history. It shows us where we have come from. It gives us a sense of our place in the world and it helps us to make sense of ourselves as but a spec on the great continuum that is the mystery of why we are here at all.

Through archaeology, we might understand our predecessors. We can be sure she would not understand us.