Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Here's a twist

Rock art at La Mosquitia, Honduras
photo: Dpavon22
For a long time, I have been rather critical about archaeological reporting. Not so much for any inaccuracies (although they do exist), but for what I see as hype that is either promoted by the archaeologists or a sensationalist dressing by the press. Too many things "are going to rewrite history"; every hoard of Celtic coins was deposited by people fleeing from the Romans ("banking" and recycling hoards are just not sexy enough). But I frequently check news reports, anyway, and will often blog about them. I don't much like reporting such things unless there is something that I can add that is not covered by the press.

So, this morning, I had no idea what to write about today and was checking the latest archaeological news. I was tempted by the discovery of the remains of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, but I could add nothing new to that story, important as it was. Then I came across "Archaeologists condemn National Geographic over claims of Honduran 'lost cities'". There we go!

The National Geographic article that earned the ire of the archaeologists was "Lost City Discovered in the Honduran Rain Forest".  Apart from accusations that years of research was not mentioned, the main problem seems to be one of "political correctness" against "colonialist discourse". Now, National Geographic editors have a pretty good grasp on what will capture the public's interest. They are aware that their oldest readers grew up with novels by Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, and others who produced novels in the "Lost world genre", while their younger readers are more familiar with film and television archaeological adventures like the Indiana Jones movies. Realistic? Of course not. Inspiring? definately. After all, even the Archaeological Institute of America adopted Harrison Ford.

What interests the specialist, is often rather boring to the public at large and even to some generalists or people with other interests within the same discipline. I remember, at fifteen years old, laughing my head off about the title of an article in a numismatic publication: "Yet another Heraclius die variety". Even a lot of collectors of Byzantine coins would yawn at that one and you will never see such a title in the National Geographic Magazine. There are very few collectors of ancient coins who collect by die varieties, and the term "die variety" is probably never uttered by anyone who is not a numismatist. If NG had a habit of catering only to the specialist reader, they would not have lasted over 120 years.

Such stories, with personal literary connections, do certainly inspire and will draw people to pursuing life-long interests in the past. This is the pool from which many archaeologists and numismatists emerge. If you are such a person, I'd love to hear what it was that inspired you.

This is not the first time that the National Geographic Magazine has been criticized by archaeologists: Christopher B. Donnan is a specialist in the Moche culture of Peru and was criticized by archaeologists for using many ceramics from private collections in a couple of his NG articles. His answer included: "If I had known now what a crucial difference the information [recovered from privately held collections] would make in our ability to accurately reconstruct this ancient society. I would have gone about recording it with even deeper resolve.", Alison Wylie, Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology, p. 235.

To those archaeologists who signed that open letter, take a 'lude! Try not to be like an old Victorian lady offended by the sight of an ankle. Without such inspiration, there will be far fewer of your numbers in the world of tomorrow, and your funding will diminish as a result. Sometimes, if it can inspire, a little hype is a good thing.


  1. There's not a lot anymore that does not rankle the archaeological feathers....seems they can always do it better, despite THEIR not discovery the "it".....

  2. The similarity of certain archaeologists to bitchy, "in-group", schoolgirls often crosses my mind, Dick. Fortunately, they are in the minority in that profession, and even less so in its higher levels where archaeologists are usually too busy following their own passions to constantly yap at everyone who has a different viewpoint.

    In fact, the top archaeologists are always interested in different viewpoints. A glowing example of such an archaeologist is Professor Raimund Karl:


    Ray is also very knowledgeable about the issues that bother the "bitchy schoolgirls", but takes a more realistic approach that does not discriminate against certain groups. Even knowing that I am also a collector, Ray publicly told me that he considers me as much an archaeologist as himself.

    Compare this reply from Ray to me about issues that concern coin collectors:


    If all discussions about the impact of coin and artifact collecting and metal detecting on archaeology were carried out in such a manner then advancements would ensue. "Hate" websites and blogs are so sterile.



  3. Archaeologists condemn National Geographic over claims of Honduran 'lost cities' was a hoot to read. More so that the archaeological "in-crowd" almost wet themselves, quite indignant over the fact that they had been somewhat ignored and not been consulted in the NG article. To me, their "open letter" signified more a five-year old breaking something for attention, than bitchy schoolgirl cliches, but a very close call indeed. In one breath they bemoan that their funding is drying up, and in the next, condemn the folks who get the word out and inspire an interest in archaeological pursuits, hence more funding, in general. Closed archaeological minds will unfortunately find nitpicking and bad behavior lead to more closed doors to funding as well.

    1. I wish that I could add something informative, or even just witty, to what you say, James, but you have nailed it!