I did have some qualms about reviewing this book before it arrived. It’s a free review copy, so I was wondering what to do if it turned out to be awful. I tend not to write negative reviews if I can help it, unless something is surprisingly bad, because I prefer to spend my time talking about things which deserve attention. Fortunately this remains an unsolved puzzle, because Archaeology is a Brand! by Cornelius Holtorf and illustrated by Quentin Drew is (unsurprisingly) good.
In fact I shall be cheerfully taking ideas out of this book for a few posts in the future. The reason is that this book tackles an under-appreciated aspect of archaeology, it’s public perception. Holtorf argues that archaeology is in an enviable position compared to other academic subjects as it is one of the few fields which seems to enjoy mass appeal. Yet despite this the public perception of archaeology seems to remain a major problem for some in the profession. In one of the many quotable passages he says:
I have given up counting the number of exhibitions, educational events and publications that are shouting into the reader’s face that “the real archaeologist works practically never like Indiana Jones/Lara Croft.” Translated, that means as much as “If you happen to be interested in archaeology because of Indiana Jones/Lara Croft, then this isn’t for you!” Archaeology is thus suddenly outed as a different kind of ‘person’ that you thought and hoped it was, a person that lacks some of the traits you found most appealing.
Well so what? He continues:
It is the equivalent to Greenpeace beginning a public presentation about its work by stating that “the real Greenpeace activist works practically never in a small rubber-dinghy fighting illegal whalers.” Although true, this would achieve nothing except alienate an initially favourable audience before it has had an opportunity to hear what you actually want to convey.p134
Cornelius Holtorf argues that the public perception of archaeology is of huge value, and that understanding how archaeology is received by the public could be a major asset in public communication. Archaeologists simply don’t know how well-loved they are.
Thus the opening couple of chapters are spent explaining in simple terms to academic archaeologists what any fresh undergraduate could tell them. Archaeology is a source of an astonishing amount of imagery in our society, and that the imagery is overwhelmingly positive. This is undoubtedly a case of stating the obvious but it’s done well and, as later chapters show, it is arguable that archaeologists do need to have plainly obvious facts put in front of them.
The third chapter examines how archaeology escapes from ivory towers into the wild. One of the striking features of this chapter is the similarity in presentation of the past in the three countries he uses as case studies, Sweden, Germany and the UK. Holtorf’s analysis of some archaeology programmes as a hybrid of history, travel and adventure would seem to be shared by those working in the industry. He also brings out a detective strand in both the UK and Sweden in archaeologists examining the local past.
Holtorf then moves on to how people think about archaeology and his findings are bad news for me. I’ve quietly been refusing to talk to TV for around the past year following a couple of tedious and time-wasting experiences. I didn’t put a note up about it, because it seems a bit arrogant for a grad-student to be announcing a boycott of television. The companies have played their part by not contacting me recently either, so it’s going well. Unfortunately Holtorf argues that television is by far and away the major conduit for public consumption of archaeology. The newspapers are the second most popular method. The contribution of the internet in his study is minimal. I could argue his findings are dated as they’re a couple of years old. Yet experience shows that if I want a boost of visitors then writing about a history-themed programme is an easy way to get them, which suggests that the popular view of the past is still TV-driven.
What archaeology is is also bad news for me. Archaeology is digging in the public mind, and I much prefer survey. Encouragingly Holtorf also argues that the other major association is with finding how people lived in the past. Again this may seem obvious, but so would other options like discovery or finding treasure. This would seem to tie with personal experience in that when people visit a dig it’s not enough to tll them what you’ve found as the follow-up question is always “How do you know?”. The average member of the public with an interest in the past is not stupid, and it’s nice to see a reminder of that.
Another finding is that people want to do archaeology. People can be surprised that the pay for diggers is so low, but managers of other jobs rarely get letters like:
We are two tourists seeking adventure on our holidays. Can we please wear big rubber boots and clean out your sewers? We’re willing to pay for the experience.
Yet give people a trowel and an ancient sewer to excavate and they’re delighted. The fact that archaeology is hands-on is part of what Holtorf calls archaeo-appeal, especially if you don’t think too hard about what you have your hands on.
Chapters five and six were the chapters I found most thought provoking.
Chapter five is The Archaeologist in Popular Culture: Key Themes. This examines how Indiana Jones, Lara Croft and Dr Cornelius (Planet of the Apes) are portrayed. Holtorf has identified four major themes found in the popular image of an archaeologist: Adventure, Detection, Revelation and Caring for the past. Reviewing this section is a challenge, because stated baldly like that it seems another exercise in stating the obvious. Certainly I found it obvious after he’d written it.
The attraction of this model is that this doesn’t just apply to fictional archaeology. My initial reaction when I read the first report of Homo Floresiensis was: “Wow, that’s amazing. It’s a pity that it won’t get the attention it deserves.” With this model the attraction becomes obvious, the adventure of digging on a remote island in the tropics, the case being built on close examination of the bones and the revelation of recent cousins for modern humanity. Add in the later arguments about the care of the bones, and it clearly hit several major themes.
Chapter six is about Strategies of Engagement. Why public archaeology? The answer isn’t clear and there is no consensus among archaeologists themselves. Education is the most obvious model. Archaeology is a public good which improves a nation by its consumption. A second option is Public Relations. This model asserts that Archaeology relies on the goodwill of the public and this needs to be cultivated. This may or may not be compatible with the Education model. Holtorf also proposes a third model, which is the one I agree with most, and yet also the one with which I disagree the most.
Holtorf follows Feyerabend in arguing that there is a need to democratise science, and that morally people should have a right to participate in archaeology. This follows from the assertion that all world views and thinking traditions should enjoy equal social status and state support. I disagree with his route because I’m not sure how equality can meaningfully exist in a society. Equality is equality of what? Politicial equality, social equality, economic equality, physical equality? Without these then a stable system of equals may not be possible. Instead I’d argue that rather than enabling democracy, participation is a symptom of democracy. One of the key features of science is that it is open to challenge. If you don’t believe the Earth is round, then you can test your idea with some observations and simple geometry. If you disagree with Particle Physicists then you can build your own multi-billion dollar particle accelerator and test your ideas. Ok, so that doesn’t work so well, but archaeology is not so difficult to participate in. Indeed locally there are plenty of fieldwalkers finding new sites and adding data that may disprove current ideas and no sound philosophical reason to exclude the public from archaeological practice. Realities of funding may intervene, but this is not an argument against participation in itself.
The final chapter brings the various themes together. Again Holtorf seeks to emphasise the peculiarity of archaeology’s public image:
It is deeply ironic that nothing seems to be harder for archaeologists to get to grips with in their relations with non-archaeologists than their seemingly limitless and virtually untainted overall popularity that is unrivalled among academic disciplines.p134
There has been a phase in archaeology where people have sought to emphasise their scholarly credentials by rejecting popularism. If you have a simple perception of scholarly versus popular then writing texts which are inaccessible must by their sheer unpopularity be scholarly. If popular is bad, then what happens when archaeology which was considered scholarly becomes popular? Efforts to make something accessible would also appear to cheapen a work, which could make the half of the book I haven’t talked about problematic.
“This week we will be looking at some more — er — archaeology thingies; but best of all there will be lots of close-up shots of my latest McQueen and Prado tight, but durable outdoor range.“
The book is extensively illustrated with cartoons by Quentin Drew. It’s a mixed success. Some of the illustrations are inconsequential, though make the pages look friendly. Some are both funny and apt, adding more to the text. However I wonder of the illustrations followed the text, because there are also illustrations which raise questions which aren’t really tackled in the text. For instance gender roles in popular archaeology is a big issue, and a few of the cartoons hit this. It is something which isn’t so much considered in the text, though Holtorf notes the importance of beards. I would also have liked to have seem some multi-frame strips to develop ideas. Archaeology: the Graphic Novel doesn’t seem like such an bad idea after this.
I think this is an area where archaeologists have been somewhat slow to examine. Despite the self-conscious politicism of archaeology in the 80s and 90s, it’s Classicists which have done more with what they call Reception. Classicists have been happy to work within Film Studies for quite a while. Though the name of the forthcoming conference on pop culture may be Classics Hell, there’s no shortage of speakers. In contrast I can’t recall the same extensive treatment of archaeology as popular culture. In Archaeology the public is treated as a resource in museum studies, or stakeholders in heritage affairs. This book is a step in redressing that balance. There’s plenty to discuss, is Archaeology really a brand? To what extent is Archaeology perceived as a process, and how do Archaeology and History differ in the public imagination? Finally archaeologists are also members of the public; to what extent are unexamined ideas absorbed from popular culture embedded in their own work? This book provides a stepping stone into Holtorf’s other recent book From Stonehenge to Las Vegas.
Like Holtorf’s previous book Archaeology is a Brand! suffers from the same problem in terms of academic credibility in that it’s a pleasure to read. Despite this is it a good book? For me a good book is one which brings to light new information, new ideas or new questions. If you’re interested in the public perception of archaeology, then by that measure this is a good book.