Archaeology and Paleontology: A Smackdown

A typical conversation I’ve had when introducing myself:

Stranger: What do you do for a living?

Me: I’m an archaeologist.

Stranger: Oh, really?  My kid loves dinosaurs!

Me: <facepalm>

Stranger: Oh, really! What do you think about the Mayan Calendar/Egyptian Pyramids/Stonehenge Was Built By Aliens Theory?  Let me tell you what I think…

Me: Flee!  Run Away!

(Now that I’m a writer, I get “I’ve got a great story idea, why don’t you write it and give me 50% of your multi-million dollar book deal?” or “I hate your genre.”)

After I became an archaeologist, stories with archaeology in them often made me cringe.  Not just because of factual errors — though those always get my intellectual panties in a twist.  I began to avoid everything archaeology in popular culture because so few writers use archaeology in a way that is effective and meaningful. 

While there are notable exceptions, all I really need to do is point to the most popular images of archaeology and archaeologists in the media to make my case: Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider.  Books have much less of an impact on people, nowadays (with the exception of Harry Potter and Twilight, perhaps.  But I digress).

Writers – genre writers in particular — like to use archaeology in their stories.  Before I was an archaeologist, this had a lot of “gee whiz!” factor.  I loved seeing archaeologists as main characters, mostly because I wanted to be one.  Now that I’m a writer, I understand why — writers are looking for what sells, and scenarios that make sense to the reader.

It really isn’t the writers’ fault, but they are as much a part of the problem as archaeologists are.  I suspect the dearth of good archaeology in popular culture is a result of a disconnection (in the United States, at least) between our understanding of the past and its role in shaping the present, compounded by a lack of experience about just what archaeology is outside of popular media.  This is why I became a public archaeologist, but that is another matter.

So I did some delving on the ‘nets to examine my own biases on the matter. 

Archaeology in literature is where I started (not just genre literature, but all literature).  When Google came out with their Ngram Viewer that allows you to search how often keywords appear in all the books that Google Books has loaded into their vast database starting in 1800 until 2008, the first comparison I searched was “archaeology, paleontology”.

Image

http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=archaeology%2C+paleontology&year_start=1800&year_end=2008&corpus=0&smoothing=3

Archaeology and paleontology have almost no references in literature until 1840 — they are relatively new sciences.  Around 1840, archaeology begins to pull away, and by the 1990s, hits a peak at approximately .0006000% references in literature than paleontology at .0000500% of all Google Books. 

Wow. Archaeology is more popular than paleontology in literature, despite Jurassic Park and the obsessions of every child I’ve ever met between the ages of three and ten.  Despite the fact that half the time when I introduce myself as archaeologist I frequently get asked if I’ve dug up any dinosaurs lately.    

I assume, though I am not sure, that this peak has a lot to do with Y2K and people’s obsession with the end of the world.  People seek out archaeology as explanation or as a means of understanding whenever doomsday scenarios rear their ugly heads.  In the 21st Century, archaeology dips down again until the database’s limit at 2008, but I suspect it is on the rise with all of the insanity surrounding 2012 and the Mayan calendar.

My skeptic’s voice kicked in right about here — .0006000% is not a ton of references, is it? And it probably doesn’t include all of those dinosaur kids’ books, which outstrip archaeological kids’ books by the metric ton.  If those were included, paleontology would track closer to archaeology, I’d think.

So I looked at Google Trends, which includes all those searches by kids who are using the internet to follow up on their own fascinations and homework projects.

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http://www.google.com/trends/?q=archaeology,+paleontology

Gee, archaeology outstrips paleontology by far, though archaeology is on a downward trend.  The peak hit a massive upswing at the beginning of 2011, probably because of that dratted Mayan-end-of-the-world thing, but didn’t rise much with the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008.  (I’m interested in the regular downbeat at the end of each year, that correlation would be an interesting one to follow up on).

The irony is Indiana Jones was probably inspired by Roy Chapman Andrews, a paleontologist-adventurer:   served in the Naval Intelligence Service in WWI, wore a ranger hat and almost always carried a revolver.

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Roy Chapman Andrews: Antlers Are More Deadly Than Whips

Why is archaeology so much more popular than paleontology, despite the obsession of nearly every child under the age of ten and the frequent confusion adults have between the two disciplines?

I’ve decided to pick up this book to follow up on my intellectual curiosity: Archaeology Is A Brand! The Meaning of Archaeology in Contemporary Culture by Cornelius Holtorf, which is a cross cultural look at archaeology in media and popular culture for more edification, but in the meantime, this is what I think, for what it is worth:

Homo sap. is a pretty self-obsessed, self-aggrandizing species.  Literature explores this self-obsession to its limits.  History and archaeology provide writers with a lens for revealing what-it-means-to-be-human, often in all its ugliness.  The usual where we’ve come from, and where we’ve been is right there on the page.  And where we are probably going, too. 

Writers try to tap into the imagery and conversations of our collective unconscious, and archaeology is a part of that.  Archaeology is used to great effect in mysteries, which plumb the darkest aspects of the human condition.  Archaeology can be used to great effect.  And it can fail miserably if the author is not careful with their assumptions and deep biases, let alone their research. 

Witness these two HORRIBLE reality TV shows: American Digger by Spike TV and Diggers! on the (sigh) The National Geographic Channel (Diggers! has been pulled from National Geographic as of now, but it did air . (Why are they horrible . . . if you don’t already know, read more here: http://www.sha.org/blog/index.php/2012/02/more-teaching-moments-national-geographic-televisions-diggers/ and here: http://saa.org/Portals/0/SAA/Press/Diggers.pdf

So I decided to put together a beginner’s guide from an archaeologist and a writer for how archaeology has been used in literature and popular culture both in good and bad ways to help fellow (particularly new) writers out.

My next post will be an Archaeologist As Character guide.  But in the meantime, why do you think archaeology is so popular, at least compared to paleontology?  Why is it portrayed so poorly by much of mass-media?  For the archaeologists, who gets it right?  Who gets it really, really wrong?  Tell me your favorite examples – the badder the better.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Archaeology and Paleontology: A Smackdown

  1. I read an interesting article on the historical evidence for Jesus recently, and this does make me wonder how much of the interest in archaeology can be related to religion. I know biblical archaeology’s a big thing with some folks.

    I think archaeology has the association with treasure hunting, though. Diggers shows that clearly. It works both ways, giving your academic character a potential for adventure and intrigue, or giving your treasure hunter credentials and a respectable title.

    I think an archaeologist or historian makes a nice mouth piece and made up expert for someone writing a story. Some version of history is usually wrapped up in people’s politics and social stances, and having an “expert” as a sock puppet in your story is always nice to reveal that no, really, things were TOTALLY the way I say they were and that means I’m right about everything else.

    • After I posted this, I thought of the biblical component, as well as the alien/conspiracy element. Having an archaeologist as a ridiculous foil for academic folly is also an attraction. There are only so many plots in which dinosaurs go munch rawr that work, while dead ancestors with scary and/or divine truth can be played endlessly.

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