Why a Cultural Anthropologist should love Archaeology

11 August 2012

I was a little drunk when I wrote this, sitting in a Beatles-themed dive bar in Quito while yelling over some Beatles hit to get this point across, so bear with me. Also, immediately afterwards we wandered into a bar where we danced with an English dude who I’m pretty sure was on cocaine. So my memory might be skewed by that whole experience.

I’m here in Ecuador getting ready to be staff on an archaeological expedition. There are times that I wonder to myself what the fuck I’m doing here, whether I belong here in the presence of a guy who gets passionate about stratification levels and dig units. It’s not that I don’t understand that stuff (which is obviously more than I can say for most people out there), but I’m definitely not immediately passionate about it. I admit, reluctantly, that I am keen as fuck to dive into a textbook Vanessa told me about recently, titled Introduction to Statistics for Anthropologists.

More on that later, I’m sure.

But there’s a reason that Archaeology fascinates me - a devoted Cultural Anthro major with interests in pulling technology into Anthropology and Anthropology into technology - and it’s something that I think should ring true for any cultural studies person (including sociologists et al.).

To understand the reason, I felt the need to explain by first discussing the impact of murder. Consider it, if you will. Pick a random guy off the street and think about what it would mean if he was shot by some mugger right now.

  • Wherever he was going, he’s not now.
  • Whatever friends he had, now have to reconcile this new loss.
  • His family - both the family he made and the one he was born into - will have to figure out how to work without him.
  • Every single organization, company, community group, etc… he was a part of will acknowledge his passing in some way, and cope with the loss.

That man’s life is a thread, and cutting it isn’t as simple as pulling a trigger. There are repercussions that carry across towns, provinces, states, countries, and across the world - in some way or another. Human life is profound, and the loss of one - particularly the abrupt loss of one - is staggering in its impact.

This is important because archaeology is the study, in many ways, of dead people. Archaeology itself is more about the artifacts, but these too represent strands which constitute the thread of that man’s life. The things he owned which no longer are his are somehow re-consolidated among the community.

Archaeology is fascinating because it’s quintessentially the study of thousands of people, each constituting their own thread with similar patterns and themes (religions, ethics, worldviews), all interweaving and ultimately forming a tapestry of culture.

This is a similar take on the theme presented by Abraham Rosman in an introductory Cultural Anthro textbook he authored, but in a crucial way it’s different. It’s not that the aspects of life themselves (concepts, theories, rituals, beliefs, etc…) are the threads. Instead, the people who make up the community and civilization are the threads, with their views and traditions and customs and ideas all constituting the composition of their threads. They allow every individual thread to be distinct, diverse, and truly unique; the “final product” still looks coherent from a distance, and indeed is more stunning with more people from more backgrounds contributing to it.

Archaeology provides us with a real way to meaningfully peer into the tapestries of ancient, cultures which no longer truly exist (although really no culture is the same as it was a thousand years ago, but that’s another topic). Archaeologists look at the patterns of behavior of people in a certain time and place, and they miraculously work together the behavior, ideology, and worldview of the people who lived then. That’s staggering. That’s something we struggle to do with modern, accessible cultures.

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