Archaeology of Archaeology

June 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

The beginning of a field season is perhaps the best time to consider the link between archaeology and tourism. A recent issue of the International Journal of Historical Archaeology does just that, and it makes clear the close link between the modern developments of tourism and archaeology. The desire to know the past through careful, firsthand observation of the remains of the past, is deeply tied to epistemological develops associated with the rise of modernity. Authenticity emerges from the accurate representation of the real.

At the same time, both tourism and archaeology understood the real as existing within fairly circumscribed limits. Just as tourism hid the reality of the support systems that allowed the authentic past to be available for the casual tourist to experience. Archaeology drew upon middle class faith in positivist, scientific knowledge to support the construction of past realities.  The messy details of archaeological epistemologies were hidden from view behind authoritative publications that grounded the past in neatly organized typologies.

The articles in the IJHA volume work to use archaeology to disclose the other side of tourism.  They focus on the elusive character of authenticity and the space behind the neat façade presented to the visitor to a tourist attraction, hotel, or historical site. It struck me as strange, however, that the archaeologists never turned their critical gaze on their own part in the tourism industry or the authenticity industry.

Archaeology, after all, leaves behind its own traces in the landscape, its own archaeological record.  Excavation not only removes and documents layers but also leaves behind traces of its own practices, social organization, and epistemological expectations. The veil that archaeology has tended to draw over its own methods and procedures has show the socially imposed limits of its own gaze. For example, just as archaeology has revealed the difficult conditions of the minorities and lower class individuals and families who worked to create the tourist experiences in the US, they did not offer similar examinations of the living conditions of archaeological worker in, say, the Eastern Mediterranean or Middle East who worked to produce well-known, tourist and scholarly attractions that grace archaeology textbooks. Moreover, the remains of archaeological field camps, excavation houses, museums, and even the excavations themselves should reveal considerable evidence regarding the social organization of archaeological practice.

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Maybe these aspects of archaeology have been studied, but I cannot recall any specific examples.  The yard outside the storerooms where we work is littered with the material necessary to conduct excavations and restore historical buildings. The space is surrounded by high walls and features secure storerooms well away from the exhibit space of the local museum.  Surely the tools and this space present crucial evidence for the practices central to the production of antiquity in the modern world.

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