If archaeology isn’t just digging, then what is it?
More often than not we are fixated on the idea of unearthing the past. In the tradition of buried treasure and X marks the spot, these are powerful metaphors. Yet treasure hunters are not archaeologists, and archaeologists do not simply seek treasure.
Archaeology is engagement with the human past, and there is more to that than what lies buried or hidden. Archaeology studies the impacts of people within this world; it is the reading of traces and the recognition of time’s passage in what we can observe today.
Regardless of what archaeology is in practice – which can indeed be a great many things depending on what kinds of questions are asked – it can also be appreciated as a perspective. Archaeology, as a perspective, focuses on the longue durée of human history, privileges the material record of what once was and now is, and seeks to broaden our contemporary horizons so that we might understand connections through both time and place.
Ways of Knowing
The archaeological perspective is grown from knowledge. It is the layering of knowledge upon the world around each of us, so that things might become better known. Therein lies a key difference between the treasure hunter and the archaeologist. One privileges the independent material value of the object (treasure) for monetary value, and one privileges the cumulative knowledge value of the object (artifact) in the setting of its context (landscape, connections, histories, et cetera).
Archaeology is overwhelmingly a collective, academic, and professional enterprise but as a perspective it is accessible as a personal project. It might be said that each of us, in making sense of our surroundings, is always excavating for everyday clues as to how it all fits together, and indeed how we fit into it. This is the fashioning of an archaeological perspective, this is archaeology above the ground.