In an understandable fit of frustration, @anarchaeologist recently tweeted “HOW DO WE CONVINCE PEOPLE THE PAST IS NOT TREASURE!??!?!”. There followed an interesting discussion that ranged from the philosophical, in @HKNorton’s “And how do we convince people the past has value despite not being treasure?” to @KristeninAlmo’s practical and pedagogical “Stress the information over the item”.
Many archaeologists will recognize the frustration expressed in the initial tweet. Sitting at the local diner after a day of surveying, it isn’t unusual for people to ask us whether we’re looking for gold, for example, which can be amusing the first few dozen times. After all, why would anyone spend days, weeks, and years, traipsing through the woods, in the rain, slogging through bogs and digging little holes through layers of intertwined roots, if there wasn’t some incredible reward to be had, like gold?
I sometimes ask myself the same question, when rain is coming on, as it is this morning, and an old field injury greets me yet again. Archaeology is adventure. We spend time in places no one else would bother or dare do. At the end of an adventure, there should be treasure. And there is.
People often ask me what is the coolest or nicest thing I have ever found as an archaeologist. They are visibly disappointed, even downcast, when I tell them that the coolest thing I have found, after years of traipsing through the woods, in the rain, slogging through bogs and digging little holes through layers of intertwined roots, is that regional scale variation in rate of environmental change is a major driver of settlement choice in post-glacial environments, and maybe even in any environment. They usually come back, with what little light for archaeology remains in their eyes, with something like: No, I mean, what artefact? What thing? What treasure?
The answer to that question is equally unsatisfying to them. Are they talking about that gorgeous T-shaped slate knife I found in 1999, as I was naively looking for the edges of a “site”, in a test pit I expected to be empty? Fortunately, the last time I saw it in the local museum, which was many years ago, the big shovel mark I left on one of its faces was artfully concealed by the display. It was someone’s treasure 6000 years ago, and I felt both happy at finding it, and very sad that they had lost it. The ping of the shovel on the stone was bittersweet, even before I knew what the object was.
Still, I don’t think people ask us about treasure because they are unaware that we are looking for the information things provide, rather than for the things themselves. A farmer in the Ostrobothnian area of Finland might ask us whether we are looking for Indo-European or Fenno-Ugric sites. Note that they aren’t asking what we are finding. They are asking what we are looking for. We better choose our words carefully when we answer. Some of my Cree partners want to know first whether the sites we are finding are Cree or Inuit. They’re not quite as touchy about the answer as the Ostrobothnian farmers.
Conversely, I don’t think archaeologists get frustrated because we are unaware of the fascination for treasure, or that we are insensitive to it. Every student or colleague who has spent time on any of my sites will know my tourist box. That’s where I keep the objects we’ve found so far that would be of interest to visiting dignitaries, journalists, and assorted inquisitive locals. It’s a great starting point for telling the story I think the place has to tell. It is, by any measure, a box of treasures.
People link archaeological things and treasure differently. Local land developers are worried that we might find things in a survey because it will affect their treasure, which is the completion date of the mall they are building. Local indigenous Elders see a small flake of imported stone material as a very significant treasure. It tells them about the relationship people had with the land thousands of years ago. Detectorists see a hoard of coins as a great treasure because they can keep part of it. Museum curators see in a spectacular object an opportunity to attract visitors for the purpose of educating them, which is their treasure.
Personally, while I enjoy an esthetically pleasing artefact as much as the next person, once I have a good photo of it (or 3D model, these days), I don’t mind reducing part of it to powder so I can get an accurate elemental composition. Then I can start ruling out places it might have come from. It gives me more material to test hypotheses about the past. That is my treasure.