In these slow news days between Christmas and New Year, archaeology often finds itself highlighted in media. This morning, I saw yet another headline for an archaeology story that couldn’t manage to stay away from the word “mysterious”. A mysterious wooden structure, like an apparition at low tide, beckoning us to the deep, just off Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia.
Given the way pseudoarchaeologists operate, and given the current public interest for all things Oak Island, including the genuinely interesting wooden slipway uncovered there, a headline using the term “mysterious” might as well read: “Forbidden ancient knowledge accidentally revealed by hapless apprentice archaeologist off Nova Scotia”. Read it here while you can, before it gets buried forever.
Bigfoot is mysterious. UFOs are mysterious. Earthquake lights are mysterious. Even ball lightning, to quote the late Jim Moseley, editor of Saucer News, is semi-mysterious. But 17th century wooden stakes poking out of the waves at low tide off an island in Nova Scotia is just about the opposite of mysterious.
I might call them intriguing. I would think that thought provoking is a bit awkward for a headline, but it would fit in the body of the article, and at a stretch, might even work for a section heading, or a sub-title.
I would definitely not go as far as calling them mystifying, because while they do raise lots of questions, they are questions that are tractable and productive. We can probably answer at least some of them with a bit of honest, old-fashioned archaeological work. Besides, the term’s kinship to “mystery”, and its dark undertones, make it unsuitable.
Enigmatic is a borderline case. Yes, the remains do pose an enigma. But there is a finality to the term that isn’t hopeful, and that doesn’t encourage further work or inquiry. It is forbidding, in an almost Lovecraftian sense.
Interesting, as a headline, is a bit bland, I will grant, but probably the most accurate term. Fascinating might work better, and shows the interest without raising an arcane fog that shrouds the way forward. Exhilarating might be pushing it, but I would probably go for tantalizing. It does carry an air of mystery about it, but it is one that invites, rather than repels, or forbids. Provocative has the same advantages, and might be more media friendly.
Surprising is an interesting case, and should be used only with the greatest of caution, after much consultation with local experts, archaeologists and historians, both professional and amateur. Some archaeological finds are indeed surprising. Otherwise, why would we survey and excavate at all? But many finds, while interesting, thought provoking, and even tantalizing, are not actually surprising, even when they are the first of their kind. In other words, use surprising only when you have the time to invest in some background for the piece.
In short, I think editors, in constructing their archaeology headlines, should favour terms that denote interest and excitement, but that also invite further inquiry. They should be words that point to action rather than contemplation, that highlight opportunities rather than showing distance and unattainability.
They should definitely be words that avoid reinforcing the quite mistaken impression that there is a cabal of keepers of arcane archaeological knowledge, hell-bent on hiding the truth from the sleep-walking masses, lest they emancipate. Or if there is, I’m still waiting for my invitation.
Archaeology is about asking and answering questions about the past with extremely limited, fragmentary, and imperfect evidence. It is quite mysterious enough as it is.