Who is a “Real Archaeologist”?

“Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library. Research. Reading.”

Which eminent scholar confidently states that statistic? Certainly someone from the last half-century, right? Perhaps an archaeologist who is concerned with the inherently destructive nature of our field.

Nope. Indiana Jones.

He utters these words in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It rings ironic not only just for the general practices of this fictional character, but also because he has just told his students that archaeology is not “about lost cities, exotic travel, and digging up the world,” yet he is about to hand the speciously-acquired Cross of Coronado to Marcus Brody.

As modern archaeologists we know Indiana Jones’ methods are deplorable and those of us who teach archaeology likely use him as an example of “worst practices.” Yet the paradoxical warning to his students that archaeology is largely an indoor activity is perhaps something we can learn from today.

It has been exactly ten years since I have done actual “dirt archaeology.” Leading up to the writing of my doctoral dissertation I worked with the Università di Roma “La Sapienza” in Pompeii, at the Triangular Forum and in the Casa della Pescatrice. In those ten years, I have finished the dissertation, presented a score or so of conference papers and public lectures, and published a number of articles on my research. I’ve taught courses at the university level on field methods, yet most of my archaeological teaching is on theory, history, methods, and ethics.

The author “actually doing archaeology,” Pompeii, 2000.

My own research–on the architecture and decoration of houses and villas in Roman Italy–has by and large been carried out in archives, libraries, and museums. For my study of the Casa di Octavius Quartio at Pompeii, I of course spent a lot of time on that site, but it was taking photographs and measurements. It would have been easy for someone to mistake me for a tourist (not that there is anything wrong with that). My fieldwork this summer also involves basically visiting sites and museums, snapping more pictures, and taking more notes. But the first half of the summer has been spent in the library. Research. Reading. And, most importantly, writing.

It is perhaps due in part to a small measure of insecurity that I feel like I have to justify myself as “a real archaeologist” despite the fact I haven’t put a trowel in the earth in a decade. But as I see more and more data being produced by new excavations and more and more sites going uninterpreted, I can’t personally advocate for digging when there is so much more library work to be done.

There are, sadly, no professional restrictions on excavating without publishing, and so the fun work of digging gets done while the less-exciting work of analysis and writing gets postponed. This is always a point I raise with my students as we discuss archaeological ethics. I ask them if permits to excavate should be tied to a responsibility to publish results. The answer is always an overwhelming “yes.” As I say, excavating without publishing is like winking in the dark: you know what you’re doing, but nobody else does.

At Pompeii, there is a crisis of conservation. Every few months or so a wall collapses (never mind the fact that most of these walls are post-World War II restorations). With all due respect to my colleagues who are excavating there this summer, I can’t see the point of digging when we are losing already-excavated material (or when material sits in storage sheds, unexamined, for years). It is much easier to secure funding for excavation than for conservation, generally speaking. Lay people get it when you say you are going on an archaeological dig. But just preserving what is already excavated seems less sexy, somehow, even if fundamentally most people who love learning about the past know that we must protect its material remains. And as we all learn on our first day of Archaeology 101, the wise words of Sir Mortimer Wheeler, “archaeology is destruction.”

And so I will spend my Day of Archaeology by and large in the library. As a means to understand how Romans constructed individual and collective identity through their domestic collections of art and other objects, I am reading about “cabinets of curiosity” from the early modern period as well as sociological methods on houses and personal collections. And I will write down what I think, on the way to getting these ideas published.

Would Indiana Jones think I am a “real archaeologist”? Do you? It feels like archaeology to me.

Francesca Tronchin teaches at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN, USA. She has a Twitter and a Tumblr. She also wonders if she is a “real Classicist” and a “real art historian.”

2 thoughts on “Who is a “Real Archaeologist”?

  1. John Lowe says:

    Very interesting post, and it is a sad fact how much excavation is done without publication. A lot is also done in the gray lit realm, consigned to archival repositories and various agencies. In CRM, or at least in Texas, most excavation projects involve a permit from some agency (usually the Texas Historical Commission) and publishing is a requirement for closing the permit. If you have outstanding permits, you may get denied for future excavation permits.

  2. John Stephenson says:

    Hi Francesca! You’ve been busy- every time I web search anything Roman you eventually pop up! Keep it up…. John Stephenson Boone, NC

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