Why does an archaeologist archaeologize?

Finally — after bemoaning archival work and archaeological bits and bytes in previous posts — I stepped into a trench on a Day of Archaeology, for the first time in five years. Ok, it wasn’t my trench, or my site, and no one was actually digging in it at the time, and it was only for a few minutes… but it was a trench, with dirt and walls and sherds and mysterious rocks and baulks and everything. And it means I’m a step closer to having my hands in the dirt again.

I am writing from the Dobrogea region of Romania, where I’ve come to explore the archaeological situation and identify possibilities for a collaborative field project in the future. Archaeologists from Institutul de Arheologie Vasile Pârvan in Bucharest and from the museums of Constanta and Tomis have been incredibly kind and generous with their time, explaining their sites and material to me, showing me around, and answering lots of what I suspect are annoyingly obvious questions about archaeological practice and heritage management in Romania. And feeding me. I’m hoping that some of these conversations may grow into a project focused on the countryside in the Greek period and on the relationships between Greek settlers and local populations.

I haven’t been back to Chersonesos in Crimea, where I had been carrying out a project, since 2011, and given the current political situation, I don’t know when I’ll be able to get back (unless the Russian claim to Crimea is recognized under a President Trump, in which case we will all have much bigger problems). As those who read my previous posts know, the longer I’m away from a dig, the more restless I become. I was conscious of this as I planned this trip, and although there are a number of solid reasons to begin a new project — to investigate unanswered questions, to bring students into the field, to build international collaborative relationships, to test novel recording methods — there are lots of reasons not to dig, both professional and personal. So I’ve been wondering lately why I feel such a pull back to to dusty gray soil and sun-baked hilltops. This is the question I wanted to explore for this Day of Archaeology.

I had some ideas about what I was going to write, and a few very strong visuals from my younger days: some rusty tools I dug up near our house when I was eight or nine, from a shed that had been bulldozed long ago; an image of the site director buzzing an excavation in Sicily in an ultralight aircraft that happened to fly by and offered to help us with aerial photographs (this was back in the old days of kites and balloons, none of these drones the kids all have now); the delicate bones of the first skeleton I excavated. I usually try to explain the draw of archaeology in terms of stories — our work, at its best, makes us the world’s remembrancers, restoring the forgotten stories of the vast crowd of the dead a few people at a time. It also allows us, as archaeologists, to add lost time to our own share of life. For me, at least, engagement in an archaeological project can seem like living two lives at once: your own, with your trowel or books or sunburn or scraped knuckles or hunger pangs, and the one you’re creating in your mind’s eye as you try to make sense of the physical fragments of past time.

This is the direction I’d planned to take until this afternoon, when a colleague with an excavation in the Roman town of Tropaeum Traiani in Adamclisi, in the Dobrogea region of Romania, gave me a tour around the site and then arranged for us to climb up to the top of the modern reconstruction that surrounds the Trajanic victory monument. It reminded me a bit of climbing to the top of Trajan’s Column in Rome a long time ago, when I was a student at the Centro (apparently I only climb to the top of tall ancient things built by Trajan).

Sitting on the roof of the Tropaeum Traiani, Trajan's victory monument at Adamclisi, Romania.

Sitting on the roof of the Tropaeum Traiani, Trajan’s victory monument at Adamclisi, Romania.

As with Trajan’s Column, climbing the Tropaeum is not an experience open to the general public — it’s one of those gifts that archaeologists give each other, in recognition of a shared love of the past. And it made me realize that there’s another reason altogether why archaeologists archaeologize (or at least why I archaeologize): you get access to secrets. Not political or military secrets, not celebrity secrets, but secrets in the ground, secrets in objects, secrets in trash, secrets inside reconstructions or restorations that seem seamless and natural from outside, secrets in people’s very bones.

This desire for intimate secret knowledge of the past underlies treasure-hunting, too, at least as it’s always represented in the movies (remember Indy and the Staff of Ra?), and it drives aliens-built-the-pyramids and lost-city-of-Atlantis pseudoscience. It’s a lot less noble than serving the memory of the world, and a lot more self-indulgent. When it leads to the hoarding of archaeological information by scholars or to the purchase of looted antiquities by wealthy collectors, I’d classify it as a sin. But when it’s channeled toward curiosity rather than greed, and toward sharing rather than covetousness, it can be a powerful engine for good storytelling. When we’re nosy, we’re not satisfied with easy answers, and we want to get to the bottom of things. We don’t want to accept what people in the past tell us about themselves; we want to know what they were really up to.

This is one of the central paradoxes of archaeology, along with the notion that we destroy the object of our investigation by investigating it. In the real world, secrets are valuable when they’re kept, or divulged in very controlled ways (see the Wikileaks dump of the DNC emails). But in archaeology, those secrets that keep us coming back are only valuable when they are not kept. They acquire value by being shared, especially when they help us to tell richer, more complicated, more human stories. This is the point of our endeavor, if it is to be meaningful and not just a narcissistic exercise in collecting preciousssessss. Archaeologists, let’s find better ways to share the secrets we find with each other and with the wider world. And for those readers who are not archaeologists, ask one of us to tell you a story — and don’t settle for any old tired story about the past. Ask for one with secrets.