Stop Saying “Archaeology is actually boring”

I understand the temptation. You want to show the mundane, you feel that there is too much Hollywood glamor attached to the profession. So you begin your article, or your Introduction to Archaeology course, or public lecture with some variation of the following:

I know you all think that archaeology is all whips and snakes, Indiana Jones, and Lara Croft, but it is actually a set of methods that can involve long, boring episodes in the lab, counting things, and general tedium.

STOP. Stop this now. Take it out of your lexicon. Not only is it one of the most lazy, overused introduction strategies, but it actively works against the profession and is terribly bad form in science education.

When archaeologists introduce their work with this cliché, they are attempting one of two things:

1) They are trying to tell their audience that their work is actually Very Important and Very Scientific. You do not need to contrast this with Indiana Jones’ breaking-and-entering approach, you can relate it through your enthusiasm for the science.

DO: “Let me tell you about the magic of Lidar and what it is doing to change everything we know about the archaeological landscape of Brazil.”

2) They are thinking that they can tap into a pop-culture figure as a way to relate to their audience. This is fine, and can be done in interesting ways. But to contrast you and your work with this character in an effort to disabuse your audience of romantic notions of the field, and, further, to offer extreme examples from your graduate career of the 100,000 obsidian flakes that you counted as some kind of badge of honor is wrong-headed.

You are not telling people that archaeology is boring, you are telling them that YOU are boring. Can you imagine a job talk starting with, “Well, I know that you think that the analysis of Bronze Age pottery from the Aegean is all rockstar magic and crazy Octopus eyes, but let me tell you how absolutely soul-sucking it truly is.”

DO: “While digging in Belize I found a vast, incredibly rich cache of obsidian flakes, but the true revelations came in the lab when I looked at them under a microscope.”

Show your excitement, show your enthusiasm, don’t patronize your audience by denigrating their passion for YOUR field. Don’t be blasé in some sort of effort to show how “over it” you are as a big, important archaeologist. Worse, don’t show your deep insecurity or ambivalence about the relevance of your work. If you hate your research topic, it kinda shows. Talk about an aspect of it that you find truly fascinating. By this I am not saying to hide the tedious bits. By all means, after you tell your audience how exciting and important your work is, highlight how your results were supported by sorting 600kg of oyster shell in a museum basement.

As more and more archaeologists become involved in science communication, whether by blogging, or television, or public lectures we cannot have the same failures over and over (and over) again. By calling archaeology boring you are not serving an important function in rectifying pop-culture. You are not imbuing your work with some kind of scientific importance. You are not showing a reaction against positivism with your post-modern indifference. You are stealing the limelight from the parts of your research that are absolutely fascinating. You are diminishing the reasons you became an archaeologist, and the reasons that you are compelled to tell people the story of your research.

Tell me what you do and why it is important.

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

41 thoughts on “Stop Saying “Archaeology is actually boring””

  1. I’m probably guilty of this, if only to counteract parental questions about whether I’ve found any treasure yet (I’ve almost convinced them fossil poop is just as exciting…) In general though this is an example of academics trying their best at something they have probably not been trained to do (ie outreach and public communication). I’ve had to learn by trial and error as it was never even mentioned as an important skill to learn during my phd.

  2. Yes, yes and YES! Thank you!
    People generally think I have the coolest job in the world and sometimes it’s easy to forget that they’re right. Some days I get bogged down in the admin and bureaucracy but then there are spectacular days where I get to work on sites other people can only dream about visiting.
    I have the pleasure of doing a lot of public outreach and education activities and this is a reminder to keep seeing my subject with fresh eyes, so again, thank you!

  3. I feel a little guilty as I did share a link to the original article on Facebook and Twitter a few days ago. A follower sent it to me but I didn’t get the chance to read through it properly before sharing it on social media… -_-

    I agree it’s important to debunk any misconceptions about the field but it certainly could (and should) be done in a more informative and inspiring manner. Many people are quite aware that archaeology is nothing like what they see in the films or in video games (there’s plenty of information on the Internet for those willing to research it themselves) so archaeologists should focus on *why* they do archaeology and what can be learnt from their research rather than list all the seemingly boring tasks one needs to do as part of their job. After all, every job has its downsides and share of boring tasks. With the number of articles going around that depict archaeology as a dull career, one would think that the writers are trying to put people off entirely. Perhaps one way to deal with the shortage of jobs in archaeology is to eliminate the competition in the first place.. :-/

  4. I find that the most common misconception about archaeology is not that it would be boring. No educated person believes that. The main error people make, within and without the field, is to claim that there are jobs in archaeology.

      1. You wanna try being in Australia and convincing people that there’s any point in studying history. Its impossible. I’ve not yet met a single person (other than academics) who take a degree in history seriously. The most common question I get is “yes, but how many history teachers do we really need?”. Needless to say, it drives me nuts.

  5. I push that the “mundane” is very exciting. One demonstration that will calm the most impatient group of young students is to pass around a bit of recovered light fraction and say this is not “like” what the people were eating here 4000 years ago, this “is” what they were eating. Or these are the very tools they hunted with, or this is a hearth that they cooked in . . .

    My own pet peeve is the labeling of everything as the “mystery” of the Maya, Hopewell, etc. etc. Yes there is a lot that we don’t know about these prehistoric people, but there is an awfully lot that we do know as well. That to me is all pretty damn exciting.

  6. Haha. I agree with “allthoughtswork.” Archaeology isn’t boring, people may just to place themselves in the shoes of an audience and what they may find interesting about it. I am not an archaeologist by any stretch, and I find it fascinating!

  7. This is great and I think Archaeology sometimes gets a bad rap precisely because people do this (make it sound boring) so often. It’s like anything, really: if you’re passionate about it and find it fascinating, I want to know more, but if you think it’s really rather drab, I’d rather you spare me.

  8. As someone who regularly passes over all other popular media in search of archaeology reports that can illuminate why we are how we are… i kinda dont understand the reason for this rant. Dim folks are bored by cool stuff. Thats why people call archaeology boring.

  9. My heart skips a beat anytime I’m lucky enough to lay eyes on our past. Lacking any shred of practical schooling on the subject matters little to this average middle aged, middle class Canadian woman when dusty old historical timelines are trotted out as the gospel. Archeology captures imagination, expands understanding and gives perspective. I bristle when “finds” are dismissed simply because they present more questions than answers. Archeology holds the key to civilizations lost, is the one irrefutable path to understanding and only way to wade through historical propaganda, misconceptions – once and for all opening eyes to indisputable truth. Boring only to those without imagination or wonder.

    Loved this post, congratulations on Freshly Pressed and happy to say you found another follower. :)

    My feeble attempt, in a string of ancient history posts…..

  10. Well said! Nothing you’re passionate about is boring! And even if you weren’t passionate about it, Archaeology would never be boring.

  11. Reblogged this on Swift, like Shadows and commented:
    Maybe also link up their images of Indiana Jones to a particular paradigm in archaeology (linking a discipline up with its popular representations is a good way to get the postmodern turns out of the way), and attend to critiques of the graverobbing that did take place early on before archaeology became a Serious Discipline With Some Ethical Guidelines And Everything. OR, to reappropriate Indiana Jones (lol using postmodern terms on the postmodernists), talk about how you are working with indigenous people on a land claim RIGHT NOW. How you are helping people defend their cultural heritage, and show that they have survived in a location for X number of years. Talk about how the work you do is potentially every bit as daring and adventuresome (even dangerous) as the movies say it is… just… not quite for the reasons they might expect.

  12. Thanks for this post. I love teaching my Intro Archaeology and Anthropology classes because that’s the time to inspire students to fall in love with the past. Archaeology is so often seen as a “soft science” or “neat hobby” when the field has moved so far beyond that. Amazing new things are being researched each day. Lab analysis or no, there is no boring day in archaeology! :)

  13. I actually find archealogy very fascinating! Taking a peek into ancient civilization by just staring at old bones and even pottery….brilliant!

  14. A friend called attention to your post after I used this as a line in a recent blog post. I like this perspective, but I don’t really think it does any damage in the public eye to call archaeology boring. What most practitioners mean by ‘boring’ is that it is tedious — and does anyone deny that much of our procedure (paperwork, forms, careful digging) is tedium? I don’t think one can take the tedium out of archaeology any more than one can downplay the bursts of excitement and fascination in new discovery and prospects of discovery. Both mark two poles in the investigative process. I’ve found this a useful paradox (fascinating discovery despite the tedium) for communicating to many different kinds of public audiences.

  15. So much yes. I’ve been wanting to write a post like this for a long time, but it wouldn’t have been as good. Thanks! So inspiring, I almost felt like shouting “FOR FRODO!” at the end.

  16. Well said. I read a summary of your blog (and now the origninal version) in the DGUF-Newsletter (German society of Pre-and Protohistoric Archeology-Newsletter), and really had to laugh, because sometimes I felt myself making the same mistakes, although I am just a 2 Semester Student of Pre-and Prothoistoric Archeology. Maybe it where my own worries of making mistakes at explaining my studies to other people. I am just young and I am exploring the Archeology wich is so important for me. On the other hand there are days when I can´t stop, talking about textile fragments of several bindings and dyes, found in early medivial graves: Then my eyes are sparkling of exitement, so everyone can see my true passion for my profession, and I also think that this is the right way to transport Archeology to everyone who is interessted.
    So I pretty enjoyed reading this post, thank you.
    Greetings from Germany

  17. Its a good article, it is not only with archeology but its with every thing that we dont understand sound boring. If you get into anything that you feel is boring you will realize its not so.

  18. The problem with this field is that it attracts people with high analytical intelligence and low social intelligence. They stick with it and become professors, etc. and that becomes the norm in that field. The same thing happened with programming.

    You said it yourself, they aren’t framing their work in a positive way for the audience.

    So while archeology might be amazingly interesting, as long as it’s full of “boring” and/or socially challenged individuals, it will continue to put people off.

    Think about a science, yoga, programming, or some other class that could easily be boring for you if you have no experience or know WHY it could be interesting to YOU. If you were lucky enough to have a teacher that actually framed it in a fun and positive way and made you want to come back, that’s exactly what we need in this field.

    People like Steve Irwin (RIP) did more to bring an appreciation for animals that most scientists, because he could captivate an uneducated (in that field) public. Bring them in to his world and show them the excitement that can be found. It’s contagious.

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