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.

The Recent Ancient Tradition of Ogoh Ogoh

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Bali is quiet today. It is Nyepi, the first day of the New Year, and it is a day of mandatory rest and meditation. We are not allowed outside our flat–if we are caught on the street we’ll be firmly escorted back inside. We must stay very quiet and not indulge in any way, or we’ll catch the attention of demons that are currently flying over Bali. If we are quiet enough they’ll shove on and not stop to wreak havoc. There are no flights in or out of Bali today. Silence.

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Yesterday, however, was a glorious racket as Ogoh Ogoh were paraded down the street at sunset, twirled around and “confused” at intersections, then burned down at the seaside. Over the past week we’ve been peeping inside of temples to look at the in-progress Ogoh Ogoh as they were carefully built over metal frames. As we stood watching while the young single women of the neighborhood encircled the crossroads, holding torches toward the center, and the young single men of the neighborhood paraded into the center, playing drums and melodic reong–pot-shaped gongs, the ceremony felt timeless, foreign, yet had a spiritual resonance as well. It was invented in the 1980s.

I was ambivalent when I heard of the recent manufacture of the Ogoh Ogoh parade–it seemed typical of the kind of trap you can fall into with Orientalist thinking. Bali is so mystical, the people are so nice, they value spirituality, aren’t their ancient ceremonies so quaint and romantic? Still, I love a good procession and it reminded me of the Day of the Dead, another parade that celebrates the liminal and otherworldly.

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The materiality of Ogoh Ogoh is interesting; though some Ogoh Ogoh are very small, they rapidly become very elaborate, with an emphasis on the grotesque. Many go to great lengths to make the Ogoh Ogoh appear to be flying, with very little attaching the demon to the underlying bamboo structure that young men use to carry it. There are lights installed to light up their faces, and some have heavy metal music blaring from their bases. Many Ogoh Ogoh have pendulous, veiny breasts representing Rangda the demon queen. Some are painted, some are meticulously airbrushed, and I have heard that some of them are sold instead of burned at the end of the night.

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The Ogoh Ogoh and their young male handlers process to the beach, where they gleefully tear off the heads of their creations, then set fire to the demons that they carried through the streets. The Ogoh Ogoh were once made of paper mache, but now they are mostly polystyrene and the great gouts of black smoke made it impossible to breathe. The crowds dispersed before the fire had gone out.

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And today, Bali is quiet.