I realized the moment I fell into the fissure that the Book would not be destroyed as I had planned. It continued falling into that starry expanse, of which I had only a fleeting glimpse. I have tried to speculate where it might have landed, but I must admit that such conjecture is futile. Still, questions about whose hands might one day hold my Myst book are unsettling to me. I know my apprehensions might never be allayed, and so I close, realizing that perhaps the ending has not yet been written. -- Atrus

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Why We Need Archaeology: A Young Scholar's Perspective

This essay was inspired by a conversation I had with an Egyptologist who verbalized the problem that plagues the field of Egyptology and archaeology in general.  In our current era, the humanities fields have more and more been deemed irrelevant in the United States, especially targeting archaeological fields.  This growing disdain affected me directly as an undergraduate.  I was a Classics major, and as the years passed the Classics Department was ever more marginalized to the point where we initiated a campaign, which was unfortunately unsuccessful, to generate interest in a Classical education and show the “powers that be” that Classics is just as relevant as, say, engineering.  Our arguments fell on deaf ears, Classical Greek courses were abolished, and the department suffered alone on an island that was sinking fast in the sea of science studies.  Meanwhile, a large banner was erected around the administrative tower which housed all the humanities departments, and on it was boldly advertised, “World Class University.”  I don’t need to explain the irony.  But this is just one example of hundreds of instances around the country where similar decimation of the humanities is being enforced.
            Now I rewind to childhood.  One of the first questions I ask my undergraduate students is, “Who wanted to be an Egyptologist when they were a kid?”  A wave of hands shoot into the air.  Then I ask, “How many still want to be an Egyptologist?”  Not one hand is raised.  What happened between the ages of seven through eighteen?  I didn’t want to be an Egyptologist when I was a child—that wasn’t until college.  I always liked TV shows about archaeology, but I never wanted to be an archaeologist.  I wanted to be several other things: veterinarian, ballerina, opera singer, farmer, paleontologist, writer, and even a nun.  Clearly I had many ambitious plans for my life. It was my sister who wanted to be the Egyptologist.  She didn’t pursue this in adulthood, though.  She did, however, invent a lot of fun games that centered on ancient Egypt, one of which I hijacked for a project in sixth grade.  To summarize, our make-believe went thus: we entered a labyrinthine pyramid (our backyard) that was full of booby traps and all great treasure.  We came upon a very special blue stone (a bluish-gray stone in the dirt, a dime a dozen) and when picked up it awakened a very terrible mummy.  Our escape from the mummy led us through many traps, including a crocodile pit (our picnic table).  In the end we always managed to escape.
           I witnessed children’s fascination with ancient Egypt when I worked as a library assistant in the children’s department of a public library.  Annually, sixth graders are assigned a project on ancient Egypt, just as I had been at that age.  This is pretty much the only school project they enjoy.  Also at the library, I put together a series of programs where I taught “tweens” about various ancient civilizations, cleverly titled Ancient Civilizations.  It began as a project for my Honors College and as a result of its success, I won an award, was recognized in the AIA Chicago Society newsletter, appeared a few times on the local radio station, and expanded the series from six ancient civilizations to thirteen over the span of a few years.  But the age window was short—interest began around nine years old and ended at thirteen.  Where did the interest go?
            I should amend my age window because interest does persist through media such as Ancient Aliens (a topic that excites my brother) and other like TV shows, and entertaining movies with erroneous information.  In fact, often, when an archaeologist tells someone what his/her profession is, they often are met with, “Like Indiana Jones?”  I have a friend who equates me with Evy from The Mummy because I am an Egyptologist and once worked in a library.  I am not offended by this, though.  Who wouldn’t want to be associated with Harrison Ford or Rachel Weisz?
            On the subway I sometimes read books on ancient Egypt, it being my career and all, and three times I have been engaged in a conversation with a stranger on the topic.  Once, when I was preparing for my hieroglyphs exam a woman asked me what language I was reading.  I told her and she did not respond, only looked at me with pity.  Another time I was carrying a model of a pyramid a student made for me, and a man who noticed this began to explain to me slaves built the pyramids.  This has, of course, already been discredited by reputable scholars.  Another man who saw me reading a book on temples explained to me that the Giza pyramids were basically musical instruments, evidenced in their inscriptions (the Giza pyramids have no inscriptions).  I can’t really remember how he said they functioned as musical instruments.  It did, however, remind me of an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series where captain Kirk finds himself within a musical pyramid and loses his memory.  I asked the man where he heard this information and though he could not remember the person’s name it was someone with a Ph.D.  I listened patiently and did not correct him because I did not want to humiliate him in front of the other passengers who were listening rapturously.  In fact, in spite of his misinformation, I was pleased that someone was so passionate about the subject that they were eager to share this with a total stranger.
            The majority of adult interest in ancient history and archaeology is founded on sensationalism.  Even tourism is based on sensationalism; it’s encouraged.  People hear about the potential of finding treasure—and it is this that generates enthusiasm among “lay persons”.  But archaeology is not treasure hunting. 
            A painfully bad movie called The Pyramid was released in 2014.  It was about archaeologists who found a three-sided “pyramid” belonging to Akhenaten (ugh! They stopped building pyramids well before his reign).  In the substructure of this pyramid was—can you guess?—a labyrinth, as well as an evil Anubis who could be controlled by skeletal cats that somehow managed to thrive without oxygen for thousands of years.  Also, one of the archaeologists, who seems to have earned her Ph.D. by the age of 22, was running around in a tank top and short shorts.  A female archaeologist would never wear this in Egypt; it’s extremely insensitive to their culture.  Normally for such movies I laugh and move on, but I found this one to be so disastrous and even detrimental to the serious field of Egyptology that I found myself on a movie message board contributing facts.  Some movies about ancient Egypt (e.g., Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Stargate, The Mummy) are, debatably, great and make wrong look right without trying to convince the audience that they are accurate.  Some educational TV shows do excellent work, being together informative and entertaining (e.g., Pharaohs of the Sun, Building the Great Pyramid, Mysteries of the Bible). Others, however, fail on all levels.  This is a problem, because not everyone can tell the difference.
            Returning to the buried desire of a career in archaeology and people like the woman on the subway who look on scholars with pity, endeavors to enter archaeological fields are discouraged.  Generally, all humanities fields are discouraged—remember my undergraduate university.  Case in point, when my sister announced that she was changing her major from astronomy to theater, my father, a clinical engineer, was mortified.  His goal for my siblings and me was to see us all enter scientific fields.  He passed away before I entered college, and sometimes I find myself wondering how horrified he would have been to learn I was pursuing Egyptology.  Even in college students are discouraged from entering the field.  In undergrad, upon my mentioning I wanted to study Egyptology, a professor said, “You know there are no jobs, right?”  I understand she was warning me about the unfortunate reality, but isn’t is disturbing that the field is so marginalized that its own scholars are advising students to run for the hills, far away from intended goals?  I’m the kind of person who couldn’t bear not to try to achieve my dreams.  And besides, becoming a farmer was probably more far-fetched than becoming an Egyptologist.
            So why does archaeology matter, other than to encourage more accurate movies and TV programs?  In one of my Ph.D. admissions interviews I offered my own definition of archaeology: the study of our own perpetuity.  Exactly what does that mean?  The human race is obsessed with living forever.  An increasingly longer average life span is considered an accomplishment.  People are concerned with their legacy and carrying on the family name.  This is achieved through various arts, like novels and music; or businesses where the family name is displayed in giant letters on corporate buildings.  Desire for fame is also a desire for immortality.  The more people who know and remember who you are, the longer you live on after death.  Headstones in cemeteries mark where the deceased are laid to rest so that one’s progeny may remember their forbears, to say nothing of keeping the ashes of a loved one.  Time capsules are buried in hopes of being recovered 100 years hence so that we may learn about the people who put them there—in fact, recently a time capsule from the 1700s was recovered by archaeologists and threw the country into a tizzy.  Records of various samples of the human race were shot into space in order that any extra terrestrial that intercepts them may learn about us.  These are all modern and conscious actions that bespeak the obsession with immortality.  It is archaeology that hasn’t happened yet.
            Ought we be surprised that men and women of the ancient past had the same intentions and desires?  Read the Iliad and the Odyssey and other Classical literature.  Observe the magnificent Egyptian tombs, like the pyramids, that stand today.  These were built of stone to endure so that their occupants could be remembered, and endure they have.  We naturally ask why are these structures here?  Anyone who asks that question is doing archaeology.  You don’t need just a trowel and a brush to be an archaeologist—you need curiosity about the human race.  I have heard people say, “One thousand years from now, I wonder what people will think when they dig us up.”  We cannot answer this question without archaeology.  And it indicates that we feel it would be important for people in the future to understand us today.  Therefore, is not understanding the people of the past important for us today? 
            Humanity is not to be found in treasure; that is but a tiny relic of the past that would be irrelevant without its context.  For an archaeologist, the true treasure is to be found in the “mundane”, in the extant foundations that remain from ancient buildings.  Or take Pompeii—this is a treasure trove of ancient society which fascinates because we find remarkable parallels to our society today.  The site of Amarna is most useful, archaeologically speaking, not only because the “heretic” Akhenaten and beautiful Nefertiti lived there, but because it is a rare example of a surviving ancient Egyptian city.  The ultimate treasure for an archaeologist is surviving texts, which means we need people who can read dead languages.  The innate human curiosity makes us ask like insistent children, “What does it say?  What does it say?”  How can we know without archaeology?
            Lastly, could part of our fear of the earth being obliterated by an errant asteroid stem from fear of not being remembered?  With our species erased, who will rediscover us?  What was it all for?
            Thus, we need archaeology today because we need archaeology hundreds, perhaps thousands of years from now.  We count on our descendants to be curious about us, and this curiosity will have them asking, “Who were these people and why were they important?”  Those who marginalize and deride the profession of archaeology marginalize and deride themselves.  We need entrepreneurs, doctors, medical researchers, astronauts, biologists, but also artists, historians, linguists, and yes, archaeologists, who are the ones who ensure each person’s relevance in the future.

© Briana C. Jackson