I was having a conversation with an econ major friend of mine (something I wouldn’t recommend one do too often ;)) about the purpose of archaeology a few weeks as of this posting; so my memory is a bit faulty so I can’t go into details of the conversation. However I do remember thinking that my friend did not seem to think that archaeology was something that really advance society like engineering (or I guess economics) does. This is not to say that he claimed that archaeology was pointless, just that it serves a different role than other sciences. particularly the role he seemed to ascribe to archaeology was a role of entertainment (I’m pretty sure he didn’t use the word entertainment, but I can’t really recall). At the time I took this to mean entertainment for the archaeologist, which of course I saw as a selfish act. Being an archaeology Major I felt a need to defend myself and my discipline. So I mentioned an article I had read in the July/August 2008 issue of Archaeology called “Amazonian Harvest” (link not the full article, unfortunately) which disused research a Mr. Clark Erickson had been doing in the Amazon. In the research Mr. Erickson discovered a farming method used by ancient people which was far superior to the one the current population of the area use. Here are some results of archaeology which have/may/could directly improve the lives of people all over the world. It is this that makes this article one of my favourite I have ever read and is why I always keep it in my memory. My friend indicated that this research was useful and the conversation ended, but I have been thinking about what he said since.
I have for some time pondered the purpose/social benefits of archaeology and generally came to the conclusion that it was beneficial for things like the aforementioned article and to add knowledge of the past which may help people of the present understand the world we live in and make more informed decisions. While I still think that this should be a key part of archaeology, after thinking about what my friend has said, and a few off hand comments a few professors have made, I have come to the conclusion that archaeology is really primarily an entertainment business. For the most part archaeology is done for other archaeologist. Research is published for the use of other archaeologist doing more research. However, this doesn’t really fund archaeologist. Archaeology is mostly funded by government, or local people who are proud of their local archaeology/history. So Archaeology is funded by people who are not consuming archaeological research and are not benefiting very much. When archaeologists do try to involve non-archaeologists it is normally as an attempt to educate them about their research. Under this model archaeology’s purpose is to produce more archaeology for the sake of archaeologists. I am proposing that this model is not correct; that archaeology should go further. Archaeology should see itself as an entertainment business. The same level of academics would have to be achieved or the result would be bad science of course, but the difference should be in the presentation to the public. Instead of educating the public archaeologists should be trying to entertain the public, which education as a by product.
I suppose you could argue that the history channel or the discovery channel are attempting to do this. but there is one major difference in what I am saying. I’m saying archaeologists should do good archaeology and then present it to the public, who pay for it, as a form of entertainment, as is the history channel or the discovery channel just play inaccurate crap that gets good ratings.