Do Archaeologists Care About the Living?

Do archaeologists care about the living? Yes, but like all people, we focus on those aspects of a story that are of greatest interest to us. That’s why I have tuned out much of the news coming out of Egypt over the last few weeks. I casually skimmed through articles about the protests, the motivations of the protesters, political ramifications for the region and for me as an American, and even the tragic loss of life. But when Egyptian antiquities were endangered, I began to pay close attention! As a kid, I was inspired by Indiana “It belongs in a museum” Jones. What happens when the museums themselves are threatened? Archaeological materials are one of the many casualties of war and civil unrest, as recently seen in Iraq.

During the Egyptian protests, the Cairo Museum, one of the most significant repositories of artifacts in the world, was raided by looters. Thankfully, it appears that none of the museum’s famed mummies were damaged and, in fact, some protesters defended the museum from looting. Dr. Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s Antiquities Department, even ridiculed some looters for stealing souvenirs from the museum gift shop while leaving priceless artifacts untouched. It could have been much worse, since the museum’s collections are truly irreplaceable, and their theft would’ve represented a great loss to humanity.

From the perspective of archaeological preservation, it was a relatively happy ending. Wait…was I really more outraged by the prospect of stolen artifacts and ransacked mummies than hundreds of deaths? Maybe 24-hour global news cycles have desensitized me to death tolls and modern human tragedy. Archaeologists, especially, have been accused of insensitivity toward living people (insert your own joke about archaeologists “preferring their informants dead” here). Sometimes this reputation is deserved – long hours poring over bones and stones in laboratories can dull a person’s sociability. But archaeologists are anthropologists and, as the motto says, we go “Beyond bones & stones.” Archaeologists are as focused on people as any other branch of anthropology. We reconstruct past human behavior from material remains, work with living and descendant communities to better understand the past, and do our best to share archaeology with everyone. Ideally, we go into anthropology because we are human beings who care about our fellow human beings, past and present. And, if our priorities sometimes need adjusting, world events remind us to pay attention to living people and dynamic political situations in addition to mummies.

What aspects of the Egyptian protests have been most meaningful to you?

– Jay Fancher

8 thoughts on “Do Archaeologists Care About the Living?

  1. In truth the museum was less important at all times to me and anyhow I knew since minute one that the attack was perpetrated by police in plainclothes, because those had been the ones terrorizing the neighborhoods in one of Mubarak’s acrobatics to perpetuate his dictatorship. The attack against the museum was actually intended to create that kind of academic outrage as the one you felt, potentially causing you and others to loss sympathy for the Revolution and instead support “law and order” (Mubarak). It’s a psy-op.

    It’s well known all those attacks were organized from the Presidency and for that reason they failed and even backfired. Instead of “Mubarak or chaos”, the message that Mubarak intended to convey, we got the message “Mubarak is spreading chaos” and he does not even stop at the gates of a museum. We also got the message: Egyptian citizens are showing extremely high levels of civism and collective maturity.

    Actually that’s what has impressed me the most: the very high levels of responsibility that Egyptian and Tunisian citizens are demonstrated. Also how quick is the revolution spreading through the Arab world. Right there are four countries in more or less perpetual revolution: Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Yemen. But we are only one month or so into the Revolution, wait and see. This is really big, maybe like the unification of Italy in the 1860s.

  2. I’m most interested in seeing ten (at my last count) nations undergoing ground-up change, seeing that there are people willing to fight and die for their freedom; makes it easier to understand Norman Mailer’s approach to the U.S. political discourse.

    The ramifications could be huge, and I’m interested to see what happens next.

  3. I was noticing it only peripherally…I tend to avoid news when I can, but when they said that the museums were looted, I had to look up and pay attention.
    I know that real living people are important, but ultimately we will all be history, and I think it’s important that we preserve those things that we can which belonged to those who went before us. We will never understand who we are until we understand who we have been.

    1. But history is not a mere narration but the roots of today. Our history is the roots of tomorrow and not just a tale to be told tomorrow.

      Hence real people is much more important than artifacts always. In any case there is no contradiction, presenting them as contradictory is fallacious. It was real people who defended those objects of curiosity and knowledge because they considered them to be an important part of themselves.

  4. Both people and artifacts have limited value. In all societies, whether hunter-gatherer, communist or capitalist democracy, people and artifacts are routinely sacrificed for the “Greater Good.” More importantly, with the unpreventable spread of nuclear weapons it is almost certain that many large cities and their people and museums will be destroyed. Alexandria and its great library are both the past and the future. Enjoy what you have while you have. You might not get to pass it on. Destruction, loss and forgetting is the fate of all societies.

  5. I’m fascinated that what happened in Egypt was a military coup — and would have been called one if George Bush had been president. Hopefully it will end otherwise, but the reporting has been slanted because of the bias of journalists and the great majority of academics and self-described pundits.

    Now that Obama has been slow to respond to Iranian revolts, and revolts under Ghadafi (who his minister of 20 years openly admired) I am truly surprised that there is no backlash among the same people. It’s inconsistent, you are changing your expectations and assessment of not only what is happening but our nation’s responses any way you have to in order to make this president look good. Precious few admitted it was outrageous for him to accept the Nobel Peace Prize prematurely while conducting two wars. Almost no academic admitted it was a clear attempt by a foreign body to affect our foreign policy. Why? If you agree with the attempt say so, but to pretend you didn’t know what it was could only be disingenuous.

    As an academic, I see this lack of objectivity to be as bad on the left as the right. What pains me is that on the left, no one identifies their politics when they enter into arenas like journalism, or classroom teaching, or blogging about the issues where the pretense is objectivity. At least the right wing never pretends to be otherwise.

    At any rate, the rapid leftward push of academia right now is as fact free and willing to twist anything to fit preconceived beliefs as anything you’ll ever see in human history. One day, this period of academic fact twisting will be seen as painfully backwards as the racists and supremacists in our past.

    After all, this leftward push is total elitism and an attempt to mold the youth’s minds (mind control) in the media and classroom. Orwellian and no better than what came before. We’ll see that when this Orwellian, elitist new slant pushing its way through academia reaches whatever its logical conclusion will be.

    Group think scares me, and the hallowed halls have left one set of biases for another. When the truth is no longer even a concern, don’t expect history to look at you any kinder than the other supremacists, propagandists, mind controllers, and other fact distorters we rail against today. You are exactly the same as what came before. Ends can’t and don’t justify the means, and it’s really hard for you all to articulate your end game anyway because no parent would put their child in our care if you did.

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