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14 May, 2011

Lame Metaphor Queue

From National Geographic to the local paper, journalists eventually find themselves writing about archaeology. As if to prove that culture never changes, they resort to the same lame-ass tropes and metaphors again and again. Maybe they can be excused, since most of the writers know very little about the subject, and write about it as infrequently as archaeologists discover a Pompeii.  But the other day, a friend passed along his "Archaeology" magazine, where I'd have expected the writers to come up with something better. 


Barely a dozen pages in, and there's an article describing a site as a "time capsule," one of the top three stupid metaphors in archaeology writing. An actual time capsule consists of an well-considered collection of artifacts and documents reflecting a particular moment in history. Olympia has several buried near the capitol, and like other time capsules, the intent is that they be dug up at a specific time so that future hominids can gawk at our primitive technology and laugh at our predictions. If an archaeological site is a time capsule, it is one buried by a malicious thief, who took all the good stuff, erased 99% of the texts, and filled it with a random collection of fragmentary junk. 

The most stupid metaphor is "treasure." People in search of treasures have ruined more archaeology than anything else, ripping through and tossing aside the entire context in search of valuable trinkets. Treasure means reducing millenia of history to the momentary market value of a few shiny objects like the greediest and dim-wittedest of corvids. Archaeologists covet the dirty rock that turns out to come from thousands of miles away, the broken bowl in the ancestral style, the mud-stanking length of cordage that opens a fleeting window on Pleistocene fashion. Moreover, any one object is imbued with value exponentially increased should it come beneath a certain layer of volcanic ash, or along with charcoal flecks that can reconstruct forests and offer up a date, or any number of associations that make no sense to the general population. If artifacts are treasure, they are the treasure of a crazed ascetic hermit, the five objects whose inferential haloes encapsulate the meaning of life to him, but look like filthy trash to everyone else.

The third metaphor? Take your pick: lost world, window on the past, mummy curses, whatever. Probably worse than any of them is how so many writers look at archaeologists and see Indiana Jones. Wearing a hat? Jones-esque. Doing field work? Indiana-style rugged. Whitey guy? Just like Harrison Ford. None of the above? Still, an Indiana Jones glint in the eye. 

Never mind that Indiana uses femurs for torches, never takes notes, and doesn't own a trowel. Writers want us to be him. It's inconvenient that we often occupy cubicles instead of temples of doom, that we have no bullwhips, and buckle very little swash. Five minutes into the interview, when the archaeologist starts to explain radiocarbon decay, the writer's eyes focus behind the speaker and on the screen where Dr. Jones does something more interesting. 

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