Home > Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, Teaching, Television, The New Media > Archaeologists, the Media, and the Real Story

Archaeologists, the Media, and the Real Story

As an ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research) member, I look forward to getting my glossy copy of Near Eastern Archaeology.  This past issue (September 2008) had an interesting forum focusing on the relationship between archaeologists and the [traditional] media. 

The forum was interesting for several reasons.  First, several scholars offered the typical plaintiff cry that archaeology is misrepresented in the so-called mass media.  Even those producers and directors (in short “Hollywood types”) inclined to use real archaeologists as talking heads rarely allow scholars to exert much influence over the direction of the documentaries or programming.  The result are documentaries and programs, even on “good” channels, that at best represent only the sensational side of archaeology, and at worse contort the goals, methods, and results of fieldwork into implausible and simply untruthful shapes.  The cause for these evils is that the film and documentary industry is driven by the desire for profit over the desire for truth.

The funny thing is that the model of the media explored in this forum is hardly as dominant as it once was.  Hollywood style archaeological documentaries still occupy a niche market and it is clear that feature films with archaeological themes (mummies, lost arcs, et c.) will remain popular.  On the other hand, it is clear that the hegemony exerted by large scale productions is waning.  The former mass media has become increasingly fragmented across a whole range of platforms and media ranging from viral videos, to podcasts, to blogs. 

So, despite the feeling that archaeologists have lost the war with the mass media, there are unprecedented opportunities for archaeologists to take control of the discourse.  Some observations:

  1. Producing an archaeological documentary has never been easier (in fact, I’ve produced two!).  Broadcast quality video cameras are inexpensive and digital editing tools are available on most campuses.  “Hollywood” has always had a surplus of talent — the stories of the next great film-maker biding time delivering coffee on-set are not far from the truth — and there are directors who would jump at the chance to work with an archaeological team to produce a documentary that is both entertaining and with scholarly quantities.  Even if digital video is beyond the expertise and resources of a project, podcasts are amazingly popular and have the same potential for viral distribution as you-tube clipsEven a simple, daily, blog can attract a wider audience to the work of real archaeologists and “counteract” the sensationalizing tendencies of “mass media” documentaries. 
  2. While re-enactments by casts of thousands still have a particular dramatic effect, it is now possible for only moderately tech-savvy scholars to produce digital reconstructions of buildings, landscapes, stratigraphy, et c. So, it is possible to produce videos with a high degree of graphic and technological sophistication on a desktop computer with basic software.  Technology has democratized the “wow” factor.
  3. And reality t.v. has made the wow factor less important.  Archaeological projects produce fantastic reality t.v.  The decision making, personality conflicts, romance (I met my wife on an archaeological project!), and setting all make archaeological projects compelling.  More importantly, many of these aspects of archaeological fieldwork have pedagogical value as well.  Archaeological decision making, conflict resolution in an academic setting, and the basic logistics of archaeological work are sometime hidden from public view (because, perhaps, of our insistence on appearing scientific, objective, empirical), and this impoverishes our students understanding of how archaeological data is produced.
  4. Two interrelated intellectual trends – an interest in reflexivity and in performance – form an important scholarly component to archaeological investigation that complements the potential for video, audio, and text that increases transparency of practice and method.  These trends in the framing of archaeological research makes it not only more feasible to argue for a video or audio component of the project, but also ensure that the results of this work contributes to ongoing scholarly discussions.  The sophistication of the reflexive and performative discourse provides a fine point of departure for archaeological documentaries that take full advantage of the new media.

While archaeologists will probably never stop bemoaning their representation in the media, the days when we could argue that we are being victimized by the motivations of for-profit producers and studios are probably nearing an end.  The potential for producing competing narratives of archaeological work that have both significance in the popular eye and in the scholarly realm has arrived.  Today archaeologists should worry less about being shut out from the mass media and be more concerned about producing competing narrative of their own that take advantage of the fragmented habits of our media culture and inform and influence the status of our discipline (and its practitioners) in the public eye.

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  1. Aaron B.
    December 15, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    Yes, in the North American high-Plains realm, we’re finding fewer and fewer Nazis to fight… kidding aside, this harkens back to Carl Becker re-visiting the phrase “Everyman His Own Historian” some years ago (off hand perhaps when he was the AHA president). Media such as YouTube has provided another way in which any historian, no matter how Ivy League or provincial (a loaded term itself), can deliver their scholarly findings to a broader audience. At the international level, YouTube was popularized even more during the last presidential debates. And comics such as Jack Black have brought their boozy interpretations to the fore. If we historians are going to complain, we can only go so far until we turn to media such as YouTube ourselves.

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