The Mystery (!!!) of Archaeology

17 Jan


It’s true, popularizers of archaeological research tend to use a lot of words like mystery, secretadventure, explore, discover, unknown, and decoded. Especially decoded; I personally use three documentaries in my classes that contain “code” or “decoded.” There must something alluring about the prospect of cracking the code of an ancient secret mystery (see how I did that?).

People who teach and write about archaeology work awfully hard to bridge the “excitement gap” between fiction and reality. We’re excited by the reality and are sometimes surprised when others don’t share our enthusiasm. As a result, we let loose a torrent of attention-getting words to liven up the sometimes mundane (but exciting!) questions of archaeological research.

I was reading about Mike Parker Pearson’s book about Stonehenge on (you’ve probably seen him on Nova, the National Geographic Channel, etc.). Anyhow, one reviewer of the book perfectly described how high use of the word mystery drives expectations:

“Readers looking for something fascinating about the ancient mysteries of Stonehenge need to know that archaeologists have a different understanding of the word ‘mystery’ than the average layperson. For them, it is a mystery why a certain layer of sediment or animal bone is found in one place as opposed to another, not whether ancient aliens were involved in the monument’s construction” (J.D. Mason).

Heck, I’m intrigued by the layers of sediment and animal bone, but the reviewer makes a very good point. If someone bought Parker Pearson’s book expecting ghosts, magic, and crystal skulls, they’d be very disappointed! I’ll keep my eyes open for compelling evidence of ancient aliens. In the meantime, I will also do my best to not overhype the MYSTERY! of real archaeology.

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