The field of archaeology has been exciting and sensational since its conception as a true discipline in the 1930s. From fascination with Egyptian mummies to the adventures of Indiana Jones, the public eye has been captured by archaeological finds and developments. Every few weeks, a new headline such as ‘Archaeologists stunned as “oldest evidence of mankind” rewrites human history’, and ‘Archaeological Breakthrough: DNA Study Identifies Possible Kunga in Syria’ hits mainstream news outlets and excites readers, inciting curiosity about a topic many may never have heard of before. Archaeology is in the unique business of bringing remote information from around the world and from a wide range of time periods, cultures, and locations into a common setting. There is no doubt that for those dreaming of a life full of treasure-hunting adventure, mass media depicts archaeology as an exciting discipline, where archaeologists extract ancient DNA molecules and uncover royal artefacts every other day.
The reality of archaeology is, of course, less glamorous. Bureaucratic red tape, massive expenses both in the field and in the laboratory, and the time-consuming nature of excavation mean that archaeology is a relatively slow-moving, dull field on a day-to-day basis. Especially in comparison to the popular news articles published about archaeological discovery, the discipline requires patience and a willingness to commit oneself to the phrase “good things come to those who wait”.
Now, nearly one hundred years from the inception of what we can call ‘archaeology’, public and government funding for the humanities has dwindled to an almost non-existent state. Viable continuation of archaeological research and the survival of archaeology as a discipline relies now more than ever on public contributions and interest. The image that is put forth into the public eye successfully keeps steady funding coming into the field and allows for further research to take place. Without the sensationalism surrounding archaeological discovery, the entire discipline could become obsolete. However, this puts professional archaeologists and researchers into a tough position: their proposals, projects, and outcomes must entertain the public and reach a wide audience, or they risk losing funding in the future and subsequently having to leave the field for lack of work. It is not just a question of academic integrity, but also one of public interest and of what amount of eloquence will place the person conducting the research a cut above the rest.
This reality has created an absolute clamour to produce results that interest the public – regardless of their basis in fact. This, for the most part, does not mean complete falsification of information. Rather, a trend of stretching results has arisen in pursuit of receiving the funding needed to complete the work itself. No researcher wants to admit that, after using their funding and reaching the end of their projected timeline, they need still more money and time to reach a definite conclusion. By allowing news outlets like Express News and Heritage Daily to report their findings as gargantuan, public interest piques, making various organisations more likely to provide grants. Even donations and private contributions increase spectacularly as wider news coverage increases.
A good example of this is in the work of Professor of Palaeontology at North Carolina State University, Mary Schweitzer. Although this case is related to palaeontology, similar situations occur in many disciplines, especially archaeology. Schweitzer insists that she has uncovered dinosaur DNA during excavation, but has not yet been able to sequence it, nor has she been able to recover it at all. However, her claims have received positive responses from the wider public, whose fascination with science fiction stories such as Jurassic Park have predisposed them to be enraptured with stories like Schweitzer’s, despite having little experience in the field. It is true that Schweitzer has received harsh criticism from colleagues and other palaeontologists, but she remains steadfast in her claims and has been quoted as saying, “I don’t care what they say about me”.
Despite the redolent disdain pouring in from other experts in her field, an incredible amount of funding has rolled in from all sides in order to allow Schweitzer to move forward with her plan to successfully recover and sequence dinosaur DNA. Every few months, she comes forward with yet more claims that she is on the verge of succeeding. In turn, funding keeps coming in for her projects.
It seems, then, that academic integrity is no longer the most important component of research. A large debt is owed to the sheer sensation that archaeology has become; without it, archaeology may not exist to the extent that it does today, and it would be largely inaccessible. In a way, archaeologists owe their continued ability to work on large-scale projects to the excitement generated by these news outlets and the researchers who are willing to pander to them. On the other hand, it must be said that a decline in the quality of research is a steep price to pay in exchange for this enthusiasm. How long can archaeology, palaeontology, and palaeomolecular study survive while half-finished research continues to rule the day? It is hard to argue with those choosing to advertise themselves to the public, when less exciting – though no less important – projects gain no attention or support.
Written by Etta Coleman
Ashkenaz, Antony. “Archaeologists Stunned as ‘Oldest Evidence of Mankind’ Rewrites Human History.” Express.co.uk. Express.co.uk, January 13, 2022. https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/1549040/archaeology-news-oldest-evidence-mankind-found-east-africa.
Saraceni, Jessica Esther. “DNA Study Identifies Possible ‘Kunga’ in Syria.” Archaeology Magazine, January 18, 2022. https://www.archaeology.org/news/10287-220118-syria-hybrid-kunga.
Service, Robert F. “‘I Don’t Care What They Say about Me’: Paleontologist …”, September 13, 2017. https://www.science.org/content/article/i-don-t-care-what-they-say-about-me-paleontologist-stares-down-critics-her-hunt.