Thinking About Archaeology in Media

Sitting in my office, coffee in hand, I scroll through various websites.  In truth, I’m just looking for new or interesting articles that I’ve yet to see.  However, I’ve been noticing a pattern and it’s not quite positive.  There is a degree of pseudo-archaeology that sticks its ugly nose in.  Now, the positive thing here is that this degree of disinformation and inaccurate representation does not apply to most articles that I have been seeing but it fluctuates depending on the website.  Particularly on social media (mainly Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit) is where I see the highest degree of false or self-serving archaeology. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising as most of the articles I’ve seen like this come from those sites that post anything for sensationalism and reap that sweet, sweet ad revenue.

The point I’m trying to reach is that I’m seeing archaeology inaccurately represented and used for self-serving purposes more than I should.  By no means am I the only person to notice or feel the need to write, perhaps vent, about this.  Archaeology is not accurately represented in media, and this is the basis of my complaints.  For media to pass along a message, it needs to be digestible for the average reader.  Archaeologists, whether budding or professional, are not the average reader.  It is not designed for us, but for the public audience.  Where we want to know everything from methodology to data interpretation, this would make the average public audience glassy-eyed between the minute details, terminology, and the typical length of an article.  It needs to get to the point while glamorizing various portions of the work to draw in the audience and keep their attention.  Or, it needs to be done in a manner that serves a purpose beyond upping ad revenue.

You know, my most notable grievance come from media outlets that I have enjoyed for years, like the Travel and History channels.  These outlets give archaeology a home in mainstream media outlets, but it becomes twisted and warped.  Legitimate archaeology becomes intermixed with conspiracy theories, like the idea of ancient aliens.  I think Dr. David S. Anderson spells this out clearly in his Washington Post article about “Legends of the Lost” stating:

“Legends of the Lost” often ends up in just such a place. (Megan) Fox, a Hollywood actress, is clear throughout the episodes that she wants to find evidence of myth and magic — and to show up the devotees of “hidebound academia.” To come to these conclusions, she is perfectly happy to make use of scholarly research that can fit into her narrative, but sadly most everything else is left out of the show.

Essentially, this is an example of media cherry-picking information to best suit their needs, and in this case the needs are sensationalism and viewership.  Yes, this is far more entertaining for a typical audience but that doesn’t make this information correct by any means.  I could complain about more shows like American Pickers (antique dealers with shop called Antique Archaeology), The Curse of Oak Island (glorified treasure hunting), Pawn Stars (with their history of dealing historical artifacts), Ancient Aliens (duh), and a fair few others.  Frankly, these shows like to take the information that fits their story and make leaps that Evel Knievel couldn’t.  Not all of them do, Pawn Stars and American Pickers try to give a brief history of material possessions, but that is how I see them.

I’d like to say that I’m upset by the way that archaeology is portrayed in the media, and to a degree I am, but it is not all bad.  There are outlets that show archaeology for what it really is.  There are hundreds of archaeology blogs, numerous documentaries, and even a few TV shows that do this.  While I can’t vouch for the quality of every blog, documentary, show, book, magazine, publication, and whatever else but they do exist, and I hope those sources get picked up more by the general public.  Will they? Maybe a few, but if it’s not made to entertain then the interest in it will probably be limited.

IUP Department of Anthropology

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