Between Home and History

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National Geographic, Have You No Shame?

Yes, we know from Cornelius Holtorf that Archaeology is a Brand.  Yes, we know that Indiana Jones is all in good fun (maybe) and it has attracted enormous numbers of students from comfortable industrialized countries to study archaeology. 

But what is inside the container?  There has always been faith among the archaeological profession– and indeed among some of our esteemed cultural institutions– that beneath the seductive veneer of popular culture, is (or could be) the prospect of recruiting a new generation to serious, productive, and intellectually sound archaeology.

I have never bought that argument.  I have always thought that the images provided by the Indiana Jones pseudo-1930s (and now 1950s) Saturday afternoon serials contain the same racist vision of snatching ancient treasure from the hands of benighted natives and evil powers that the original Saturday afternoon serials did.  I gives all the wrong messages about why we should be interested in the past and how to relate to it as something more than mysterious, valuable treasure.  But I was royally flamed in the Washington Post for saying exactly that.

Of course as we all know, life imitates art with frightening frequency in our celebrity culture.  Zahi Hawass wears (and even authorizes the sale of branded) Indiana Jones-style fedoras.  Harrison Ford has been appointed to the Board of Trustees of the Archaeological Institute of America, and government antiquities services around the world tout their ancient monuments and exotic landscapes as the places where one of the Indiana Jones movies was filmed.

At what point does life not just imitate art but become its marketing mechanism?  At what point do the whip and the gun actually BECOME archaeology?

The latest cultural confection from the National Geographic Society shows that, in fact, that the symbol and substance have become inextricably (and profitably intertwined).  There has been much discussion about the marketing of blockbuster exhibitions with high admission prices outside usual museums.  But this proposed traveling exhibition so aggressively mixes hype and celebrity mystique that there is hardly any room left for its supposed reason. 

Watch the following commercial and tell me if the appeal is based on the chance for visitors to see Indiana Jones “props and costumes” and buy Indiana Jones memorabilia or to learn about something as vague and misunderstood as “Archaeology.”

Tell me if you disagree.

Counting Down to 100 Years of “Scientific Study”

Artifacts from Machu Picchu on display at Yale’s Peabody Museum (AP photo, 2006)

From NY Times Arts Beat Blog November 3, 2010

Peru Seeks Obama’s Help in Dispute With Yale

By Randy Kennedy

Escalating a war of words between his government and Yale University, President Alan García of Peru has made a formal request for President Obama’s intervention in a long-running dispute over the ownership of a large group of artifacts excavated in 1912 at Machu Picchu by a Yale explorer.

Peru has argued that the items were only lent to the university and should have been returned long ago. Yale has contended that it returned all borrowed objects in the 1920s, retaining only those to which it had full title. In 2007 the sides reached a tentative agreement that would have set up a long-term collaboration and granted title of the disputed antiquities to Peru while allowing a certain number, including the piece above, to remain at Yale for study and display. But that deal fell apart in 2008, and Peru filed a civil suit in federal court in Connecticut.

Last month Peru said it was also prepared to pursue criminal charges against Yale if the items were not returned. In his letter to the White House on Tuesday Mr. García said it was only “just and necessary” for President Obama to step in. In a statement after the threat of criminal sanctions, Yale said that while it respected “Peru’s interests in archaeological material from Machu Picchu,” it also owed “a duty to academic and cultural institutions everywhere to recognize their important contributions to the study and understanding of all the world’s cultures.”

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Do the following projects really justify the right of Yale University to keep physical possession of the Machu Picchu finds?

(From a Yale University Press Release)

“Currently underway at Yale are a number of important scholarly studies of the Machu Picchu materials that promise to reveal more about Inca life and culture. Many of these studies involve newly developed scientific techniques and equipment, including the following:

  • A study of the metals from Machu Picchu using a scanning electron microprobe.
  • A study of the production patterns of Machu Picchu pottery using instrumental neutron activations analysis, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation.
  • A definitive monograph on the ceramics from the Inca burials at Machu Picchu, which will appear in Yale University Publications in Anthropology
  • A study of the DNA of the human bones in the collection that will shed light on the origins of the population at Machu Picchu as well as the biological relationships among the individuals who were buried there.
  • A study of the thoracic skeletal morphology of Machu Picchu and high-altitude hypoxia in Andean prehistory.
  • A study of the servant class of Machu Picchu, with a focus on their life stories and population dynamics, through an isotope study of human teeth.

“Keeping a portion of the study collections at the Yale Peabody Museum will ensure the continuation of this and similar research, and the applications of new analytical techniques to the collection as these are developed.”

 Um… does that mean, like, forever???