By Lara Tooby
Why archaeology? A difficult question for many a budding archaeology student. Almost as nebulous a question as ‘what is the meaning of life?’ However, answering the question succinctly gives archaeology students solid grounding and their studies meaning and, just as importantly informs everyone. This blog post attempts to clarify why I believe archaeology is important when done correctly and with good intentions.
Archaeology gives a voice to the voiceless
Archaeologists have the rare opportunity to delve into the past to give meaning to the silence, including people who do not feature in the history books. This is the crucial factor differentiating archaeology from other social science disciplines.
Archaeology helps us understand present society
Most people will agree that modern history is relevant, as it directly influences society as it is today, but question the importance of history thousands upon thousands of years ago. There is a tendency to forget that the most ingrained and taken for granted social structures are rooted in ancient history. For example, clothing, religion, money and transport the inventions of umankind, and to gain a real appreciation of their significance and evolution over time one has to make sense of thousands of years of history in locations across the world. Archaeology deals with all history and is important in understanding how the past has created the present.
Archaeology helps us comprehend alternate ways of being
Nothing becomes too bizarre or ridiculous when viewed in the context of what has taken place over thousands of years of human history. In my opinion, this is the most important application of archaeology. A good knowledge of the past is useful in the ongoing debate about how we comprehend human similarity and difference, and how we coexist with each other and with other life forms in the modern world. In the words of Yuval Noah Harari (2011, p.269):
‘We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.’
In a world that is becoming increasingly connected, how do humans understand each other and cope with the global environmental problems and conflicts bearing havoc on our Earth?
These three points have helped me clarify my own archaeological journey. Although students may have different reasons for studying archaeology, it is important to be able to answer the question: ‘Why archaeology?’ in terms of your own perspective and in order to help society, in general, understand the importance of the discipline.
So, what is your answer?
Harari, YN 2014, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Vintage Publishing, London.