The Future of Archaeology
I often wonder about the state of my field in future generations. 50 years seems a little to short a time for any major change, but what will archaeologists 1000 years from now think of our technology-driven society? How will they react to landfills full of motherboards and plastic bottles that refuse to biodegrade? Of the ruined skyscrapers which cling precariously to the sky? Will my fields still exist 1000 years from now, or has the internet rendered archaeology and museums obsolete?
First, a little background on my thought process. My first semester at Beloit College, I took the introductory to archaeology course: “Archaeology and Prehistory.” The professor had us read a fun children’s book in the last few weeks of the class, called Motel of the Mysteries. Its purpose was to serve as a sort of “What-If” wake-up call for archaeologists, as it asks “what if we are wrong?” In it, the author re-appropriates the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb for his tale. The archaeologist, whose name is a pun on Howard Carter (discoverer of King Tut’s tomb), describes the wondrous things found in this “tomb”- actually a simple hotel room. For example, he completely misidentified such rudimentary things as the folded toilet paper (seen at fancy hotels), bathtub, and even the bed as religious relics. The most intriguing misappropriation, which carries with it a certain social commentary with it, is the wrongful identification of the television as an idol of a god. (Macaulay, David 1979)
While this book is a humorous exploration of the “what-if”- taken to an extreme – it nonetheless is a worthwhile exercise. Paper trails and physicality of communication and personal connection are disappearing into the digital world. To a future researcher, who would not have access to the internet, what will our civilization look like? And what if the Internet DOES still exist in the future, in some heightened form? Will virtual reality become our ACTUAL reality? Science Fiction writers use that particular trope quite often. In every instance that I’ve read, the problem is the same: if we can live in a universe of our own making, then why would we choose not to? The logical result would be the sacrifice of reality for the life of fantasy.
This questions are difficult ones to grasp, and impossible to answer. Nonetheless, they are considerations that we must make as professionals. Take museums for example. Already, there is a push to make collections available online, whether through such open source ware as ContentDm, or through some other service. At the very least, museums are expected to have collections highlights on their websites (which themselves are considered a necessity). Virtual museums are also coming into vogue, yet while these do increase access to the collections for the broadest possible audience – anyone with an internet connection – it potentially limits ACTUAL visitation. Is that a con that museums can afford? In today’s economy, probably not, but they are accepting it nonetheless. Personally, I can see physical museums consolidating in the future, or disappearing altogether, if the trend to “virtuality” continues down the path to Veelox.
The same issue holds true for archaeology. One archaeologist, Sarah Parcak of the National Geographic, has pointed out that “less than one percent of ancient Egypt has been discovered and excavated.” (National Geographic website, 2012) Considering the ubiquity of discovered Egyptian sites, this makes the true number of possible sites mind-boggling. If we take Egypt as a microcosm for the entire world’s history and prehistory, then it should follow that archaeologists have nothing to fear in terms of “job security.” Yet, modern research involves scientific technologies such as ground-penetrating radar that keeps the site intact and undisturbed. If the ‘tools of the trade’ continue to develop away from actual excavation, then we could reach a point where the concept of discovery is rendered obsolete, particularly if the findings are published online for everyone to access.
All is not doom and gloom, however. After all, the entire purpose of museums and archaeology is to align and disseminate information to the masses. What will have to change is how these professionals will go about the business of doing so. The issue is finding a balance between the traditional field and the “newest and greatest” technology. What cannot be helped is that the everyday lives of everyone is available for all to see. If the internet does persist into the future as a working tool, then archaeology of the 21st century in the 22nd and beyond will have to accommodate the information that it provides.
Macaulay, David. “Mote of the Mysteries.” Houghton-Mifflin Company, New York City: 1979
National Geographic. “Sarah Parcak- Archaeologist, Emerging Explorer” (C) 2012 National Geographic. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/explorers/bios/sarah-parcak/