The idiotic Giles Coren in the Times seems to think archaeologists are diminishing the human race.

He’s railing particularly against the application of scientific techniques to archaeological evidence and how this has the horrible habit of disproving those comfortable myths such as the veracity of the Turin shroud: “each time we do so, we extinguish hundreds of years of glorious, musical, unbelievably nourishing credulousness. Every time we do so, we lose a little of what it is to be human”.

Really? I mean, surely this is slop hack writing at its very best. He’s just spouting the same old crap humans have said since before they were able to write it down; that things were better in the old days, that modern technology removes some of the ‘glorious’ mysticism of the past. Nostalgia, pure and simple.

It’s interesting to see this in context of the habits of humans in civilisations that feel threatened. It’s amazing how many cultures fall back on nostalgia almost continuously.

Of course, it’s not amazing that anyone as well educated as our Giles can think that being ‘credulous’ is a good thing. Most people tend to think of ignorance as a waste, if not a direct failing. I have an enquiring mind, I am enthusiastic to learn about the world, including the past. Giles may glorify the days “where once we were prepared to believe pretty much anything on the say-so of posterity, a great poet or a local leader with a big personality, and ideally a combination of all three” but frankly those people were all white, upper to upper-middle class, western men, so what the hell would they know about most people’s lives?

He does get one thing right – they hype around discovering (or not) Cleopatra’s tomb, which is what inspired his rather ill-informed article, is down to the fact that archaeologists don’t get funding for the less exciting, less media-friendly projects. Who wants to know that there’s a massive pan-European project on Neolithic dairying? It might tell us when and who first started to use milk and make cheese, but that’s hardly attractive to the press.

But unfortunately Giles is still labouring under the misapprehension that archaeologists get any form of government funding: “you don’t get government funding if you just say you want to poke about a bit under the new football stadium and see what you find”. I’m sorry Giles – archaeologists don’t get government funding for excavations. It just doesn’t happen anymore. What we do is try and work out if there’s any archaeology present on a site, and at least get it recorded, before the developer goes and destroys it by throwing up another ugly stadium. The developer pays (or not, given some current examples).

It is not science, per se, that is the enemy of poetry, only our crass literalism. Only our determination to ask questions to which we do not want to hear the answer.” Sorry Giles. But I do want to know how our ancestors looked, I do want to know what they ate, where they lived, how far they travelled and I do want to know who invented writing, books, literature, and how they did that. ┬áThese are things archaeological science can tell us.

If you don’t want to know, you don’t have to hear; you can stick your head in the sand and let all that mythology nurture your humanity. But frankly, the reality of the past is far more exciting and far more inspiring than any mythology!


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