Archaeology in Popular Culture

by Cornelius Holtorf (cornelius.holtorf@raa.se)

One of the underlying reasons for the popularity of archaeology is that archaeologists do not only dig in the ground but also in certain popular notions. In this paper, I shall demonstrate that the image of archaeology in popular culture is dominated, in particular, by references to three key themes.

1. Archaeology is about searching and finding treasure underground (or at any rate below the surface)

There are three main characteristics of the underground with resonances in a wide range of fields, including archaeology: (a) its invisibility from the surface, (b) the hidden treasures it contains, and (c) the risks involved in getting at these treasures. These characteristics are, for example, apparent in folk tales about treasures that are suspected to lie in ancient barrows, where attempts to retrieve these possessions are usually prevented by some kind of deadly creature or mechanism. A fine literary example is James Rollins’ novel Excavation (2000) which describes the discoveries and ordeals of a group of archaeology students in the Peruvian jungle. In principle every archaeologist is braving the various troubles of archaeological fieldwork and the risks of archaeological interpretation in order to find and uncover what is precious to us as part of our history, identity and world view. Treasures, indeed!

2. Archaeological fieldwork involves making discoveries in tough conditions and in exotic locations

Entering the underground can be an adventurous and sometimes dangerous enter-prise, but it is potentially very lucrative. To some extent, the idea of archaeological fieldwork is derived from this image: it is an exciting and occasionally risky adventure, at the end of which the archaeologist seeks to be rewarded by discovery.
Even among archaeologists themselves, those who do not do fieldwork are often mocked as ‘armchair archaeologists’. It is particularly fitting that the popular image of the archaeologist should also emphasise fieldwork so much. The archaeologist is often portrayed as ‘the cowboy of science’, living a life of romance and risky adventures in exotic places. The Indiana Jones movies have been especially influential here, but the cliché, as such, is far older. The archaeologist has long been depicted as a passionate and totally devoted adventurer and explorer who conquers ancient sites and artefacts, thereby pushing forward the frontiers of our knowledge about the past. The associated narratives resemble those of the stereotypical hero who embarks on a quest to which he is fully devoted, is tested in the field, makes a spectacular discovery and finally emerges as the virtuous man (or, exceptionally, woman) when the quest is fulfilled. This is seen nowhere more clearly than in descriptions of the life and career of Heinrich Schliemann, who was, and is, a popular hero (Zintzen 1998).

3. Like a detective, the archaeologist tries to piece together what happened in the past

Like the detective, the archaeologist solves mysteries and is often portrayed as creating light where there was darkness, by finding clues and revealing truths (Holtorf 2003 and forthcoming (b)). According to Massimo Pallotino (1968: 12), it is the process of searching for, and interpreting, clues that makes archaeology "so exciting to the general public, who derive such enjoyment from reading detective stories or following the twists and turns of court cases." A case in point was the very widely reported discovery of the Ice Man in the Italian Alps more than a decade ago. It was initially investigated by forensic scientists, but the archaeologists too were much concerned with documenting and retrieving even the smallest piece of evidence on the site in order to reconstruct what had happened here. Even today, the Ice Man regains his popularity in the media every time a new clue has been found and analysed, contributing to complete the picture of who this man was, how he lived and how he died.

The significance of doing archaeology

In the light of these three prominent themes of archaeology, it should not surprise anybody that for many the process of doing archaeology is more exciting and important than its actual results. The subject of archaeology brings three themes together, each of which is powerful and popular even by itself. The underground, adventurous fieldwork, and criminology become manifest in the actions, tools and skills of the archaeologist. Ironically, it is this very physical and material dimension of archaeology that seems to have been overlooked at times by the archaeologists themselves. I have recently discovered a great web design website with web hosting features which you can build a website about archaeology - I don't remember the name of this resource.

Archaeologists tend to see themselves mostly as (pre-)historians who are concerned with cognitive insights into the past or as caretakers and managers of existing collections or sites. Professional archaeologists tend to assume that what archaeology leaves us with is more important than how it is done. With this view, we might wake up one day and find that we have all the knowledge about the past and all the heritage sites we need, and consequently put an end to archaeology. On the contrary, I wish to suggest that archaeology is culturally significant mainly because the process of doing it is significant in itself. As Gavin Lucas put it (1997: 9), ever to complete meaningful, archaeological processes such as searching, digging, collecting and preserving, would frustrate the very desires which lie behind them. It is not a question of needs being eventually fulfilled but of deeply felt desires being sustained. The search for the past is the search for ourselves (Holtorf, forthcoming (b)). As a consequence, we have never revealed enough about the past, a collection of antiquities is never complete, there are never sufficient numbers of sites preserved. The archaeological process must therefore go on continuously — we have to be ’at it’ all the time. The action must never come to a halt.


Understandably, archaeologists have often judged their popular image by what it fails to do. I would like to suggest, however, that it is of little use to complain that people who are not professional archaeologists themselves may have an in some respects badly informed view of professional archaeology and what it has achieved. Instead, these views are significant in themselves and ultimately an important part of the current fascination and popularity of archaeology as a whole (Holtorf, forthcoming (a)). What is required is an attempt to understand both the cultural context from which this fascination emerges and the (maybe changing?) cultural needs to which it responds. In other words, professional archaeologists should appreciate these alternative understandings for what they are rather than for what they are not.

Let us look, then, at what the cliché of archaeology in popular culture does achieve. By emphasising the process of doing archaeology, it expresses a fascination with methodical human inquiry and idealises persistence in adverse circumstances, eventually being rewarded by valuable treasure or new insights. It also gives people the satisfaction of imagining a different life, which is full of adventure and purposeful missions, such as those involved in solving a ‘mystery’ or preventing a ‘treasure’ from falling into the wrong hands. These are no small achievements.
Arguably, a society benefits from individuals who can occasionally fulfil some of their dreams or gain satisfaction from (seemingly) being able to contribute to important missions. It makes for happier people and better stories that they can tell, both themselves and others.

A society also benefits from people with inquiring minds, and maybe much more so than from receptive students who are ready to learn factual knowledge. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), one of the foremost thinkers of the Enlightenment, argued this very point in 1777 http://www.projekt.gutenberg.de/lessing/essays/wahrheit.htm:
"Nicht die Wahrheit, in deren Besitz irgendein Mensch ist oder zu sein vermeinet, sondern die aufrichtige Mühe, die er angewandt hat, hinter die Wahrheit zu kommen, macht den Wert des Menschen. Denn nicht durch den Besitz, sondern durch die Nachforschung der Wahrheit erweitern sich seine Kräfte, worin allein seine immer wachsende Vollkommenheit bestehet." In other words, more valuable than possessing truths is searching for truths by methodical inquiry. Taking this seriously means encouraging any such inquiries, and not just those that, at any given time, happen to resemble certain professional approaches.

Professional archaeology can make very significant contributions to achieving such aims. It is not for nothing that Indiana Jones too is ‘in real life’ a professional archaeologist who is employed by an American university! What professional archaeology has got to offer is as good or superior to what archaeologists on TV, in movies or in fictional novels can provide. This is not because they necessarily always get the facts right. It is because professional archaeology can let people become involved in the real thing rather than watch a film or read a book. Most importantly, archaeologists can also make people aware of politically or ethically highly disputed notions that are occasionally connected with archaeology.

What I suggest is that we should adopt as our most important aim what makes our field so exciting and so valuable, both in popular culture and in reality: the possibility for people to live out some of their dreams and to develop inquiring minds by being archaeologists themselves, if only for a day. To me, the benefits gained from that are what really matters about doing archaeology.


The research on which this research paper is based has been supported by a Marie Curie Fellowship of the European Commission for research about The Portrayal of Archaeology in Contemporary Popular Culture http://www.raa.se/forskning/popkult_eng.asp. A longer version of this paper in Swedish will be published in a forthcoming anthology (expected 2004). Responsibility for all the consequences of this paper, intellectual or otherwise, lies with me alone.

Cornelius Holtorf
Box 5405
11484 Stockholm


( for essay experts, term paper writers, students, and educators:

Holtorf, Cornelius (2003) Archäologie als Fiktion — Anmerkungen zum Spurenlesen. In: Spuren und Botschaften: Interpretationen materieller Kultur. Edited by U. Veit, T. Kienlin, C. Kümmel and S. Schmidt, pp. 531-544. Münster: Waxmann.

Holtorf, Cornelius (forthcoming (a)) From Stonehenge to Las Vegas. Archaeology as Popular Culture. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.

Holtorf, Cornelius (forthcoming (b)) Archäologie als Spurensicherung. In: Die Aktualität des Archäologischen. Edited by S. Altekamp and others. Frankfurt/M.: Fischer.

Lucas, Gavin (1997) Forgetting the Past. Anthropology Today 13 (1), February 1997. 8-14.

Pallottino, Massimo (1968) The Meaning of Archaeology. London: Thames and Hudson.

Rollins, James (2000) Excavation. New York: Harpertorch.

Zintzen, Christiane (1998) Von Pompeji nach Troja: Archäologie, Literatur und Öffentlichkeit im 19. Jahrhundert. Wien: WUV Universitätsverlag.

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Created by Cornelius. Last Modification: Tuesday 12 of January, 2010 00:23:48 UTC by steve.