Beyond ET and New Ageism

Discovering Archaeology (six times a year) - Minerva
December 3, 1999

Archaeology sells. More interesting is exactly what it purveys, how it is packaged, and the tension between academic research and popularisation. The enduring fascination of the past in the public mind often seems at odds with the multidisciplinary nature and practice of modern archaeology. This was not always so. In more innocent times, scholarly practice and public perceptions were more in tune, at least with hindsight. Schliemann's discoveries (some might say machinations) at Hissarlik (Troy),Carter's findings in Tutankhamun's golden tomb, and Bingham's rediscovery of the lost Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, were all of a sepia-tinted piece.By the 1930s, such stunning discoveries had fixed an image of archaeology and archaeologists in popular culture, one of adventures in exotic places and the uncovering of spectacular treasures often tied to simplistic readings of history.

While the 20th century has seen archaeology transformed, the public image has been impossible to shake, in fact has transmuted into a Frankenstein composed of arcane lore, extraterrestials, New Age fantasies and science fiction. As today's archaeologists are increasingly concerned with social process, hard science, cognitive development and symbolism, and self-reflexive analysis of the nature of their discipline, public perceptions retreat into an easier imagined past. What was once fringe appears to have become mainstream. This phenomenon is fascinating anthropology, but it tells us more about our own technological times than prehistory.

It was not long ago that the advent of PCs, CD-Roms and the worldwide web was seen as heralding the death of print publishing. This may yet occur, but if today's burgeoning publishing business is anything to go by, it is not imminent. Periodicals are a case in point. There has been an explosion of academic journals and upmarket glossies on almost every conceivable subject. In the UK, archaeology has not been well served by the latter in recent years. The rise and fall of the "cheap and cheerful" Popular Archaeology in the 1980s left a gap on the shelves of most high-street newsagents. The occasional article in National Geographic , New Scientist , Scientific American or History Today was no real substitute. It was perhaps coincidental that as serious archaeology disappeared from the magazine racks and television (with the demise of the BBC's Chronicle series) there was a corresponding surge of colourful mass-market periodicals full to the brim with mystical musings. It is against this still-rising cacophony of background noise that these two magazines are reviewed.

Both Minerva and Discovering Archaeology aim at the popular end of the market. Whereas the latter was launched in January 1999, the former has been around for a decade. They are very different publications, and it would be interesting to know what overlap there is between the two sets of readers. My guess would be very little.

In style and feel, Minerva appears somewhat akin to the fine-art periodical Apollo, and there is a definite emphasis on the Old World, with a focus on classical antiquity, Egypt and Mesopotamia. By contrast, Discovering Archaeology appears a younger and more vigorous clone of Archaeology, the magazine of the Archaeological Institute of America, which has been in existence for decades. Its remit too is broader, encompassing every aspect of modern archaeology.

These fundamental differences in approach and content are indicated by the covers. Discovering Archaeology opts for an eye-catching image such as the human head - two issues have skulls, one the ice-preserved head of the Tyrolean iceman, and the other a tete-a-tete between an underwater archaeologist and a Ptolemaic sphinx beneath the harbour waters of Alexandria. Minerva on the other hand has a classier, more restrained single image - typically an Egyptian mummy or figurine - with a tidy arrangement of headlines. The differences in cover language accurately predict the layout and content inside.

Discovering Archaeology is an all-colour magazine with rarely a monochrome image. Minerva , on the other hand, alternates black and white with colour - an approach which to my mind works better, as not every object is improved by colour. Monochromes emphasise and pick out numismatic details, light and shadow on Roman marble sculptures or classic Maya monuments and stelae. By virtue of not being true to life, black-and-white images encourage a deeper gaze and facilitate analysis.

In terms of coverage there are significant and apparent differences. Where Minerva does a creditable job at covering major issues and news items mainly to do with the world of classical antiquity, Egypt, and the Middle East, Discovering Archaeology 's remit is far wider, as a comparison of the feature articles in both publications reveals.

Discovering Archaeology covers important stories and themes regardless of time and space. In the third issue, there is a series of five linked feature articles on the American southwest, an extended account of the remarkable palaeolithic site of Boxgrove in Sussex, an intriguing piece on the pre-Buddhist Tibetan people called Shang Shung Pa, an equally interesting article on Pre-Columbian desert drawings in Chile, and an investigation into pyramid construction in Egypt. Being able to use banner headlines as diverse as "Amelia Earhart found?", "Medieval neutron bomb: slaughter on the Silk Road" and "Cannibals, witches and wars" is a strong selling point and typifies the aggressive commercialism of the magazine. The editors have adopted an international remit from remote prehistory to the present, and reflect the changing face of the discipline.

By comparison, Minerva clings to an art-and-object view of the past, and only occasionally strays outside the Old World for its feature articles. The focus is predominantly Egyptian, Roman and Greek. Many of these articles are also based less on actual archaeological research - a strength of Discovering Archaeology - and are tied to new or unusual museum exhibitions and galleries. Having said this, the magazine's editors are experienced hands and have no qualms about springing surprises - such as an excellent article on the Caribbean Taino (Arawak) and two smaller but interesting pieces on Vietnamese Cham sculpture and Classic Maya art.

Also interesting are the positions adopted by both magazines towards those extra features which give a wider audience to professional archaeologists and academic credibility to the publication. Discovering Archaeology regularly features a "web watch" page where useful internet sites are discussed and addresses given. The magazine maintains its own user-friendly website. The editors have also acquired the services of professional archaeologists Brian Fagan and William Rathje, both of whom write in each issue. Fagan, an internationally known author and professor at the University of California, contributes a piece called Focus. He ranges widely and with erudition from such topics as ancient astronauts to American origins and the future of academic archaeology.

Rathje, of the University of Arizona, writes a regular "Commentary" section. A respected and influential scholar, Rathje picks items which appeal to him and then gives readers the benefit of his views. His pieces are a joy as they push at the boundary of what most people conceive as archaeology's concerns. Thus we have a piece on the future archaeologies of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa via the sacred and secular material culture (souvenirs) of their memories. More traditional is a piece on the relationship between domesticated dogs and trends in contemporary society. Perhaps the most stimulating is a piece in which Rathje deals with the manipulations and destructions of the past as seen through archaeological issues in Kosovo and surrounding areas. The destruction of the 16th-century Ottoman bridge at Mostar in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Nato bombing of Novi Sad in Serbia, and wider issues of ethnic cleansing throughout the Balkans are all raised.

Book reviews also differ. Minerva seems to prefer most of its reviews to be written in-house by Peter Clayton, the book reviews editor, although occasional guest reviewers are of the highest academic calibre. Review coverage follows the magazine's Old World emphasis: of 1998's total of 31 reviews, only two are concerned with matters beyond Europe and the Middle East.

By contrast, Discovering Archaeology avoids in-house reviewing and uses instead a wide array of specialists suited to the books under consideration. This said, the reviews are short - about half the length of Clayton's in Minerva - which hardly makes best use of the expert reviewer, except in the case of a special feature. While the coverage here is wider than in Minerva , the reviews often appear shallow by comparison. The latter's approach is, perhaps surprisingly, more satisfying. Such an approach to book reviewing suggests less of an interest in systematic critique and assessment than in simple publicity, for which publishers nevertheless seem equally grateful. Where Discovering Archaeology steals a march is in its reviews of CD-Roms, videos, and even puzzles - a neat move for an overtly populist magazine.

In these times of postmodern reflection and questioning the motivations of archaeology and its power to represent a variety of pasts, it is appropriate to spend a few moments looking behind these two publications to see who pays the piper, and whom the piper pays. Here, the differences of approach and emphasis are most clearly discernible in the content and style of the advertising pages. Minerva 's orientation towards ancient art is seen in page after page of advertisements taken out by international art galleries and dealers specialising mainly in Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Middle Eastern antiquities. The appeal of such matter presumably would not extend to the majority of readers of Discovering Archaeology , most of whose advertisers are selling escorted tours to the world's famous archaeological destinations. Whether the latter's commercial emphasis will change after December 1999, when the magazine changes its name (somewhat awkwardly) to Scientific American Discovering Archaeology , remains to be seen. Is the change a sign of the magazine's commercial success? I am left unsure.

In both magazines, the past is presented and "sold" in a distinctive fashion. There is (and always has been) a fascinating, intimate and subtle relationship between the popularisation of archaeological knowledge and the seductive appeal of "owning" and "experiencing" other peoples' pasts through acquiring objects and visiting their sites. Added to this are complex issues concerning the vested interests of powerful individuals and multinational corporations who own and direct their multimedia outlets according to highly specific agendas.

Intersecting these issues is the business relationship between each magazine and its feature writers. While Minerva 's policy is to pay specialists for their work, Discovering Archaeology is more selective and assesses each case individually. By and large, specialists and academics are not paid, while journalists and science writers are. A lot could be read into this distinction. Suffice it to say that, as a general principle,I see no reason why non-specialists should be rewarded for reworking the scholarly material of others while academics are not, especially in an age when a new generation of media-savvy archaeologists is taking the helm.

For all the differences between these two publications, there remains an insightful overlap of topics and areas that seems to define the idea of archaeology in the public mind. Most notably, this includes anything to do with Egypt. Of the issues reviewed here, a high proportion of Minerva 's headline a story dealing with some aspect of Egyptology. This might be expected. More surprising was that the wider-ranging Discovering Archaeology features a story on Egyptian archaeology in all four issues under review. There is no escaping the fact that despite the century-long development of archaeology, the allure of the past is symbolised most

commonly by ancient Egypt. Given Hollywood's continuing obsession with pyramids, pharoahs, mummies and curses - from Indiana Jones to Stargate and The Mummy - this emphasis is unlikely to recede any time soon.

Any publication which popularises the interdisciplinary study of modern archaeology is to be welcomed. Both these magazines do so in concerted but very different ways. While Minerva has proved itself and its niche appeal against tough, mainly North American opposition, the future of Discovering Archaeology is uncertain. The latter's recent acquisition by Scientific American and its energetic pursuit of every conceivable kind of archaeology may ultimately challenge its better-known American rival Archaeology.

It is heartening to believe that in 100 years' time there will be a retrospective on popular representations of the past at the turn of the millennium in which the role of magazines such as these will be duly assessed. By then, the pages reviewed here will have become part of the material culture of the past.

Nicholas J. Saunders is British Academy institutional fellow in anthropology, University College London.

Discovering Archaeology (six times a year)

Editor - Jeff D. Leach
ISBN - ISSN 1 521 9496
Publisher - Rio Hondo
Price - $29.95 (World); US $19.95 (US
Pages - -

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