Some People Confuse Buildings with History and Archaeology

Posted on May 19, 2012


I was talking with the wife today about a conversation she had with one of her employees, actually it’s a conversation we, both of us, have had way too many times, about history. Her conversation was different but the generic one goes something like this:

British person (we live in Scotland at the moment): “Oh you’re from America and you’re an archaeologists/heritage manager, did you come here for the history?”

Us: “What do you mean ‘the history'”

British person: “Well, you know America doesn’t really have history.”

Us: “Nope, not sure what you mean, we have sites going back 12,000 years. Sorry, my bad they actually just found the first evidence of people there 15,000 years ago. Longer occupation than people have been in the UK since the last ice age.”

British person: “No not like that but you know history. Here we have castles and hillforts. America doesn’t have that.”

It is a huge problem I have with people, they equate history with buildings. Somehow if it is not a castle or Stonehenge then it is not really history. History is about people and their actions. It is about how they lived and who they lived it with. Yes, buildings are a part of history but it is such a small part of it. Most of what happened in history took place inside and around buildings by people. Last time I checked people built castles not the other way around.

Now this isn’t a British problem as Americans (this includes you Canadians) are just as bad, maybe worse. Here is a generic conversation I have with lots of North American archaeologists wanting to work in the UK:

Me: “So why did you come to the UK?”

Them: “Because of the archaeology, you know they have real archaeology here”

Me: “No, I don’t follow you. I have done lots of archaeology in the states”

Them: “Yeah, but its not real archaeology it is just lithic scatters and hearth features. They have real archaeology here with castles and hillforts”

Again people confuse buildings, monumental buildings at that (no one mentions the iron age huts), with archaeology. Archaeology is about looking at past people’s behaviors through their objects, NOT their objects. If you want to look at pretty things then your a collector not an archaeologist. Just because it is not some monumental building does not mean it is not interesting or even more interesting. I have dug a couple of hillforts and several castles now and I can tell you without a doubt they are quite boring. Yes, the walls are nice and finding a staircase is always nice, so was that 3m deep ditch we excavated lost month at Sheriffside, BUT they are actually quite boring archaeologically speaking. You find very little in the way of artifacts that actually tell you what people were doing and why.

Temple Scotland Excavation 2011

With a hearth feature and lithic scatter, the boring stuff in the states, you can learn so much. You can source the lithic materials to find trade routes or where the people came from. You can look at the lithics themselves to see what they were doing there e.g. hunting birds, hunting dear, gathering. The hearth feature you can date and possibly obtain seeds to see what they were eating. You can take pollen samples or if there is bone determine what time of the year they were there.

The long and short of it is that I think we need to do a better job teaching people about history and archaeology. We need to teach people that history and archaeology is not about buildings and that one should not confuse buildings with either. I think there are a lot of archaeologists and historians we need to explain that to as well.

Posted in: Wildcard