Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why study archaeology?

This is a surprisingly common question that many people ask me when they learn what I am studying at university. It is usually followed by "how are you going to make money doing that?" In our money obsessed society one is often defined by his salary. And for those of us in the "non-practical" fields, i.e. social sciences or humanities, we are often forced to justify our choice. When faced with such questions I usually respond with a fiscal response. Stating that the average tenured professor at the University of Toronto makes over $100,000 a year (source: Macleans). Or for archaeology in particular I usually mention the opportunities for paid travel to exotic locations around the globe. Yet these explanations are not the real reason why I study archaeology, instead they are simple answers for simple people. No one questions someone's motivation when they are a business major. Apparently devoting your life to greed is no longer a sin but a virtue. However, devoting your life to the pursuit of knowledge and scholarship is viewed as a wasted existence.
The real reason why I study archaeology and history in general is some deep felt passion within me. A passion to understand what has happened in the past and not just know some random facts. Yet that is a purely emotional reason for devoting one's life to archaeology and does not provide a practical justification, or maybe it does?
The pursuit of knowledge should be justification enough, which it was prior to the modern age. I often wonder if Socrates and Plato had to justify their pursuit of knowledge and understanding to their contemporaries. I imagine Socrates would have enjoyed questioning the person who asked him such a thing.
I do not buy into the notion that by studying the ancient world we can somehow better understand our own. That is a useless platitude which many scholars use to justify their studies. Numerous books are written on the subject. With titles like: How the Gauls Made the Modern World, or Why the Romans Matter. While it is true that many of our political institutions are based upon earlier Greek and Roman paradigms they are more products of our own time than of the classical world. One can see in the past case studies of human nature and see parallels with our own world but one should be wary of drawing too great a parallel with earlier periods of history. There is not and never will be a scientific law of human nature, we are unpredictable creatures who on occasion do things contrary to any sense of logic or commonsense. That said, I study the past to understand the past not the present. Too often modern governments and regimes use history to serve their own ends. One need look no further than some of the ethnic struggles in the Middle East and Europe to see instances where modern states use a historical connection to the land to justify their control or conquest of it in the present. It is often dangerous and frankly poor scholarship to draw such parallels. Unfortunately archaeology is often drawn into politics.
I will reiterate once again, I study the past to understand the past. Regardless of what others think of my chosen field of study I do it because the study of the past is fascinating to me. There is no thrill on this earth I have yet known to top unearthing an artifact that has not been seen or held for over 2000 years. To know that the last person who held that coin or piece of pottery was alive when Caesar or Alexander walked the earth allows me for the briefest of moments to be transported to that time and place. An indescribable connection with the past is forged. It becomes somehow alive and not just dry words in some dusty book. The past is better than any novel you will ever read, the entirety of the human experience is played out in its pages we need only decipher it, and best of all it is real. And that is the reason why I study archaeology. That and I like to nitpick and argue.

Ciao, ciao for now.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Digging History

As this is my first blog post I shall begin with a simple statement of purpose. That said, my purpose in writing this blog is to discuss various topics of interest pertaining to classical scholarship and archaeology, with the occasional digression on travel and any other topic that catches my fancy. The name of this blog "Digging History" refers to the actual practice of classical archaeology, since as a student of classical archaeology I quite literally dig history, and it also refers to my interest in ancient history. 
I hope that some of the topics discussed in this blog will help to fire further debate amongst my fellow scholars,  history enthusiasts, and hopefully the general public. I understand this is a grandiose purpose, but, what the hell, I am a grandiose kind of guy. I welcome your criticism and comments, however, I make no apologies for what I might post and may on occasion be less than "politically correct". Classical scholarship is in need of some controversy from time to time. That said, I hope to occasionally create some controversy and to hurt a few feelings but most of all to generate fresh debate. 
I hope those of you who chose to follow this blog enjoy it and those of you who do not can always read something else or check your facebook status instead. 
Ciao, ciao for now.