Archaeology: The intimate connection to our past.

Samuel Brigham-McLellan



            I have chosen my future profession, archaeology, as my topic for this essay. In the media and throughout recent history we have been subject to many conflicting ideas and misconceptions about what we actually do. Some simply have emerged out of the popular and exciting blockbuster movies that play off of the mystique and the romance of a career spent digging up lost relics. Some come from the equally exciting, and largely entertainment based world of cable tv, such as the discovery channel and others. These elements do try to instruct and inform people about the new and recent discoveries of the day, but ultimately have to cater to ratings and maintain viewers, which leaves a rushed feeling to the professional archaeologist. Sometimes local discoveries can become national news and will lead to a polarized and public discussion, in most cases with the proper treatment of human remains from archaeological sites. In many cases the public opinion of archaeology has also been influenced by archaeology’s admittedly shaky past when it comes to the more sensitive areas of ownership rights of artifacts and treatment of burials. This paper will attempt to explain and analyze some of the more common artifacts of archaeology to appear within popular culture these days. Archaeology is a scientific discipline like any other, we are not looters or plunderers. It is not an easy profession, it is one where “aha moments” do not arrive without hard work and dedication. We take pride and respect towards the living history we unearth.

            When I say I am an archaeologist, without fail I will be asked if I have a fedora and a bullwhip. The Indiana Jones movies came out in the 1980’s and star Harrison Ford as the swashbuckling, sexy, and chiseled action star that most archaeologists are quite keen on emulating. The three movies have the same plot devices throughout, with albeit different settings. Indiana jones in the mid 1930’s is trying to locate a lost artifact because as he adamantly says “It belongs in a museum!” He is then seen as a PHD with a doctorate in archaeology, and teaching in a bowtie and glasses, the methodology and ethics of the archaeological world. This will then feed into the main plot where an artifact of biblical origin is on the verge of being by the Nazi party and Indy is the one to save us all from certain doom. So where is it right and where is it wrong?

The most obvious out of the way first. We do not shoot Nazis, nor do we protect or unearth occult doomsday weapons. However there could be a small teaspoon of comparable experience in this. Unfortunately there are people out there who loot artifacts from archaeological sites for the insane amounts of money that black market artifacts will fetch. Figures are hard to come by, but some vessels from Mayan sites can fetch upwards of 10 to 20k easily in the black market. Archaeologists are invested in doing justice to the past, whether it be through proper respect for preserved sites, or protection and conservation of sites that may be threatened. So in a sense we do defend these resources. Indiana jones is a work of fiction but it does deal in truths from time to time. Archaeology deals with the scientific method and a careful methodological approach to the sites we dig. Context is key for this discipline, if we don’t know where something was from, than we might have well looted it ourselves. So though he may have been rushed by the Nazis at times he did take notes, and use scientific approach to his methods. In this clip we can see some of his insight into the fact that we don’t just run into the jungle and dig the coolest looking building we can find.

            Besides the obvious fact that the series is intended to entertain, one can also figure that it was somewhat accurate to the time it was set. From the early antiquarians to the archaeologists of the 1930’s or so, the world was a larger place and less had been discovered. The past was truly a goldmine of undiscovered wonders, and there was less control over where things ended up. The bulk of Egyptian art and artifacts ended up in England and France, having been looted by the invading armies of both countries. The west has had an unfortunate history of stealing the histories of other countries, and as late as the 1930s. So Dr. Jones’ cry of “it belongs in a museum” rings true to two important lessons. One that we do wish the best for these artifacts, but we must acknowledge the shaky past that we came from. However professional Archaeologists all over would likely call him a plunderer.

            While I will freely admit that I have acted this scene out a dozen times, the professional in me still has to think that normally you would take days or even weeks to merely photograph, map, and possibly digitally render the hell out of this stupendously preserved and unlooted find. And good god why would you handle it that aggressively!? But any professional will balk at the cinematic interpretation of their job. For example no doctor would take Scrubs at face value. The advantage in this though is that we can have a sort of cheerleader that keeps even the layman interested in what we do, as well as an action hero we can dress like on digs. (myself included)


            With this in mind there are ways that archaeology can help to both redeem us in a way for our past and remind us of what progress we have made. Here is one such example. In 1991 human remains were found in New York City when construction on a new building broke ground. Initially, as always, foul play was suspected, however when numerous full skeletons were exposed and the age of the bones were determined to be quite old, Archaeologists were called to do a survey and excavation of the construction site. What followed was the exhumation of some four hundred and 20 men women and children. What it turned out to be was a historical cemetery dating back to as far back as the 1600’s when NYC was formerly New Amsterdam, a Dutch colony. It had been known as “the negro’s burial ground” as it was traditionally reserved for slaves, but following the abolition of slavery in the north had become lost in time. The arguments for both sides ended up in the public forum and finally the area was turned into a memorial, in which all the bodies and grave goods were reinterred in their resting place. This got national coverage due to the surprise of such a find in an urban sprawl. It brought an uncomfortable but needed splash of reality that the evils of slavery were countrywide, and not solely in the south. More importantly it brought peace and respectful closure to the lives of the people who were buried there. They ended up with a proper memorial and the country saw the benefits of a proper archaeological survey.

            Controversy did arise however out of this event. Commonly it is thought that archaeologists are grave robbers, and the difficulty of this is that in a sense we are.


Courtesy of the General Services Administration.

Of course there is a matter of perspective in this case, we are not merely digging these people up for the sake of doing it. Ideally the remains should be dealt with the utmost care and respect. Knowing that they once were a living person. Sadly a lot of what archaeologists do is salvage sites that are under threat of destruction, in an attempt to learn what can be learned before development of the land proceeds. So rescuing and repatriating these remains before their inevitable destruction is a way to do justice to these people’s final resting place. As well as from the scientific point of view; where human burial practices provide a tremendous source of knowledge about how our ancestors lived, and died.

In many cases in US archaeological work, human remains will stop the dig immediately. In 1990 the house and senate passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, affectionately known as NAGPRA. This act has three main parts to it: 1 that federal agencies and federally funded agencies must return any sort of cultural item found on a dig to the living descendants of that tribe; it sets procedures for any dig that happens to discover human remains, namely giving the decision to proceed or shut down the operation to the lineal descendants of the people being excavated; and finally it forbids the transportation of human remains without permits and regulations.

The stigma of looting and grave robbing did not simply come out of thin air though. As mentioned before, the history of archeology is unfortunately littered with stories of looting, ethnocentric ideas of who “owned” artifacts and burials. Prior to forensic analysis, study of the body within a tomb was limited to placement of the bones, and usually considered secondary to the grave goods that were associated with said body. So it is fair that people would still believe that we are simply trying to dig through the chaff to take away the cool stuff, and certainly this is a fair perspective for the person who’s great great grandfather you are digging up. But what Indiana Jones and the Nova shows leaves out is the sheer mountain of paperwork and note taking that goes into an excavation. This exists to make sure that real, positive, and tangible knowledge comes from this, granted, destructive and invasive act. Like any science there is a discipline behind it.

Thankfully because of this there is now a sort of common goal for good among the archaeological community. NAGPRA and the strong arm of the law, combined with the ethics of the trade mean that people who practice archeology in a bad way or are known for pseudo-science rarely make it out unscathed. Simply put one bad apple will spoil the bunch, in any professional doctrine, especially in the digital age, news of someone acting wrong spreads, fast. Two recent events in the news triggered severe outcry from the archaeological community and brought our struggle into the limelight again, thankfully both ended with us looking good, and the perpetrators looking very very bad.

The National Geographic Channel had attempted in 2014 to produce and air the show “Nazi War Diggers,” a show that featured salvage archaeology of military graves, specifically Nazi graves, the difference however in this case was that they intended on recovering artifacts for sale to museums. The critics of the show argued intensely that the methods that were employed in the “excavation” of these sites was sloppy, and done quickly for show without care or the proper paperwork necessary. This was coupled with the intention to sell the artifacts following their recovery made the show something closer to looting. There is a huge difference between excavating a grave that is in danger of immediate destruction and then repatriating the goods and artifacts; vs “recovering” unsung graves by untrained amateurs who pose for photos with skeletons. This is a prime example of a bad apple spoiling the bunch, and as such, this show was panned and protested by nearly everyone in the archaeological community, and then later canceled before it was even aired.

The community of archaeologists are devoted to the protection of the past, and sometimes stories we find will tug at our heartstrings.


In 2013 a Belizean construction company bulldozed the central structure of the site of Nohmul, all for road fill. A site that has stood at 100 feet tall for more than 2300 years ended up illegally ravaged for road aggregate. The situation is ongoing, legally the law is on the side of the ancient Maya, and the site was protected under Belizean law, despite being on private land. Though it is a recent development, so a solution could be years in the future. This picture is particularly telling of the debate and dilemma we face here. Obviously if we worried about disturbing the past to make room for the future we would have no modern development. Heman being change, the cities of Chicago and London for example have both burned to the ground and are unlike what the ancient inhabitants would have recognized. The site of the Boston Tea Party is now in the middle of a street due to infilling, life and people move on.

This is natural, in order for people to progress into the future we must slowly move away from the past. But in quoting the old adage “those who don’t learn their history are bound to repeat it,” we see the wisdom that can be gained by looking to those who came before us. But more importantly we must give proper respect to the people who came before us. If the site of Nohmul had contained the remains of your ancestors you would feel the pain and frustration at the disrespect towards your kin. In the end however, the human story is a shared struggle for survival forward into the future, and archaeology deals with the most tangible elements of our past, the objects we leave behind. By doing our best to respect the past while moving forward, we help shape the story of our history, and preserve the critical links to our past. To me the most important discovery we make as archaeologists is that people all over the world are all at their base level, people, practical and fallible, to understand them is to understand ourselves.






African Burial Ground.2010. Retrieved from The New York Preservation Archive Project.org

African Burial Ground: History and Culture. (N.D) Retrieved from the National Parks Service Online.

Brockman, Andy. (2014) National Geographic Buries Nazi War Diggers. Heritage Daily, Archaeology News. Retrieved from

Hall, Mark A. 2004. Romancing the Stones: Archaeology in Popular Cinema. European Journal of Archaeology, Vol 7(2), 159-176

Jones, Patrick E, Stevenson Mark. (2013) Mayan Nohmul Pyramid In Belize Destroyed By Bulldozer. Retrieved from

Kutz David.1994. The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery. USA:Kutz television for US General Services Administration.

Roumpani, Flora. Hudson, Polly. 2014. The evolution of London: the city’s near 200 year history mapped. Retrieved from

Spielberg, Stephen. 1981. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Paramount Pictures, Lucasfilm. USA

Spielberg, Stephen. 1989. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Paramount Pictures, Lucasfilm. USA

Burns, Kevin. 2012. Ancient Aliens: The Mayan Conspiracy. Prometheus Entertainment. USA

Glassman, Gary. 2001. Nova: Lost King of the Maya. .WGBH.USA

US Government Printing Office. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Regulations. Retrieved from The US Government Printing Office.;c=ecfr;cc=ecfr;sid=abefc428407c704d63fef71637939827;idno=43;region=DIV1;q1=NATIVE%20AMERICAN%20GRAVES%20PROTECTION%20AND%20REPATRIATION;rgn=div5;view=text;node=43%3A1.

This entry was posted in Spring 2014 by Sam Mclellan. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sam Mclellan

I am an Anhropology major in my sophmore year at PSU. My goal is to one day use this degree to become an archaeologist professionally. I have done work in the NW area of Belize for the Maya research program for the last six years and will be going back as an intern this summer. Outside of school I suppose i am like most portlanders. I like movies and volunteer occasionally at the hollywood theater. I work part time at a local pub and hang out with my friends when i'm not busy. I enjoy meeting new people and having new experiences.

4 thoughts on “Archaeology: The intimate connection to our past.

  1. Hi Sam,

    Wow, I really enjoyed reading your essay! I definitely did not understand what archaeologists did before reading your paper, and you did a great job of explaining the differences between real-life professional archaeologists and what is actually portrayed in popular culture.

    I can sympathize with your irritation over how sloppily archaeologists are portrayed on TV shows and movies (engineers are the same too…). From what you explained, it seems that archaeology is a profession that is not completely understood, nor one that produces immediate results, so producers had to add a more glamorous aspect to sell the ideas- as shown in Indian Jones.

    You also mentioned that this field is applicable in many other areas: I remember going on a field to see the progress of the TriMet Orange Line a couple years back, and some of the workers were explaining that any project involving land and dirt needs to have a professional archaeologist on board. Apparently they have to examine the area before any construction can happen. This turned out to be very useful as the City found a few Native American artifacts buried under where the MAX line was supposed to go. I don’t know what happened after that, but I felt that it was good of the City to halt the project until the artifacts could be claimed. It showed a degree of respect to our past.

    You also made a great point in mentioning that a lot of movies or shows emphasize the importance of bringing back artifacts to display in museums. Museums are great, but it is also very selfish and shows “arrogance” against other cultures if their ancient cultural artifacts are displayed hundreds of miles away from their native lands. I also think the West has a problem with this and it is not addressed enough!

    I have to say I really admire the patience it must take to painstakingly unearth all of the ancient remains from the ground, especially in ways so as to not destroy the artifacts! Do you ever find yourself becoming frustrated over a lack of a discovery at a site?

    Great job on the last paragraph too, you really connected your profession in to a larger context!

    • Thank you Shradha!

      Yeah it is interesting to hear about finds that pop up in your back yard, not literally unfortunately haha. But I can remember one instance where the lone fir cemetery a few blocks from my house in SE Portland unearthed an interesting find. They made plans to expand the parking lot and due to NAGPRA had to do a survey, especially given the proximity to a burial ground. They found a series of bodies buried on top of one another, not like a mass grave, but more like a tightly compacted grave site for numerous people. What they discovered based off of historical records and other related grave goods, was that it was actually a cemetery for Chinese workers around the turn of the century. They were unmarked and forgotten after years of development in the surrounding area. Thinks like that constantly peak my interest. It is a job that requires patience, I must admit I do get the twinge of disappointment from time to time if a major find doesn’t seem likely, but I always get asked what the coolest thing I have ever found was. Every time, I will always say that my favorite discovery was finding a perfectly smooth plaster floor within a mayan house. It was as smooth as a freshly iced cake, and the best part was at the lip between the floor and the wall, where i could make out finger marks that were left there by the person who had plastered the floor. And just the knowledge that I was the first person to stand on this floor in over 1000 years, there are really no words to describe how amazing that felt.

  2. I think archaeology has always been an interesting field, mainly because of the relevance the media brings. I know a lot of it is always greatly exaggerated like Indian Jones and can even be frowned upon on the news as many archaeologists can be considered plunderers. But the whole aspect of learning more about a previous culture is really what I find interesting. I am an architect major and have also taken many architectural culture classes, so I know it can be a lot of work (especially digital renderings and mapping etc). You mention plundering and grave robbing to make a profit, but what about counterfeiting? I can’t recall but I remember articles of ancient artifacts being counterfeited to be sold as well, and was wondering is that perhaps a bigger problem archaeologists face too?
    Also, I’m well aware of the ratings TV shows strive for, and can’t help but think of Ancient Aliens. Some of the attire they wear on that show reminds me of the whole fedora, brown vest look or whatever. And it seems ridiculous when they bust out a ruler and make ridiculous claims like stones were laser cut thousands of years ago. Do you think as time progresses the need for real archaeology becomes rarer and people will resort to ridiculous claims or black markets for profit? or is our current infrastructure and the pace of development will always lead to a need to continually relearn parts of our more recent history?

    • I always wonder about the future of archaeology, technology has given us the benefits of new ways of detecting structures from space, ground penetrating radar and the like. Conventional mapping techniques, while still very important to understand, has become gradually apexed by total stations and laser guided digital rendering, as an architect i would imagine you get the benefit of these technologies. I think at some point excavation may be less and less common as scanning and radio waves and the like make mapping easier. But in the end it always takes actually seeing the structure unfold to understand what is happening. And you never can anticipate the random finds that may throw you a curve ball
      Honestly I couldn’t tell you what threats counter fitting pose, but as I see it I would rather people have fakes and not be stealing the real artifacts. I just sadly see the reality of the high price of stolen artifacts. .

Comments are closed.