Recent discussions in one of my Masters papers have sparked some inner reflection regarding treatment of the archaeological image in public media. This reflection explicitly revolving around how public media (TV, games, movies) challenges, shapes or reinforces ideas of archaeology and archaeological principles – for better and for worse.
Overwhelmingly the tone from the in-class discussion was positive: that being in the public eye, and generating public engagement was more important than the form which that engagement took. To an extent reflecting the adage that all publicity is good publicity… But I am a sceptic, and as such, would argue that the portrayal of archaeology can, and does have ongoing implications for the expectations we set for public engagement – as it seems difficult, if not impossible to expect those outside the discipline to construct meaningful and ongoing interactions if there is no platform to facilitate or promote this.
I base my rather more cynical view off my personal experience of how pervasive the ‘treasure hunting – profiteering’ paradigm can be, as I for one am guilty of buying into it, albeit subconsciously and unwillingly. Having playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf on my Nintendo 3DS for a number of months I can hand on heart say that I never realised how I was treating archaeological material in a virtual space.
So now more on the incident:
In the game you play as the Mayor of a town, responsible for its cultural, economic and social growth. To achieve this you interact with the towns-people and sell goods you gather to generate an income which facilitates the growth of your mini-empire.
The night following the CHM discussions I was playing when it hit me how I had been complicit in buying into the treatment of heritage as a game, a value asset and a tangible commodity, essentially all the things I argued with reasonable vhenemancy against during the discussions. The situation went thus:
Digging in the ground, found some fossils and objects, took them to be appraised, was informed that because they were so rare that they were extremely valuable, thought to myself “that’s good as I’m trying to finance my new house extension”, took said valuable paleontological and archaeological remains to the local exchange store, sold them for copious profit, laughed all the way to the bank. Wasn’t until later that I realised I had essentially aided virtual treasure hunting and proliferated the black-market with tangible historic assets. Moreover, the game itself had set up the preface, and executed this in a manner which I did not question. I didn’t engage with whether that history had importance. I plundered it. And sold it for personal gain. And it was a rewarding and enjoyable experience. And that’s when the internal quandary and slight guilt set in.
This whole saga got me thinking about the proxy to the real world – of how through media we educate, normalise and facilitate this odd interaction (treasure hunting, quantified valued objects, self interest) with archaeology, whilst dressing up more altruistic establishments and aims under reasonably intangible guises ‘cultural growth’. The presentation of archaeology and the establishment of museums is presented as value based and optional, whilst profiteering and treasure hunting are actively promoted by the system. Claim all you want that this is fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that’s easy to buy into without even knowing. And it’s fantasy that has very real ongoing implications for how we frame and let people access our discipline. In an age focused around consumerism and personal interest it seems that relying on altruistic motives and decency to promote ‘proper heritage management’ may be an increasingly difficult position to maintain, especially in light of the continuous reinforcement, and ease of access to the opposing side.
And thus begs the question: how do we take an active stance to challenge this? How should this be changed, if it should at all? Or should we simply continue to participate in this childishly innocent treasure-hunting charade, laughing all the way to the virtual bank as we actively participate in neglecting, abusing and profiting off the very thing we as archaeologists place significance upon in the real world.
Personally I think its never too late to challenge the status quo, turn the tide, or even to leverage off these shortcomings to make a glorious comeback… As this DotA 2 clip demonstrates: (for those of you not into dota a short synopsis will be provided here: Team 1 is getting de_stroyed, Team 1 make a game changing play, Make a comeback, Get denied by Team 2, Team 2 return deny Team 1, Team 1 come back again to win against all the odds, with the worst early-game in history… If we were to give a real world proxy for what “feed early-game, win late-game” means it would go something like: screw up really badly to start with, create a monster, defeat the monster, win at everything):
It’s pretty clear that I sit on the side of the fence which thinks archaeological presentation in games and the wider media needs an earth-shaker style chaos dunk to the face to turn the tide for the better. What do you think? Is this an actual issue? or are we creating an issue where none really exists? If it is a real issue how could we mitigate it?