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Missing the matrix: The invisibility of archaeological deposits and public misconceptions of archaeology

In my previous post, I described how visiting publicly accessible archaeological sites as a professional archaeologist can be a somewhat sterile and occasionally soulless experience because the vibrant ‘living’ deposits archaeologists work with every day have, by necessity, either been removed or covered up to protect them. That this affected me viscerally despite my professional archaeologist’s training, reveals how experience can trump intellectual knowledge. It forced me to reevaluate how the nature of archaeology constrains the visitor experience. Although site presentation boards, museums and guidebooks make much effort to explain the archaeological process and the missing phases, the deposits which comprise the bulk of the archaeological record are not visible as part of the physical site experience. If this was true for me, a trained and experienced archaeologist, how might it affect the experience of another visitor? What misconceptions might be fostered despite the best efforts of curators and site managers? I strongly suspect that these misconceptions, fostered by the experience of visiting archaeological sites, are at the heart of several common myths about archaeology and archaeological excavation.

A black and white mosaic partially preserved on a conservation substrate with the missing section sketched in outline.
A lifted and relaid monochrome mosaic in the Barcelona History Museum. (Author Photograph)

The missing matrix

For the most part, members of the public do not see the various layers, fills and deposits that make up most of the archaeological record. The many sites without structures are almost never conserved for long-term display, are rarely publicly accessible during excavation, and if they are publicised in the press, are represented by plans, reconstructions and digital models. At archaeological tourist attractions, the public see in situ archaeological structures after conservation. The archaeological deposits surrounding those structures have already been removed (and recorded), the archaeological deposits beneath those structures have either been removed or are preserved in situ and invisible beneath the floors and walls of the conserved structures. Either way, many of the archaeological deposits that comprised the original ‘site’ are invisible to the public.

A reconstructed wall painting of a Roman horseman in a white tunic.
Conserved Roman fresco, remounted with modern additions showing how the surviving pieces formed part of the whole image. Barcelona History Museum. (Author photograph)

Any visit to an archaeological tourist attraction follows roughly the same pattern. After obtaining entry you follow a designated (modern) path through carefully laid out archaeological structures. These structures will be original but have likely undergone conservation. Walls may be consolidated, floors lifted and relaid on conservation substrate. Wall paintings, frescoes and plasterwork will also have been consolidated. There may be kilns, hearths, fireplaces and in situ artefacts, such as amphorae. If you are very lucky and the site is covered, there may be exposed archaeological soil deposits around the structures, but your eyes are unlikely to be drawn to what amounts to dried earth.

The display and presentation boards, guidebooks and, museum contain information intended to dispel this misconception. They usually include information about the archaeological process, details of removed or invisible phases, and the archaeological and stratigraphic history of the site. But even if these sources of information are read and understood, they are unintentionally contradicted by the visual experience of visiting the site. Perceptions based on experience often live on in our minds, untaxed by intellectual interrogation, overwhelming mere information and dominating our understanding. This is why I experienced such a sense of sterility and soullessness when visiting Vindolanda. Despite my archaeological knowledge, my perception was still dominated by past experience. Excellent visitor information may not, therefore, overcome perceptions derived from the physical experience of visiting archaeological tourist attractions.

Aerial view of archaeological excavations of a courtyard with a white floor and partially sunken large pottery vessels set into it.
Structural archaeology: Roman court with embedded jars for produce. Some archaeological deposits are visible where the jars have been removed, but are not particularly noticeable compared to the white court floor or surviving jars. Barcelona History Museum. (Author photograph)

Archaeological misconceptions

The physical experience of visiting an archaeological tourist attraction or publicly accessible site produces a powerful impression that archaeology is all about exposing structures (often structures of a particular period) by removing the surrounding earth while extracting suitable artefacts for display in the museum. This naturally leads to certain misconceptions in the public understanding of archaeology:

  • Archaeology is about finding and uncovering structures and/or artefacts. This is a perfectly sensible and understanable misconception. Early archaeology was all about finding structures and artefacts! And when you visit an archaeological site you normally see structures conserved in situ and artefacts in museums. The resulting impression is that archaeology is all about finding those structures and artefacts for conservation and public consumption.
  • Surrounding deposits are just earth to be removed. The invisibility of the archaeological deposit in publicly accessible sites and the domination of the structures and artefacts can make it seem that the matrix surrounding them is just spoil. This misconception is reinforced by visits to archaeological trourist attractions, where visitors see structures conserved and laid out on display, and artefacts presented in a museum, but archaeological deposits are largely missing or appear unimportant.
  • Archaeology is not a destructive process. If people believe that archaeology is all about uncovering structures and artefacts and that the deposits surrounding them are irrelevant and archaeologically insignificant, they are unlikely to consider archaeology a destructive process. After all, when you visit an archaeological tourist attraction the sturctures are quite clearly visible and the artefacts are on display in the museum. Press coverage of significant archaeological discoveries preserved in situ beneath modern buildings only serves to reinforce this impression. People have the impression that archaeology is preserved in situ, leading to the assumption that anything which is not preserved is, by definition, not archaeology.

Generating myths

These misconceptions matter because they lie at the root of most of the myths about archaeology, which drive public reception of archaeology and attitudes to archaeology and archaeologists. Myths like the idea that archaeology is ‘just legalised treasure hunting’ or ‘tomb robbery’ contain grains of truth, but also fundamentally misrepresent archaeological practice. Archaeology began with antiquarians looking for interesting objects and exposing the walls and mosaic floors of Roman villas for public entertainment. The ethical archaeologist is well aware that we are only a couple of stages removed from looters, antiquarians or grave robbers. Pop-culture representations of treasure hunters like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft as ‘archaeologists’ and televisual nostalgia for historic, and often colonial, excavations bolster this myth further. But it wouldn’t be so persistent without the unintended effect of archaeological sites and museums upon visitors.

The experience of visiting an archaeological site supports the false impression that archaeology is all about finding structures and artefacts of aesthetic appeal or monetary value. It also obscures the features of archaeology that distinguish it from looting, treasure hunting or grave robbing: Archaeology involves the careful excavation and meticulous recording of fragile, plimpsest archaeological layers, with due care for all artefacts, irrespective of value or aesthetic appeal. Its goal is the discovery of information about the past, rather than valuable objects or structures that might appeal to the public. Unfortunately, too often the experience of visiting a site cements the idea that archaeology exists to provide an exciting, historical day out amongst picturesque ruins, or pretty objects for a museum to display. The public does not see the fragile, carefully excavated layers, but conserved consolidated structural remains and artefacts. Such a powerful experience, irrespective of what people might read on information panels, easily gives rise to a false perception of archaeology, as a process of extracting artefacts and structures from detritus that is surprisingly similar to treasure hunting.

A museum case with conserved gold and wood artefacts.
Many of the artefacts from the Prittlewell Princely burial were lifted as a block and excavated in the lab to ensure they were as well preserved as possible. Such care and attention for all archaeological remains, irrespective of whether they are valuable or not, is what distinguishes archaeologists from treasure hunters. (Author photograph).

Another myth fostered by the experience of visiting archaeological tourist attractions and publicly accessible sites is that sites without structures are not ‘archaeology’! Archaeological tourist attractions are largely composed of structural features and can give the impression that only structural features are ‘archaeological’. Yet many (perhaps most) of the sites excavated by commercial archaeologists in advance of development have no structures at all. The archaeological remains comprise different types of archaeological deposit (i.e. fills and layers) within various features cut into the natural geology. Given the focus upon structures and the invisibility of archaeological deposits at tourist sites and in the press, it is hardly surprising that sites without structures are written off as unimportant. A lack of awareness of non-structural archaeology probably explains why developers and even local people can view planning archaeology and pre-construction excavation as unncessary and wasteful (although money undoubtedly plays a role).

View of an excavation showing reused, upside down columns around a red soiil surface with sections through archaeological deposits.
Excavation through various deposits and floors, exposing walls and reused columns in the Barcelona History Museum. Although the image is dominated by the columns and walls, the earth deposits visible in the sections are just as important. (Author photograph)

Presenting reality

Cultural heritage professionals, curators, site managers and excavators work hard to present archaeology in a coherent and meaningful format for the public, doing justice to both historic data and archaeological practice. Yet the physical experience of seeing, walking amongst and interacting with the archaeology can provoke a powerful response that can negate their best efforts and provoke significant misconceptions. These misconceptions, often reified and mirrored by media coverage, exert a much greater power on public perception than knowledge imparted by guides, information boards and apps. Such misconceptions are not the fault of cultural heritage managers, conservators, excavators or site managers. They are inherent in the nature of archaeology as a palimpsest of human activity surviving as a series of often fragile deposits that are difficult, if not impossible, to present for long-term public visitation. Nevetheless, we need to find ways to address, explain and correct such misconceptions. Blogs like this one are one possible method. Honest discussions and explanations on social and traditional media about what archaeology is and what it does are another. TV programmes like Time Team, The Great British Dig and Digging for Britain, which show the reality of archaeology can also play an important role. There are also multiple newer methods, from platforms like YouTube for showing a more personal view of archaeology, to apps for digitally reconstructing ancient sites and the excavations that exposed them. Fundamentally, however, archaeology is a practice, an activity! Allowing more of us to personally experience that activity will rapidly dispel many of the myths that surround it.