On the metaphorical nature of war and archaeology

An adventurous chase in a jungle has replaced war as the ultimate form of adventure. The idea of going to war per se is no longer romantic. It has been replaced by the notion of going on a treasure hunt, doing detective work or doing archaeology like Indiana Jones. In fact, most of the action in Indiana Jones films takes place in a jungle, and sometimes in the desert. The desert sand is an important concept and it has become a metaphor for doing archaeology. For most non-archaeologists Egypt – a distant and exotic location – is the most often thought venue for any archaeological activity (Äikäs 2009: 3). Egypt, of course, is full of sand to dig around in. Not surprisingly digging is what people think when they hear the word archaeology (Holtorf 2007: 54-58).

Desert sand and digging is not only related to archaeology. Many of the wars visible in Finnish media are ones that are fought in areas with a lot of desert, the Iraq war being  the most evident. If the contemporary conception of war is to a great length shaped by notions of war in desertic environment, war has since the 19th century been about digging trenches. These long ditches are still visible in the landscape as concrete war memories. The soldiers dug the trenches by hand – which must have always been a huge undertaking – and sometimes were forced to spend years in them. The term ‘trench’ is in common use in archaeology so it would not be too far fetched to make a connection on the metaphorical level between digging trenches on a battle front and digging trenches at an archaeological excavation.

One of the recurrent themes in Indiana Jones films (and other adventure films) is that the archaeologist does all the hard work finding and digging up the valuables. What is left for the villain to do is show up at the right time, point a gun at the hero, and take the artefacts. Indiana Jones’s way of doing archaeology is, of course, far from reality. But still, that is what archaeology is to most of the non-archaeologists. It owes much to the metaphorical nature of archaeology. Archaeology has become a metaphor for going underground, which in turn is a metaphor for the truth (Holtorf 2005: 33). Whatever lies beneath the ground must be true. The truth must lie underground because it was once lost or because someone was trying to hide the truth. The truth is always unknown and so is whatever lies underneath the ground. Archaeologists are the ones to reveal this truth by digging into the ground. There will also always be villains in pursuit of hiding the truth and preventing it from getting revealed. Archaeology is therefore battle between the good (those seeking the truth) and the bad (those wanting to hide the truth). This setting is central in Indiana Jones films.

Because a lot of detective work is needed to put the pieces of information together in order to figure out the truth, archaeologists have become detectives (Holtorf 2005: 33, 60-62). Detective work and archaeology therefore have very much in common. Detectives and archaeologists alike are always dealing with a crime scene. Detectives, of course, are the ones dealing with the literal crime scene and archaeologists with the metaphorical crime scene. It is all about finding out what happened at the site using only material evidence. The methods are alike. The most minute detail can be the crucial key that unlocks the mystery. Therefore the most sophisticated equipment and a keen eye are needed (high-tech equipment is often the reason certain people find war fascinating).

Archaeology’s connections with Sigmund Freud must also be noticed (Holtorf 2005; Thomas 2009). Freud talks about ”archaeology of the human soul” (Holtorf 2005: 31). Human experiences are layered on top of one another like stratigraphic layers of soil. It is the task of the psychoanalyst to excavate these layers and reveal the most inner secrets and trauma of a person. Since war is often traumatic and experiences of war will often get buried under more recent layers, the process of revealing traumatic war experiences by excavating the human soul can be compared to the excavation of cultural layers at an archaeological excavation.

The most notable aspect of archaeology regarding war is conflict archaeology. It studies the material remains of war and conflict. Many people will associate archaeology with human bones (Holtorf 2007: 55), but human bones are, of course, relevant only when excavating burials. The contemporary population’s relationship to ancient burials and possible human remains found there is often distant, but when archaeologists set out to study recent sites of conflict, emotional responses from the public are hardly avoidable. Archaeologists studying war and conflict (and crime scenes) dating to the 20th and the 21st century are often dealing with remains of soldiers. In Russia, fallen German WWII soldiers are frequently dug up by the so called black archaeologists (not a reference to skin colour or ethnicity). In fact, Germany will pay a small amount of money for each soldier’s body that is sent home back to Germany. Members of the black archaeology scene will take part in such activity in hope of some extra income.

I would also like to present the concept of archaeo-appeal, which is one way of explaining the reason for archaeology’s appeal in contemporary popular culture, and in general (Holtorf 2005: 150). Archaeo-appeal is constituted of experiencing archaeological practice and imagining the past (Holtorf 2005: 150). I think the same attributes apply for notions of war. Within the discourse on war (see Lynn 2003) that is inspired by popular culture’s notions of war and adventure, we could be talkin about a certain kind of war-appeal. War-appeal, in turn, would constitute of the activity of doing war, and, most importantly, doing it in an exotic location.

Part of the appeal of archaeology is the idea of a possibility to take part in an adventurous excavation in an exotic place. The opportunity to go to a distant country must have been and still is one of the reasons the idea of war fascinates people. It is not the sole reason war is found interesting, but it in turn has had an effect on the way war is depicted in movies and therefore to the way adventure movies relate to war films.

There has been a lot of talk about whether archaeology should continue to exploit the way people conceive of archaeology in and through popular culture. The way archaeology is presented in an idealized form is related to the way war is presented in an idealized way in war propaganda. There is certainly something Collingwoodian in archaeo-appeal in the sense that one could actually relive history and past peoples’ lives and experience the past directly. It is, however, all about selling ideas. Ideas of adventurous activities in exotic locations in the name of truth or, when, like in war, it comes to defending a nation, liberty.

  • Holtorf, Cornelius 2005. From Stonehenge to Las Vegas. Archaeology as popular culture. AltaMira Press.
  • Holtorf, Cornelius 2007. Archaeology is a brand. The meaning of archaeology in contemporary popular culture. Left Coast Press.
  • Lynn, John A. 2003. Battle – a history of combat and culture. Westview Press.
  • Thomas, Julian 2009. Sigmund Freud’s archaeological metaphor and archaeology’s self-understanding. Contemporary archaeologies. Excavating now: 33-45. Lang.
  • Äikäs, Tiina 2009. Sankari vai huijari – arkeologi suomalaisessa populaarikulttuurissa. Muinaistutkija 4/2009: 2-9. Suomen arkeologinen seura ry.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Does history feel better when it has no connection to the past? | AlunSalt

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