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Archaeology is a Brand! The Meaning of Archaeology in Contemporary Popular Culture, by Cornelius Holtorf (illustrated by Quentin Drew)
Archaeopress & Left Coast Press. 2007. ix + 183 pp, numerous b/w illustrations inc. cartoons, ISBN: 9781905739066 (14.99)

What does the past mean today? As archaeologists we are all well versed in the appreciation of context yet as a discipline archaeology has been slow to consider the popular contexts of our research efforts. Recently, mainly through the lens of public archaeology, this lacuna is being addressed. This is vital for in the current economic and political climate there is increasing need for archaeologists ‘to justify what they are doing for society’ (p. 1). Linked into this agenda are wider intellectual concerns emphasised by Hargreaves and Ferguson (2000) when they note that it is not so much a lack of public understanding of science that is problematic today but rather a lack of scientific understanding of the public. Archaeology is a Brand! explores issues relevant to these wider considerations.

The book is structured into seven parts. Chapter 1 offers an introduction to the book and the motivations for writing it. Chapter 2 is a ‘Travel Log’ detailing a six-day trip by the author to the UK and his encounters with archaeology. These encounters range from ‘Roman walks’ around York advertised in the Northern Echo to posters promoting the (then) forthcoming release of the second Lara Croft film. Out of necessity this log reads a little like a list but it usefully shows how archaeology has permeated diverse locations and contexts.

Chapter 3 briefly covers archaeology in the mass media, giving primacy to television and newspapers. The omission of the Internet considering the contemporaneity of the book is somewhat surprising. Nonetheless all these areas have received detailed attention elsewhere (eg, Clack & Brittain 2007; Russell 2002; Schablitsky 2007). The originality of this chapter comes in its description of archaeology’s media experience in Germany, Sweden and the UK. This allows commonalities (eg, domestic biases and locally relevant stories) and contrasts to be highlighted. On German television, for example, there is a strong focus on high-tech analytical and forensic methods. There is also good coverage concerning television viewing figures demonstrating the power of the medium to communicate archaeological messages. The fact that the television industry recognises the entertainment potential of archaeology is not missed either. Each episode of Time Team, for instance, entails an unfolding narrative of events, processes and discoveries leading to some fashion of interpretive crescendo. Consequently these programmes regularly command domestic audiences of 3–5 million per episode (not to mention international audiences later watching on cable and satellite channels after syndication) and as such are the best vehicles we have for dissemination. However, some comparisons between differing media would have been illuminating. The British Museum, for example, ‘only’ received 5.5 million visitors in 2006 and many of these were ‘returners’.

One glaring omission from the discussion of media and archaeology is the theme of accuracy (academic and journalistic). For all the recent discussion in policy, popular and academic circles about misrepresentation the ‘sexing-up’ of the past is largely ignored. After all, every brand is reliant on its marketing. Holtorf rightly notes that programmes are merely vehicles to get audiences watching advertisements but does not describe the implications of such for archaeology: does this explain hyped up discoveries and growing fringe interpretations? It could, of course, be argued that this is all largely irrelevant for when we consider the brand we should note that the hype is part of the event. We might do well to adopt the attitude of Andy Warhol when he surmised about reviews ‘weigh them, don’t read them’.

Chapter 4 offers an evaluation of previous surveys concerning the popular perception of archaeology. It is well demonstrated that ‘digging’ and ‘archaeology’ are deemed fairly synonymous in the popular consciousness. Chapter 5 considers the product of archaeology and reviews a range of key representations. The classic example most will be familiar with is the distinction between the adventurer (the ‘hairy chested’) and the scholar (the ‘hairy chinned’). Holtorf re-examines these and sketches out four more up to date representations: the archaeologist as adventurer (young, virile), detective (doddering, methodical), discoverer (tenacious, outsider) and guardian (manager, caretaker). It is shown that we often find ourselves ‘living up’ to these stereotypes in our clothing and approaches to fieldwork. A key point Holtorf reiterates is that these representations are largely positive and as such are potential springboards for dissemination activities.

Chapter 6 and its assessment of engagement strategies is the highlight of the book. The focus is on three main models: education (dissemination of knowledge from elites to masses), public relations (improvement of profile) and democratic (communication of responsibility through wider participation and relevance). The problems of each are considered and the implicit ‘view’ of the public illustrated. The first two models, for example, treat the public as incompetent and malleable while the last model sees them as active and capable. The chapter proposes how we should participate in society by allowing others to participate in us, archaeology and society being in a cyclical relationship. The question of whether we should have direct or representative democracy is deliberately left unanswered. Chapter 7 summarises the foregoing arguments and offers an outlook for the future. The unmistakable conclusion drawn is that the major impact of archaeology in terms of the enrichment of society is in its resonance in popular culture. Archaeologists are thus required to pay more attention to the ‘doing’ of what they do, possible only through a self-reflexive attitude. Know Thyself!

Elsewhere Holtorf’s conclusions have erroneously been labelled ‘destructive’ and ‘ultra-liberal’ (Kristiansen 2008: 488) and the author himself has been unjustly chastised for being ‘an amateur in the field’ and ‘consumed by popular culture’ (2008: 489). These are inappropriate attacks. Surely the very nature of popular culture ensures we are all consumed by it. Furthermore, far from naïve the brand model that Holtorf develops offers an innovative view of the discipline. In widening engagement and responding to consumer demands the discipline is not under threat rather it is cultivating future stakeholders in the archaeological enterprise. One way this can be done is through stereotypes, in particular that of Indiana Jones. As a result of the four motion pictures and the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles there exists a fictional character that has become the popular yardstick by which archaeology and archaeologists are judged. It may be academically inappropriate to mention but part of me quite likes the association with Indy, rather him with his worldly experiences, zest of life and good looks than stereotypes from other disciplines, e.g. the socially-inept scientist (Back to the Future), misguided nuclear physicist (Dr Strangelove) or evil vivisectionist (28 Days Later). Thus in my case (and I suspect many others) Holtorf (2008, 20) is correct when he claims ‘there is a little Indy in many archaeologists, even if in public contexts that persona is hidden behind the face of a serious scientist’. This all relates back to archaeological branding for the discipline and each of us has much to gain and little to lose from public enthusiasm for such stereotypes.

Holtorf also quite rightly notes that archaeology has enjoyed currency through the media and advertising channels because consumers want stories, adventures and emotions. All of these are provided in the popular understandings of archaeology, what the author casts ‘archaeo-appeal’ (p. 23). Yet we should not forget that as archaeologists we are ourselves storytellers. Our reconstructions of the past are stories in themselves and life on site and in the lecture theatre, in my experience anyway, offers stories, narratives and anecdotes. Archaeology is a vehicle of storytelling (something we would do well not to forget when preparing excavation reports). We must take advantage of this kind of associated opportunity, for the brand not only sustains but also motivates interest. We must use the brand to get people further ‘turned on’ to our agendas, thus facilitating a learning journey of widening participation through educational places and outreach initiatives.

The book also contains real illustrative and stylistic surprises. Some of the communicative devices employed include cartoon, text box, scripted dialogue, diary-style travel log and flip-cartoon. These experiments with format work well and for the large part offer another dimension to the text. This added value is most evident in the cartoon illustrations. These, in the long tradition of satire, often burst open issues presenting them in refreshingly simple ways whilst also communicating something about how we see ourselves. Two illustrations particularly stand out in this regard. The first (p. 13) sees a bespectacled and shabbily-dressed archaeologist in a courtroom with the caption ‘Professor, you stand accused of elitism and a disregard of popular community interests. How do you plead?’ Not only is this a useful enhancement of Holtorf’s discussion of the contemporary relevancy of archaeology it also challenges the reader to take a position. It is not enough to be aware of the relevant arguments we must make up our own minds. How do we plead indeed? The second (p. 122) sees an indigenous mob outside the Baghdad Museum carrying away antiquities. The caption reads ‘Thanks to the Americans and their friends, we can now all own a little piece of our history!’ Not only does this excellent cartoon remind us of recent geo-political events it also subtly emphasises wider issues pertaining to the ‘ownership’ of the past.

There were some minor shortcomings. Holtorf admits that the book was written ‘less as a single, coherent argument and more as a series of interrelated essays’ (p. 14) and consequently the flow is not as seamless as it could be. This is further exacerbated between some of the chapters as stylistic variations leave a disjointed impression. Some readers may also expect a broader discussion of certain themes. At no point, for example, is there a definition of ‘general public’, ‘popular culture’ or even ‘brand’. These are, of course, difficult notions to comprehend but there exists a substantial body of literature concerning these entities that could have been consulted and referenced. On the one hand this is somewhat forgivable for such consideration would likely be high-brow and detract from the accessibility of the work. Yet on the other to assume understanding and comprehension of such key (and notoriously fuzzy) concepts ensures some parts of the book remain vague and imprecise.

Overall, Holtorf and Drew have presented us with useful synopses of the resonance and meaning of archaeology in popular culture. They should be congratulated for producing such a topical, clearly written and attractively illustrated volume. The work sets the admirable foundation for future discussion of the archaeological brand, its management and implications.

Timothy Clack
University of Oxford


Clack, T.A.R. & Brittain, M., (eds). 2007. Archaeology and the Media. Walnut Creek (CA): Left Coast Press

Hargreaves, I. & Ferguson, G., 2000. Who’s Misunderstanding Whom? Bridging the Gulf of Understanding between the Public, Media and Science.

Holtorf, C., 2008. Welcome Back, Indy. New Scientist, 20 May 2008

Kristiansen, K., 2008. Should Archaeology be in the Service of ‘Popular Culture’? Antiquity 82, 488–92

Russell, M. (ed.) 2002. Digging Holes in Popular Culture: Archaeology and Science Fiction. Oxford: Oxbow

Schablitsky, J. M., (ed.), 2007. Box Office Archaeology: Refining Hollywood’s Portrayals of the Past. Walnut Creek (CA): Left Coast Press

Review submitted: September 2008

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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