The readers of popular archaeology magazines have a much more international and escapist view of the subject than most professionals. Indeed, in the popular perception, one of archaeology’s defining characteristics is that its practitioners travel to exotic locales on a regular basis. In fact, professional archaeologists usually only work in one or two regions each, usually located near their offices. So if an archaeologist does travel abroad to do fieldwork, she is likely to go repeatedly to a single place for years and have little knowledge of other countries, let alone other continents. Archaeology does have a universal toolkit for excavation and analyses, but each region and period forms its own specialism, and so archaeology is not a universal discipline like biology or astronomy.
As a specialist in Scandinavian prehistory, I am not well equipped to enjoy Archaeology Magazine. Published by the Archaeological Institute of America, it ranges widely around the exotic bits of the world and rarely touches upon Northern Europe. The current May/June issue has stories from Bermuda, Mexico, Peru, Easter Island, China, Ethiopia, Palestine and Albania. All good stuff, I’m sure, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s Indiana Jones material.
The one story that really caught my interest did so for two reasons: it’s about Modern era high-status burial in the British colonies (making it similar to stuff I know from Sweden), and its spin is completely wrong in an embarrassing way.
St. Peter’s church in the town of St. George’s, Bermuda, was originally built in 1612 and later replaced by the current structure. In an effort to find traces of the original building, archaeologists have excavated under the floor, finding a few late-18th century graves, at least two of which belong to colonial aristocrats, neatly identified by their coffin plates. This is the expected outcome of such an excavation. But the author of the piece paints the discovery of the graves as a sensational surprise. “How did the bodies of two important historical figures end up beneath the floorbords of the church?”, she asks in astonishment. Well, frankly, that’s where these guys and their entire social circle probably expected to end up. Burial inside churches has always been an elite prerogative.
It gets embarassing when we learn that scores of graves had been found under the floor already in the 1950s, and really bad when the author quotes the obituary of one of the buried men, George James Bruere: “The obit notes that ‘the Corpse’ came to rest in the church’s aisle, but doesn’t mention a burial”. What this means is not, as the author clearly believes, that the mourners carried the coffin into the church and just set it down on the floor in the aisle for a while. It means that a few floor boards were lifted there and the corpse buried beneath them, coming to rest “in the aisle”. I might say that my late grandma “rests in the cemetery of SaltsjÃ¶baden”. I don’t need to specify that her remains are actually beneath ground level.
So, my plea to the editors of Archaeology Magazine is this: could we have less sensationalism, more everyday prehistoric digs in the northern temperate zone, and perhaps something about Northern Europe in each issue? I’d like to read about US contract digs as well. That would be relevant to my own experience from railroad and highway projects in Sweden.