The End of Archeology?

By Deane Barker on June 12, 2005

Will there be archeologists in 500 years? Will they be needed?

Here’s a theory —

The primary purpose of archeology is to reconstruct events. Archeologists have jobs because recording methods have been historically poor — the movable type printing press was only invented 500 years ago, the photograph has been around since the early 1800s, and film has been with us since the late 1800s.

This means that there’s a lot for archeologists to do. They have to piece together clues to recreate history when our records are not complete. However, has the breathtaking pace of technology in the last 50 years ensured that records will be complete from here forward?

Consider the “Mesoamerican ballgame” from ancient Mexico in which participants tried to bump and cajole a ball through the hoop mounted on the wall without using their hands. The essence of this sport has been extrapolated from the discovery of The Great Ballcourt and its accompanying carvings.

A lot of work went into this discovery and explanation, since the court and the carvings were really all the archeologists had to go on. This type of thing is why archeologists have jobs — they have to piece together the evidence, develop a theory about what happened, and then supply evidence for that theory.

Conversely, consider this year’s SuperBowl. This event was written about, photographed, and video recorded in every possible permutation. It was documented in too many languages and formats to count. Additionally, the larger context of the game of American football has been similarly recorded. We know all the rules, all the teams, all the players, and how it has affected culture since it started 100 or so years ago.

So, in 500 years, there really won’t be any guesswork about the 2005 SuperBowl. It will exist for all to see without the need for archeologists to piece much together.

It’s not only the technology — we also feel the need now to create records of events much more than the Mayans did thousands of years ago. Back then, the idea of archeology was probably pretty silly. While they had a relatively advanced society, I doubt the Mayan people had the time or the wherewithal to sit around, ponder, and investigate those who went before them.

But today we do — we’re fascinated about the past and obsessed with discovering the truth of it. That, and the easy availability of ways to record current history, has put us in the interesting position of putting archeologists out of business. We are creating a record that will leave no mystery, no questions, and no real need for investigation.

Anyone disagree? Comments are open.

Gadgetopia

Comments

  1. You’re assuming there is a continuity of civilization between now and then…

    People 500 years from now might have a lot of reconstructing to do.

    Besides, how much of the degradable magnetic media will be around. Some people think there will be far fewer personal photos in he future because of digital photography, not more.

  2. The problem is that events, players, and recorded material need to be interpreted. There will always be some sort of historian or archeologist to interpret the materials found. The culture 500 years from now might be so fundamentally different that some one will need to interpret what a stadium was and what a helmet is since they might not be objects which people 500 years from now have ever seen. Probably archeologists will need to act more like librarians than trench diggers 500 years from now. There will be a huge amount of data to dig through rather than dirt…

  3. People may not have seen a helmet, but they won’t have to interpret them from an etching on a cave wall either. They’ll have thousands of photographs of helmets, years worth of video of helmets in use, users manuals from helmet manufacturers, etc.

    The medium of information transfer to future generations will be much more clear than it has been in the past.

  4. Archeology is partly about discovering artifacts, but that’s only the start. Artifacts lead to events. The who, when, where and why. Archeologists today examine ancient artifacts without the benefit of any background story. Deriving the story of what happened is difficult under those circumstances. Now imagine an archeologist 500 years from now stumbling through the Iraqi desert uncovering tanks, shells, etc…. Accompanying the artifacts in the desert are historical records that portray numerous differing viewpoints of what actually happened in that desert 500 years earlier. Having the background story will be convenient, but then they will have to sort out all the bs and figure out which one is historically accurate based upon the discovered artifacts. There will be plenty of mystery and plenty of questions.

  5. Assumptions about what will be of interest 500 years from now are almost assuredly wrong. Most of the records of anchient civilizations have to do with kinds and gods, most modern researchers are interested in food crops and fiber usage.

    Will people be digging in the dirt to unearth artifacts 500 years from now? Who knows, perhaps the equivalent will be hand building video game consoles and hard drives in order to look at archival digital content. 35mm films are disintegrating, mag tapes lose their information, as do CDs.

    In 500 years, someone will likely have to micro-xray and digitally reconstruct the physical foil media structure of a DVD or CD in order to read the contents of a disk. Now factor in the number of discs we make every year, and it’s clear much of the problem for future archaeology analogs will be filtering, not finding.

  6. The issue I have with this idea is that suppose that with a combo of disasters-Volcanoes, Earthquakes, meteor strike we get 100 years of nuclear winter/ice age or whatever it takes to “bomb humanity back to the stone age” In that case when we recover there will be a need for an Archeologist/technologist to figure out how the remaining artifacts (technology) worked.

    The theory proposed would only work if there were no disasters but some major paradigm changes and people just wanted to know what it was like in the “olden days”

  7. The question whether archaeology has a future 500 years from now has all to do with the prime materials that future civilizations will use. If stone is used, it will survive. Metal will only partially survive because of the atmospheric conditions at present and during the coming 500 years. All organic material, such as parchment, paper, papyrus and textile will either perish because of bugs and molds or atmospheric acidity . The archaeologist of the future will probably focus on civilizations that proceeded us as at present. Rosy? No! Interesting? Yes!

  8. Information may be recorded more frequently today–but will it be preserved in a format that can be read 500 years from now? How many floppy disk readers do you own? How many Sony Betamax players? Even if CD technology lasts 500 years, will CDs recorded today still be readable?

    Will information that future archaeologists will find useful actually be preserved? Ability to preserve does not necessarily translate into preservation. The more commomplace information is in a society, the less likely it is that someone will think it unusual enough to record for posterity. And remember, “information” isn’t the only thing archaeologists want to get their hands on. The 1957 chevy was made of metal, which lasts a long time if properly cared for. How many 1957 chevys are around today? How many artworks from 1912 have survived? How many from 2000 will survive?

    Ron

  9. I agree with Deane, but also with Ron. The thing is that we can’t know what will happen in the future. I can’t help, but mention the fact that the past repeats itself. Not entirely, but enough for me to commonly see people writing about it. Who knows, maybe something will happen and current technology will be unuseable or maybe not and people will have access to all that information. If I had to pick one of which I agree with more it would have to be Ron, not to forget about Deane’s point, but I personally think that people are much too careless in the things they do and there are definitly too few people around willing to preserve it. Think about it… Have you ever thought about how you would keep something like your CDs in perfect shape so that other people after you and after them will be able to use them? I know I don’t. And I’m pretty sure that anyone who does would get some funny looks, but if anything they would be the smarter ones. We worked so hard to figure out things like King Tut’s Tomb, so why make more work for the people behind us? It’s like cleaning a lake then throwing garbage in it when you’re done… What’s the point if you just throw it back?

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