‘Popular culture’ and the archaeological imagination: A commentary on Cornelius Holtorf’s Archaeology is a Brand! (2007)

When presented with the question of “why I became an archaeologist” I tend to cycle between 3 different responses; responses all rooted in childhood experiences. Indeed, which of these I dispense varies with whom I am speaking. My answers are:
1) I enjoyed both digging up and collecting bits and pieces of glass and metal on the family farm as a kid.
2) From age 10, when my mother purchased the subscription, I regularly read about archaeology in National Geographic (this routine was tempered by my love of fantasy world literatures).
3) Indiana Jones was one of my childhood heroes.
Now it should go without saying that none of these responses, when taken on their own, even comes near to accounting for why I was drawn down the long path (the length of which, of course, varies) to becoming an archaeologist. Far beyond what may have been my other, and diverse, childhood influences — films from Spartacus and Clash of the Titans to Excalibur and Conan, a passing obsession with Dungeons and Dragons, authors of fiction like J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis (Michael Shanks once told me that almost half of the undergraduates at the University of Wales Lampeter were drawn to archaeology because of the allure of the fantastical realms created by Tolkien and Lewis), and, of course, the associated backyard battles with my brothers clad in armor fashioned from scraps of plywood, tin roofing and duck tape — one has to account for the wider web of other influences, no matter how standout or subtle, that impacted their formation along the circuitous course to an advanced academic degree in archaeology and beyond. The distance between now and then is tremendous. Still, childhood fascinations count for a great deal — the past was a place of wonderment and imagination.
In retrospect, and given my rural roots in the North American Southeast, the portrayal of the past (whether fact or fiction) and archaeology on television, in magazines and novels had a profound impact. And yet, surprisingly few have chosen to take these fields of cultural production seriously (Finn 2004; Holtorf 2004 and 2007; Lucas 2004; Pearson and Shanks 2001; Shanks 1992; also refer to Michael Shanks on the archaeological imagination).


In his latest book, Archaeology is a Brand!, Cornelius Holtorf asks his readers to hold the almost obligatory negative responses so often tempered with ridicule and scorn by academic archaeologists and to consider the topic of “archaeology in popular culture” with an ‘open mind’ (also see Holtorf 2008). In this, he is neither concerned with past-as-play videogames like Praetorians, the fascination with the fantasy worlds of Avalon and Middle Earth, movies such as Alexander (Cherry 2009(in press)), nor the jousting competition at King Richard’s 16th-century faire. Quite specifically, the book addresses the “meaning” of archaeology as generated in television, movies, literature (both fictional and nonfictional), newspapers, or even National Geographic; all mass media which Holtorf takes to be “popular culture” (though he prefers the term Alltagskultur or “everyday culture” as enrolled by German folklorists (2004, 7-12)). The argument, echoing the sentiments of Gavin Lucas, is that the major allure of archaeology lies more in popular culture than in “any noble vision of improving self –awareness through “historical perspectives”” (Holtorf 2004, 3 after Lucas 2004, 119). Moreover, this fascination, for Holtorf is “rooted in a few key stereotypes and clichés” (2004, 130): 1) the archaeologist as adventurer (also refer to Holtorf’s recent Archaeolog entry: Hero! Real archaeology and ”Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”); 2) the archaeologist as detective; 3) the archaeologist as infallible producer of “profound revelations;” and 4) the archaeologist as heritage steward.

Light-hearted and somewhat relaxed, Holtorf’s style is buttressed by the mildly humorous cartoon illustrations of Quentin Drew. These illustrations parody many situations associated with the aforementioned stereotypes.
For example, the caption for the image included here reads: “Professor, you stand accused of elitism and a disregard of popular community interests. How do you plead?” We might hasten to add other adjectives to describe these images and yet, however readers view the cartoons, the almost exclusive use of this imagery reiterates the point: loosen up and enjoy the past. And if this message doesn’t ring loud and clear through the work of the illustrations, then perhaps with the aid of the kineographs (flipbook images) at the bottom corner of every page it will.
The TV series Time Team and the work of Gisela Graichen, headlines in Leipziger Volkszeitung (www.lvz-online.de) and the Boston Globe, Holtorf argues the draw of archaeology in such mass media pertains more to the celebration of archaeological work than to any educational value generated with regard to long gone pasts (2007, 50). Given this emphasis, archaeology enjoys an extremely positive image in ‘the public domain.’ The discipline has what Holtorf calls “archaeo-appeal.” As such, archaeology is a ‘successful brand’ and archaeologists are encouraged to make the most of this. To what ends, I will raise shortly.
In Archaeology is a Brand! Holtorf asks some awkward questions about the value of archaeology’s past production, academic authority, and ‘social’ role. These questions are critical for goading archaeologists to consider the powers of their work in light of the contemporary climes we find ourselves in. I too am provoked. The reason for this is not due to the potentially unsettling arguments present in the book (v); indeed, anyone who has read his work before is familiar with such colorful mainstays of Holtorf’s articles and books more generally. To the contrary, I am provoked because of the book’s failure to deliver on what is arguably its core proposition. Because this defect detracts significantly from an otherwise important arena in need of more scholarly attention I will dedicate most of this entry to the close scrutiny of it.
To underline the core proposition, archaeologists need to understand the desires of their mass audience because archaeology is ultimately in service of society. If we are to understand our mass audience and their desires, we need to come to terms with how our craft is portrayed in ‘popular culture;’ a popular culture associated with a leisure economy. This is an admirable and legitimate goal. However, the path to attaining it is set upon shaky ground beginning with the circumscribed rendering of both ‘popular culture’ and ‘society.’
Readers are given little to work with regarding the term ‘popular culture’ in Archaeology is a Brand! — Holtorf works with no ‘rigid definition.’ So to get a better sense of how he deploys the term we have to begin elsewhere. Somewhere between Stonehenge and Las Vegas, Holtorf states: “popular culture refers to how people choose to live their own lives, how they perceive and shape their local environments through their actions, and what they find appealing or interesting” (2004: 8). Popular culture “expresses—and reproduces—our inner thoughts and emotions, our (supposedly) secret fears and desires, and our favorite habits and behaviors” (Ibid.). So here, while Holtorf recognizes the diverse resonances associated with such a diffuse term (amplified by being crafted out of two of the most disputed notions in academic history: ‘popular’ and ‘culture’ (see for example Fiske 1989; Jenks 2003; Kroeber and Kluckhohm 1952)), he nonetheless identifies popular culture with personal as well as group preferences and the articulation of our ‘inner’ emotions and thoughts. Importantly, Holtorf places emphasis on how the notion is more about actively creating ‘culture’ rather than passively receiving it.
Likewise, in Archaeology is a Brand ‘popular culture’ is linked largely to TV programs and newspapers and according to Holtorf, these “to a greater extent than any other media . . . are both influencing and reflecting what people know and how they think” (2007, 29). And yet, elsewhere we are told “popular culture is however not identical with people’s perceptions of beliefs” (51) in the context of distancing the concerns of archaeology’s audience from the ‘popular culture’ they consume. Such concerns seem incongruous. On the one hand, popular culture is about what people find appealing or interesting, about what they express and create. On the other hand, it really doesn’t matter what people think as Holtorf “is not concerned with gauging public support for archaeology or preservation, evaluating the accuracy of popular beliefs about archaeology or heritage, or establishing basic demographic facts about visitors and their knowledge” (60-61). In one section ‘society’s’ perceptions count for everything, in another they are irrelevant (unless we are to imagine a society composed only of the few archaeologists, producers and journalists directly involved in the generation of the mass media Holtorf deals with). Here, Holtorf explains away what should have formed a significant portion of the study and it is here that we fall into a rather large hole in the book; a hole so large that it swallows up any space I might have reserved for a discussion of the book’s merits (click here for the e-book version of the contents: http://traumwerk.stanford.edu:3455/PopularArchaeology/Home).
In fact, this hole is centered upon Chapter 4, “What people are thinking about archaeology.” The shortest chapter in the book, this chapter actually tells readers very little about ‘what people are thinking’ (Holtorf admits he would have loved to have found out more about what how people ‘perceived’ archaeologists and archaeology but he was unsuccessful with obtaining the necessary funding). Instead, the chapter is a synthesis of other published surveys, surveys conducted to different ends, which tell us that the single most important source of information about archaeology is TV (51-54). The Internet figures very little in these surveys and this renders portions of the study, if not out-of-date, incongruent with our times (refer to Archaeology: A stratigraphic profile by Google).
Ultimately, for Holtorf, “the most important question that archaeologists in public contexts need to ask their audiences is not “How can I best persuade you about the merits of my project or discipline?” but “What does what I am doing mean to you?” (2007, 139). Should you choose to search for the answer to this very question, you will not find it in the book.
How are we to understand the society we are in service of? How do we gauge peoples’ desires in relation to the portrayals of archaeology in mass media? Could I say that a landowner’s anger and frustration with archaeologists of the local service in Nafplion, Greece for barring him from building an addition on his house in the A zone of an archaeological site is offset by the positive image of the adventurer Indiana Jones playing in the former Mosque-turned-cinema across the square from the very offices of the archaeological service he spent several hours in that morning? Yes? No? Maybe? In all likelihood, I can say that whatever meanings associated with archaeology that were ‘reflected’ in and ‘derived’ from popular culture have been modified by an exchange with what he has come to regard as a rather ‘un-popular culture.’ Of course, no one could be sure one way or the other without putting in the many painstaking hours necessary for tracking down the heterogeneous relations which give rise to one’s idiosyncratic, even conflicting associations, desires, emotions, meanings, whatever.
For Holtorf, archaeologists have a professional duty to fulfill “a social role that is widely appreciated in society” (141). But of what society does he speak? What public? Developers in East Crete? Tourists at Stonehenge? Asparagus farmers in Braunschweig? Toltec shamans at Teotihuacán? I am sure they all have different appreciations — even in relation to fellow group members — and one cannot say for sure how ‘popular culture’ figures into the meaning they associate with archaeology. One cannot even say in advance whether ‘popular culture’ speaks for, reflects, arises out of, or enacts popular sentiment. We cannot say in advance because these very relationships are what need to be established on the ground. The almost-complete lack of any attempt to hit the pavement with the actual people who populate this so-called public in specific locales betrays the limited scope which Holtorf grants to the ‘society’ archaeologists are supposed to be in service of. To be fair, 5 days of a fact-finding mission to the UK translated into the narrative of a travelogue in Chapter 1 is a start. Here, while Holtorf engages issues of where people along his path come into contact with archaeology on a daily basis, he only speaks with professional archaeologists and heritage workers. Aside from this, the study does not benefit from the rewards of an anthropological approach; an approach which Holtorf claimed to have employed when forced to assert his academic authority (Holtorf 2008); an approach which Holtorf is quite clearly adept at deploying (2002). We might compare, for example, Barbara Bender’s efforts to document contemporary relations with Stonehenge (1998) or Timothy Webmoor’s study of resident, employee and visitor relations at Teotihuacán based on dozens of interviews and 471 seven-page questionnaires (2007). Holtorf has not put in the many hours of meticulous research that are necessary to flush out the web of connections between mass media and the masses it purports to represent. Never mind the lessons of critical theory (Adorno 1991; Leone, Potter and Shackel 1987; Shanks and Tilley 1992).
In the end, Holtorf cannot argue for ‘people’ in society; he cannot suggest we practitioners question the audience of archaeology as portrayed in popular culture; he cannot do so because he has not engaged them. For Holtorf to argue on behalf of ‘society’ without conspiring with all of its diverse constituents is itself a form of misrepresentation. Unfortunately, readers are left with missing masses.
Without the substantive research deployed to add weight to the core thesis, readers are presented with a study that comes up short. Holtorf doesn’t practice what he preaches and Archaeology is a Brand doesn’t make the point it purports to make; it does not deliver on what is arguably its core message — know the desires of ‘society.’ Where the book does succeed is in amplifying archaeology’s narcissism by telling us — as members of this ‘popular culture’ — what we already knew. What it does deliver is a different message: archaeology needs to be in service of mass media — as popular culture is conflated with mass media (movies, TV programs, advertising, toys, fictional and non-fictional literature, museums, etc.) and society’s appreciation is conflated with what is ‘reflected’ in that mass media (also refer to Kristiansen 2008). To get at the resources necessary for understanding what society appreciates about archaeology we need not leave the comforts of our very own couch!
Shall we (de)limit the archaeological imagination on the basis of public opinion mass media? I hope not. Of course, I don’t think Holtorf would claim this outright, but the composition of the study, I suggest, does his agenda a major disservice.
I will conclude with a few more observations.
Holtorf suggests archaeology may have little more to offer society than temporary escapes from the ‘real’ world (145). Again, we must take this as an incitement to contemplate other archaeological benefits for ‘society’ and that includes not only reconsidering the composition of society but also the relations between past and present. As Holtorf perhaps less than amicably suggests, we need not only consider questions of the past in the past (the ‘past as it was’ is always the outcome of our practices) but also how the past is mixed up in the polychonic ensemble of the present. In this, ‘popular culture’ is perhaps only a subset of the bewildering varieties of relations out there. Nonetheless, archaeology must do a better job of demonstrating why the things ‘of the past’ are much more interesting and lively than any of our representations, popular or professional, have allowed (Gonzalez-Ruibal 2008).
It is unfortunate that this commentary has taken on too many characteristics of a diatribe. It is unfortunate because Holtorf and I share a number of common concerns. I too believe it is time to reassess some of archaeology’s core ingredients from the ground up. I too hold that we need to readdress questions of direction and purpose. There are many others who also hold these concerns, to be sure. It is because of this that I plead for more careful and substantive labor in backing up such challenging propositions. We have to do a better job of supporting our arguments through richer empirical accounts. If we choose the paths of least resistance, if we take shortcuts, then such otherwise bold work will be full of defects, defects for which consumers in the leisure economy have the right to demand the implementation of quality controls and to recommend a recall by the publisher/producers of such work.
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Bender, B. 1998: Stonehenge: Making Space. Oxford: Berg.
Cherry, J.F. 2009(in press) ‘Blockbuster! Museum Responses to Alexander the Great’ in P. Cartledge and F. Greenland (eds.), Responses to Alexander: Film, History and Culture Studies after Oliver Stone’s ‘Alexander’. University of Wisconsin Press. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
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Holtorf, C. 2007: Archaeology is a Brand! Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
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Webmoor, T. 2007: Reconfiguring the Archaeological Sensibility: mediating heritage at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Doctoral dissertation. Department of Anthropology, Stanford University.

One thought on “‘Popular culture’ and the archaeological imagination: A commentary on Cornelius Holtorf’s Archaeology is a Brand! (2007)

  1. This is a slightly modified version of the entry I posted a couple of weeks ago. After gaining some distance from the piece, I now feel some points I made in the earlier version are simply unnecessary.

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