Hot on the trail of prehistory: summer camp as archaeology

ARCHAEOLOGISTS, spending so much time in the hot sun, have made a startling and fundamental error in their approach to ancient cultures: the assumption that something may be learned about vanished races by examining broken pieces of pottery. There is actually no evidence that broken pottery played a role any more central in the lives of extinct people than it plays in our lives. How much broken pottery do you keep in your home, office, or money-market account? At most a teacup handle or two probably lies under a sofa in an area where no one bothers to vacuum. The artifact probably says nothing about its owner except that years ago he or she had an argument with a spouse over who should do the vacuuming. How the question was resolved, in what languages or semblance of languages it was discussed, who did the throwing, what happened to the marriage, the vacuum cleaner, the society: The dust-laden shard gives no clues.

In fact, the vacuum cleaner itself would yield more answers to these questions than thousands of slivers of a shattered demitasse. Indeed, since the bag in the vacuum cleaner had probably never been emptied - a condition leading to the disuse of the vacuum cleaner - it probably harbors all sorts of culturally significant objects: the old shoe from an abandoned Monopoly game; petrified Froot Loops; the twisted remnants of hundreds of lollipops. Why, then, don't scientists spend their time studying abandoned vacuum cleaners instead of pottery shards?

Archaeologists know full well that once an old vacuum cleaner is stored it can never be relocated. Granted, archaeologists have located the city of Ur and the walls of Troy, but these are all rather large items compared with the average vacuum cleaner. Furthermore, those discoveries did not involve the perils of rummaging around in storage closets filled with precariously balanced lacrosse sticks or studded with slender nails from which sharp-bladed ice skates hang like guillotines.

No, someone excavating our society would not encounter tons of broken, misshapen pottery and millions of beads and shells at your house or my house. He would find them at only one place: summer camp.

Once this basic, inescapable truth is perceived, many puzzling features of archaeology disappear, and much misunderstanding of history and the nature of society can be corrected. For example, archaeologists speculate wildly about the uses to which various pieces of pottery may have been put and ponder the most subtle of differences in style and nuance encountered from one level of excavation to the next. These perplexities disappear when one realizes these were all meant to be ashtrays prepared for parents' visiting day.

Amphoras and funerary urns, kraters and kylixes, Doric, Ionian, and Corinthian columns; fertility symbols, status symbols, symbols of the underworld: There is no point mastering the elusive distinctions invented by archaeologists, for all were intended to be ashtrays.

Archaeologists' exclusive reliance on finds from summer camps has resulted in a distorted view of pre-history. The situation is much the same as if one were to place oneself in summer camp today and then extrapolate conclusions about the behavior of society as a whole. One would thus deduce that the entire commerce of the United States was dependent on making blue and green lanyards by hand, that the apogee of Western literature was the Sunday afternoon letter home, and that human society was organized not along patrilineal or matrilineal lines but solely in accordance with the buddy system. So have scholars been misled by the abundance of medals thought to commemorate military conquests but representing in fact awards for campcraft and archery; or by the discus thrower of Myron, actually a salute to Myron's counselor in Ultimate Frisbee.

Many mysteries and misconceptions about primitive structures found in the vicinity of pottery could also be cleared up if anthropologists recognized that they were built as parts of summer camps. The ruins of Tenochtitl'an, for example, were a mess hall that became a ruins during a particularly uncontrollable food fight involving maize and army-surplus margarine. Stonehenge was erected to serve as ``jail'' for a game of capture the flag; the Great Wall of China served as the boundary between the blue team and the gold team.

Many archaeologists are keenly aware of the imperfections in the data. They persist in arranging and rearranging the handles of ancient coffee mugs and shells of long-expired mollusks only because it is easier than becoming cultural anthropologists and having to dress in the manner of Margaret Mead or hoist heavy objects such as the works of Claude L'evi-Strauss. And if archaeologists spend their summers on field trips and labor endlessly over recondite, trivial monographs to other archaeologists, perhaps it all is their equivalent of summer camp and the Sunday afternoon letter home.

James B. Kobak Jr. is a lawyer and free-lance writer in New York City.

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