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Quotes for Archaeologists

"The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it" Oscar Wilde. 1891. The Critic as Artist.

"A thing belongs to the one who remembers it most obsessively" Kanan Makiya. 2001. The Rock: A Tale of Seventh-Century Jerusalem.

"About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorise; and I remember some one saying that at this rate a man might well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe their colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of service." Charles Darwin 1861.

"Problems can not be solved at the same level of consciousness that created them." Albert Einstein

"Archaeologists ought to be grateful to worms, as they protect and preserve for an indefinitely long period every object, not liable to decay, which is dropped on the surface of the land, by burying it beneath their casting." Charles Darwin 1881

"The hardest thing about being a communist is trying to predict the past." Milovan Djilas (1911-1995), Yugoslav author-politician. Djilas was warning apparatchiks rather than Marxist archaeologists - but still ....

"You never know how the past is going to turn out." Jude Quinn in I'm Not There, 2007

"Astronomers have a great advantage over archaeologists: they can see the past." Loeb and Pritchard, New Scentist 27 Oct 2012

"The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

"... everything happens in its own time" Bob Dylan, BBC interview

"Time is not a thing that passes ... it's a sea on which you float." Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood

"I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times." (Psalm 77:5 (King James Version)

"The more one can see the past the more one can see the future." David Hockney Secret Knowledge 2006:197.

"In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored and treasured." Victor Frankl 1946 Man's Search for Meaning.

"Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past." George Orwell 1984


Friday, 19 October 2012

"Die Erinnerung ist das einzige Paradies , aus welchem wir nicht getrieben werden können." 
- The memory is the only paradise from which we cannot be driven.
Johann Paul Richter otherwise known as Jean Paul, 1812

Do archaeologists create paradises of the past? The authors of Genesis did. While we might not write stories that so explicitly include a descent from a state of grace, we surely do place emphasis the extraordinary and the great from the past, to the exclusion of the mundane.The impression can be left that the past is a land of heroes, greater than the present day. Yet archaeology should be the stuff of the ordinary - for that is a large part of what we find. We should be able to tell an unvarnished version of the past. What are the enemies of that objective? - why ourselves in large part - we want to see what we do as important and illustrative and tend to present it in that light.

Who else? - why ourselves again - if we are the descendants of those who's history we presenting. We want to see ourselves as the descendants of noble people of achievement. Colonised indigenous people can suffer particularly from this. They have good historical reasons to want to represent their ancestors well, better than the way they stigmatised, or at best stereotyped by colonists. Non-indigenous archaeologists are often more aware of the colonial history than their contemporaries and sympathise with this - but have we not all endured some new-age version of the past presented from an indigenous point of view in silence - and suffering - through the distortions!

An Australian archaeologist once said that the only people over whom aboriginal people had any power were archaeologists, and if offered the opportunity they would inevitably use it. Of course they should have domain over their cultural heritage. But should that be to the extent that it must be distorted in presentation?
So what are the counters to this? Intellectual rigor and debate are a good start. Another is simply the people themselves. Their physical remains tell the stories of their lives - brutish and short as they sometime are. We need not pursue those placed to rest by their contemporaries - there are chance discoveries or disturbances often enough in our development obsessed world . But we should make a respectful study of these remains before their re-internment.  We can find their life histories not otherwise accessible to us - how long they lived, how many children women had, what stresses they placed on their bodies, their health, injuries and illnesses. Their DNA if it survives, can tell vast amounts more Too often a study is not happening and it is because of the exertion of power referred to above. 

It is time for debate on that. Archaeologists should not forego this important window on the past and need to assert its value - and its particular value is that it is a strong dose of reality.


The principal organisation for archaeologists in New Zealand is the New Zealand Archaeological Association.

My interests include: C14 dating, numerical taxonomy, site protection in development projects, web communication and museums.  

Garry Law
About me

This page is mainly about New Zealand archaeology.  The Blog here is some personal observations which I might make from time to time.

Archaeology in New Zealand is practiced in respect of the Maori (Polynesian) occupation of New Zealand (including the Kermadec Islands to the north and Chatham Islands in the east), starting perhaps 800 years ago, but also in respect of historic sites left by more recent visitors and immigrants, European and Chinese, since 1800 AD, looking at settlements and sealing, whaling and mining industries.

New Zealand archaeology relates particularly to New Zealand of course, but archaeologists based here also work in Polynesia, the rest of Oceania, particularly on Polynesian origins and also in South East Asia - particularly Thailand. There is also some research on historic sites in Antarctica. There are close professional relationships with Australian archaeologists and a quite a few there have come from here, but little research is conducted across the Tasman Sea in either direction.

Auckland, August 1908: A Stop on the Great White Fleet World Cruise 
By: Garry Law
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