Archaeology in the UK took its first tentative steps away from a gentlemen’s pursuit towards systematised science during the Enlightenment. In China, ‘modern’ archaeology appeared from the 1920s. Decades later, both use the latest tools, the latest techniques and the latest science to uncover and make sense of the evidence.
But does that, really, make archaeology modern? Here I am, working at the cutting edge of archaeology in the UK and from where I’m sitting, it’s got much more to do with how we go about teaching archaeology, sharing archaeology and enjoying archaeology. These are the three key difference, for better and for worse, that I can see between the UK and China.
The rise of community archaeology has been of considerable benefit, helping us understand the impact that archaeological investigations can have on the public, their role in it and in the forging of a strong partnership between professionals and non-professionals.
Still, public archaeology is a relatively new field and the exploration of what it means is still in progress. But, in the UK at least, there are already opportunities for public participation. In some places, people will get the opportunity to get involved in a commercial dig, join a local interest group, or most recently, join an online community and take some control of what archaeology happens through crowdfunded and crowdsourced projects. Any of these would be a good start for the development of public archaeology in China.
For the condition in China is different. Public participation in archeology remains solely at the text level, that is, the public can only take part in studying, in lectures or in discussion after the facts have been established. They cannot literally take archaeology ‘in their hands’.
In China, almost every museum has its official website and social media account on Weibo (there’s no twitter in China).
But try to search ‘archaeologist’ on Weibo, and the result is a pretty poor show. Twitter is much better popularised, and populated, in the west.
Romans. Greeks. Anglo Saxons. You’ll be lucky if a school in the UK covers anything earlier than that. But while prehistory is only just starting to creep onto the school syllabus, schools in China cover early hominids, late primitive, matrilineal society, legends of Sovereigns and Five Emperors, and the establishment of Xia Dynasty around 2,100 BC. That’s quite a lot of early history. Great!
But, it is taught in a traditional way, based on textbooks and, ultimately, exam success. There might be the occasional museum visit if lucky enough to be in a city, but for most of the time, all children need to do with the knowledge is memorise it and be able to write down the right answer on the exam paper.
So, both in China and in the UK, schools can try to find more active, participatory ways, to help students not only enjoy and understand archaeology and history, but also to understand the ways in which we produce the knowledge that they are taught.
Where does the evidence come from? Is it all around us? If so, can’t children explore the evidence for themselves? A little bit of archaeology can be an active, participatory way to understand not just where the stories we tell them about the past come from, but perhaps will even enable them to discover and tell their own.
Obviously, archaeology in UK and China is quite different. But the most basic reason for that difference is education. So besides introducing more modern technology into archeology, we should see it as a new way of education that can be exploited. When that happens, that is for me what will make archaeology truly modern.
DigVentures crowdfunds archaeological projects that everyone can be part of, in the UK and overseas. With help from people all over the world, we investigate the past and publish our discoveries online for free. Become a DigVentures Subscriber and be part of great archaeology - all year round!Subscribe