Monday, 22 September 2014

What do dinosaurs and archaeology have in common?

What do dinosaurs and archaeology have in common? Nothing, surely! the archaeologist may say with a knowing smile. There is a bit of a running joke amongst archaeologists that one of the first questions people ask is do you dig up dinosaurs? And the response being well no, you're thinking of palaeontology. Both disciplines are associated with trowel usage, and summers of field work digging stuff up. There may even be some overlap in terms of questions asked - the nature of long term environmental and ecological change, especially the further back in time we go to the earliest origins of hominids. In general however, archaeology is focused on the study of material remains of human societies (largely anatomically modern humans), whilst palaeontology focuses on all other life forms prior to the beginning of the Holocene. And not just dinosaurs.

There is another area where these two research areas overlap, and that is the way in which discoveries in these disciplines make it from the academic into the public sphere. In archaeology, it is always the earliest evidence of xyz that is likely to make the news. Neanderthals are also popular, as is anything on famous topics such as Stonehenge (we already knew that Stonehenge was 'far from being alone' in the landscape), Richard III, or anything gruesome (or some combination, such as Richard III and his 'brutal last moments' of being 'hacked to death'). Dinosaurs suffer from this too. I was reminded recently when the story of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus was all over the news and Twitter feeds. From the way it was presented, you'd have thought we'd never heard of this dinosaur before, or that we never knew there were swimming dinosaurs. Bother of which are not true. A critique on the way that the Spinosaurus study was reported, by Paul Barrett of the NHM, indicates that this is symptomatic, where only the large scary theropods make the news, even through the studies do not really advance our wider understanding of evolution and diversity. The big teeth and claws of palaeontology are the brutal deaths and earliest humans activities of archaeology.

Big teeth and gruesome death: Sue the T Rex and Richard III (pictures from Wikipedia)

It is not just just a case of what makes the news, but what makes it into the coveted pages of Nature and Science journals. In some ways the problem of archaeology is less than in palaeontology. As Paul Barrett says, "Who really cares if one giant theropod was 50 cm longer than another?". Whereas the earliest evidence of say, milk consumption, or occupation of the Americas, is of greater significance to our understanding of the human past. The problem is that the wider significance of these studies is often downplayed or ignored in favour of the headline grabbing potential. It also skews the perception of what archaeology is all about. It is not just about discovering the earliest dates that humans were capable of doing xyz. Archaeology has an important role to play in informing modern day issues, such as the response of societies to environmental degradation or climate change. Or the ways in which traditional farming practices can be used to inform more sustainable agriculture. Archaeology is about the past, but the lessons of the past are relevant for the present.

Are we underestimating the 'public' audience? Is the biggest, the scariest or the earliest really all they are interested in? One of the comments on the post by Barrett suggests that the non-specialist community just likes these sorts of things more, that "one cannot change people preferences towards dinosaurs, and towards the predators, the largest ones". Is this really the case? Or is it because this is all that we hear about?

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