Archaeology and the modern condition

Some reading for my PhD left me once again inspired. A piece by Sir Grahame Clark in 1943 on what archaeology could contribute to school education after the war.

Clark, J G D 1943 “Education and the study of man”, Antiquity 17 (67): 113

“we stand on the threshold of what could be a new world: whether we cross that threshold or are elbowed back into the dark passage that leads to another holocaust, depends primarily on our attitude to education, on the steps taken during the next few years to bring to the common man everywhere a realization of inheritance as a citizen of the world and an awareness of his power to mould his own destiny. What is needed above all is an overriding sense of human solidarity such as can come only from consciousness of common origins. Divided we fall victims to tribal leaders: united we may yet move forward to a life of elementary decency.”

Yes, archaeology has a great deal to teach us of real importance – more than simply conserving a historic environment, imagining how it felt to experience the past or refining a pottery typology. I wrote this in 2011 without realising Clark had beaten me to it, and expressed it so much better –

“There have been archaeologists, and still are, who are seduced by nationalist and racist ideologies, and use their archaeology to bolster extreme views. However, the greatest thing we can learn from our past is that we share a common identity. Underneath the varied patterns of human culture, lies a basic unity of behaviour and shared experiences. At a time when our television news screens deliver an almost daily diet of inhumanity by people to each other; this is surely something worth stating over and over again.”

In Henson, D 2011b “The educational purpose of archaeology: a personal view from the United Kingdom”, in A Matsuda & K Okamura (eds.) New perspectives in global public archaeology, New York: Springer: 217-226

As I watch in despair at the TV screens yet again in 2014, I wish the world had listened to Clark back in 1943. But then at heart I remain a despairing, pessimistic yet utterly naive idealist.


About donhenson

I am freelance consultant archaeologist specialising in public archaeology, interpretation, education and the media.
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