woensdag 23 mei 2012

The scumbag with the hat

Recently, the mailman delivered some packages from the UK with kit for the coming season. Among them is a brand new dark brown Jaxon outback hat. Looking it over got me thinking about the colourful relation between archaeology and the wearing of hats. Easily the biggest and most persistent clich̩, it is perhaps even more synonymous with archaeology than alcohol Рespecially to the wider public. A sure-fire way to convince them that someone is an archaeologist is to portray them wearing a hat. The downside of that is it tells people straight away that such a person is a scumbag, and here`s why.

The character that for the general public has forever bound archaeology (or whatever passes for that in Hollywood) with the wearing of hats is Indiana Jones. Armed with his rather nicely cut brown fur-felt fedora, a whip that magically sticks to things like beams and weapons, and a summary knowledge of archaeology, “Dr.” Henry Jones Jr. quests for ancient mythical artefacts and saves damsels in distress while he`s at it, usually from unsavoury sadistic figures who tend to wear swastikas on their suits half of the time. This image of the George Lucas creation is so well-ingrained that wearing any kind of head covering (even a floppy bush hat) is an open invitation to anyone to call you ”Indy.” But to be called ”Indy” is to be identified with a scumbag.
Jones has a habit of dumping all these gals he`s fallen for and rescued, for no apparent reason other than the somewhat vague ”call of adventure”. Despite being portrayed as a seasoned doctor of archaeology, words like ´trowel´, ´spoil heap´ and  ´locus´ are alien concepts to him (or perhaps Jones just took Proverbs 26:27 to heart). The notion launched by Wheeler that archaeology is destruction is often taken too seriously and the preferred tools are usually big, clumsy and as blunt as Jones` own intellect. Most of his comments with regard to the locals are doused in colonialism and he entertains the notion that all ancient artefacts of value “belong in a museum”; one that, incidentally, is in America and belongs to a friend of his. In short, the character of Henry Jones Jr. is a nepotistic, womanizing, colonialist treasure hunter. This has created for the public a romantic but ultimately false image of the archaeologist as a person who is out to discover ancient shiny things in far-away lands to show to the world. For the record: ancient shiny things are worth fuck-all if they cannot be put in relation to a context and so help to clarify what purpose they served, which is the main issue that archaeology has with tomb-robbing.
Womanizing, tomb-robbing, nepotistic scumbag

Another world-renowned archaeologist with a healthy dose of scumbaggery is Zahi Hawass. Until recently the head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Minister of State for Antiquities, most people know Hawass through his work for Discovery Channel, History Channel and National Geographic. Here he tirelessly searches for the history of his country and uncovers the secrets of ancient Egypt, all the while sporting a brown fedora (which isn`t exactly the same as Indy`s, but then again most journalist live for making generalizations). Hawass has, as he claims himself: ”given his life to protecting and preserving antiquities”. The fact that George Lucas has called Hawass ”The Real-life Indiana Jones” should give you some indication that he isn’t all that wonderful. Therefore, it shouldn`t come as a surprise that Hawass is surrounded with controversy.
Zahi Hawass had quite the reputation among Egyptologists: he takes substantial liberties when interpreting evidence, has a tendency to plagiarize both in his books as well as on television and somehow manages to publish the same information multiple times and present it as new and ground-breaking. But it not just his attitude towards the literature that is considered cavalier: despite his deep love for the heritage of Egypt, his handling of most artefacts shows an air of nonchalance. There was a small outrage in the academic community when Hawass used finds from the tomb of Tutankhamun for photo shoots to market his own clothing line. But that is just all the stuff about his questionable reputation as an archaeologist.
During his time as chief of the SCA, Zahi Hawass has allegedly abused his position to favour himself and to further political goals. He decided which sites would be dug on the basis of their potential for glamorous finds and was always there to present himself to the media as the one responsible for all these wonderful finds, brushing aside the people who had actually done all the hard work. In his quest to bring as much of Egypt`s treasures back `home`, he would threaten to, as well as actually suspend excavation permits for archaeologists from certain nations in order to pressure both museums and countries into returning artefacts. This might even be understandable, were it not that the museum in Cairo lacks the proper facilities to safely and correctly archive all these objects. Besides that, he apparently received an annual bonus of $200.000 for his work with NGC, while young archaeologists during the Arab spring clamoured around his workplace, demanding to know why there were so few jobs and such poor wages whilst a 7bn. profit was made. Furthermore, he has used his power to either obstruct or clear the way for various companies, usually benefitting those he had ties to. Finally, Hawass has always raised eyebrows with his almost Nasser-like criticism of Israel in general. While one can put serious question marks to the Israeli conduct towards the Palestinian Territories, one thing is certain: its archaeologists tend to have a better sense of scholarly ethics than Hawass. By now it should be obvious that the “Real-life Indiana Jones” is a more serious scumbag than the imaginary one.
Corrupt, fraudulous, megalomaniacal, egocentric scumbag

So obviously someone is pretty butt hurt about these images of would-be academics using hats to be passed off as the real thing. Here`s why people doing real fieldwork wear hats: most of the regions that are of interest to archaeology lie outside the comfort zone of most people. The weather can be either very hot, dry and sunny or very wet and humid. Despite the use of shade tents, many archaeologists wear a hat simply to protect their face and neck from the sun, because nothing is more annoying than having to work hard when you are sunburnt, let alone suffering from sunstroke. In wet climates, it is just downright obstructing to have to work while holding an umbrella, so a hat is more convenient. Apart from that, keeping the sun out of your eyes will prevent you from missing small details that could prove important.
So even if some archaeologists like to have this idea that they are associated with romantic images of adventurers that cruise the world and uncover a wealth of gold and such, they are serious enough to know that reality is different. The true romance in archaeology is the tingling feeling in the back of your head when you`re thinking about what a village may have looked like, the geeky joy of identifying pottery, the sense that adventure can be in smaller things like sitting on a slab that covers a 6-meter deep cistern and be oblivious to it. Of course everyone would like to find something special, but that something can be as simple as a faience bowl, which will hardly impress most museum visitors. You know that you have a true archaeologist on your hands when a grown man goes giddy from finding intact pottery, when finding the remains in of a wall become as vital to you as air or water.
So, it`s not that archaeologists wear hats because want to be seen as Jones and Hawass, but rather that Jones and Hawass wear hats because they want to be seen as archaeologists.
Lazy, annoying, dirty scumbag. - Photo courtesy of Eeva-Mari  Haapala

Although a hat does have purposes we can all agree on…

Signing off,

The Lost Dutchman

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