Words. Words, words, words. Words.
We’ve been talking about words this week. Specifically, the words and phrases associated with archaeology (and heritage) in the public sphere that we – as a profession – can find problematic. Even more specifically, the use of the word ‘treasure’ to describe the things we find, especially when we’re talking about them in a non-archaeological context (like an exhibition).
Much of this conversation arose following the opening of the pop-up archaeology exhibition we’ve been involved with curating (created by the fantastic Heritage Rescue team, currently at The Commons in Christchurch, Saturdays and Sundays 11 am-4 pm, go and see it!). The exhibition is called ‘Buried Treasures’, which is both an excellent and evocative name for a display and a term that, from a purely archaeological perspective, has some troubling associations.
Our exhibition, thanks to the excellent people behind the Heritage Rescue TV show. Also, some excellent clouds. Everybody go and see it! Image: J. Garland.
Treasure immediately brings to mind several other words and meanings, many of which are not only inaccurate from our perspective, but potentially damaging to the archaeological record. In an attempt to make sense of what is, frankly, a somewhat circular and confusing topic we have once again turned to our friends in the Hundred Acre Wood. Because everything makes more sense when it’s being said by talking animals. And Christopher Robin.
So let us go then, you and I, to where the evening is spread out against the sky (thanks T. S. Eliot) and our friends Owl, Tigger and Christopher Robin are once again embroiled in archaeological discussion. I’ll leave you in their capable hands….
Let’s just say that Christopher Robin’s behind the camera and Owl is lurking on a branch…
“Right,” says Owl, with purpose and no small amount of pomposity. “Treasure. I have thoughts. I have many thoughts.”
Tigger bounces in anticipation. Christopher Robin waits patiently.
“The heffalump in the room is the immediate association with treasure hunting, which leads on to things like fossicking and site destruction. The thrill of adventure and discovery and all that. I think the biggest problem with a term like treasure, though, is the different perspectives on value that underpin the use of the word. We can all agree that treasure is something valuable, it’s just that definitions of valuable diverge.”
“Hmm,” says Tigger. “Even though that’s a perfectly cromulent–“
“Cromulent!” Owl hoots, rudely interrupting. “Good word.”
“–use of the word,” continues Tigger. “I think the heffalump in the room is more that treasure brings to mind images of shining coins spilling out of chests and gold jewellery and the like.”
“Ah, yes,” says Owl. “Pirates and dragons and hoards of gold.”
To be fair to Tigger, this is what you get from a Google image search for ‘treasure (for the record, the overall first result is a Bruno Mars song – I was not expecting that). Image: Google.
“Exactly,” says Tigger. “It makes me think of that film, National Treasure, where the treasure isn’t really the Declaration of Independence – a really significant historical document – but an actual roomful of gold and junk that they spent the whole movie looking for. In that movie, it’s the gold and statuary that’s most important and the priceless one-of-a kind dusty old piece of paper that’s just the means to an end.”
“That’s a terrible movie,” says Owl, darkly.
“But widely seen!” exclaims Tigger, standing strong against avian judgement. “So the message, whether or not it was intentional, was far reaching.”
Own continues to frown and exude cinematic outrage. It’s a skill.
“If you search for archaeological treasure on Google,” continues Tigger, blithely ignoring Owl, “the results are all sunken Spanish galleons, shipwrecks full of Blackbeard’s ill-gotten gains and Mycenean gold burial goods. It’s ALL gold and hoards and jewellery.”
“All things that fit a modern, capitalist definition of ‘valuable’ in the monetary sense,” says Christopher Robin, thoughtfully.
Again, this is what Google thinks when you search for “archaeology treasure”. Image: my computer screen. And Google.
“I wonder if we do that – that immediate, unconscious valuation of artefacts by economic means – because that’s the easiest and most obvious way for people to wrap their heads around the significance of something in today’s society,” says Tigger.
“I hope not,” says Owl. “That’s a depressing thought.”
“There’s a lack of understanding of the cultural value of heritage on its own,” continues Tigger, “so people turn to something they’re familiar with, which is monetary value. I’m biased, of course, but I do think that this is a problem. You don’t see it with natural heritage, though. People don’t look at a baby kiwi or the view from a mountain in a national park and wonder how much money it’s worth.”
“Not to be cynical,” says Owl, “but they kind of do. Especially with views. Real estate prices on the coast, anyone?”
Both Tigger and Christopher Robin make a face at that.
“We do place value on archaeological objects,” muses Christopher Robin. “It’s just not necessarily value that has anything to do with money or gold.”
“Yes,” says Owl, emphatically. “From my perspective, the ‘treasure’ to be found through archaeology isn’t physical things, it’s the information they offer and the window into our heritage that they provide. Knowledge is treasure! That said, although ALL artefacts have value as sources of information – collectively and individually – there are some that we value more as physical objects than others, because they’re rare enough or cool enough that they help us share the excitement of what we do with everyone else. I still don’t put a price on them, though. It’s a use value rather than a currency value.”
“Does treasure have to have a monetary value?” asks Christopher Robin, slightly plaintively. “If we’re talking about children’s impressions of treasure, for example, is it always associated with monetary worth?”
“I think it does, for the most part,” replies Tigger. “Blame the dragons and pirates and treasure hoards.”
“There’s another popular meaning of the word, though,” says Owl, ponderously. “In the sense of something treasured, something with sentimental value.”
“That’s still a problematic meaning, from an archaeological perspective,” says Christopher Robin. “We – at least here in Christchurch – don’t really find things that were treasured like that. People look after their valuable possessions – both those of monetary and sentimental value.”
“Unless they’re lost or broken,” says Owl, with just a hint of melancholy. “Sometimes I think that should be our professional motto. ‘Archaeology: it’s all just lost and broken things.’ Sounds about right.”
Christopher Robin and Tigger pause, as they consider how to respond to that.
“Moving on,” says Christopher Robin, quickly. “What about the things of your own that you value? Would you call them treasures? I don’t think I would, simply because I relate the term to pirates and treasure hunting.”
“I wouldn’t either,” says Tigger. “Sentimental, sure, but not treasured.”
“There are things that I’d rescue in the event of a fire, or things that I might consider family heirlooms,” Christopher Robin continues, “but I’d never refer to them as treasures. Precious items, maybe.”
“Hmm,” says Owl. “I would never use precious, because I equate it with gemstones and Gollum. It’s just a different frame of reference.”
“This is the problem, isn’t it?” says Tigger. “It’s word association. We have to use terminology carefully – especially in science communication – where we want the word we’re using to match the meaning that people will think of when they hear it.”
“And with something like treasure, there’s a dissonance between the two,” agrees Owl.
Tigger continues, “I think, if you’re using a word in a different sense to the way most people will think of it, it’s probably not an effective word to use. Like, in some places in America, they use ‘space archaeology’ to refer to the study of spatial relationships between things – what sensible people call ‘spatial archaeology’ or ‘landscape archaeology. Space archaeology immediately conjures up images of moon landings and floating fields of historical debris around the planet and just sets people up for disappointment when they discover what it actually is.”
“Aha!” says Owl. “But if a word manages to excite and interest people in the topic at hand, even if it’s somewhat inaccurate, isn’t it still effective? Is it more important to make archaeology accessible and of interest to everybody than it is to use technically accurate terminology? Where do you draw the line?”
Christopher Robin nods. “I do wonder if we’re being precious about the term, or if we should just embrace it. Perhaps, through our use of the term, we’re also helping to show other people that these ordinary things are also a kind of treasure (and therefore worthy of protection and study).”
“And sharing our own valuation of those treasures,” adds Owl. “Because they are important and valuable, even if neither pirates nor dragons would think so.”
“So we take back the term?” asks Tigger. “Use it with clear emphasis on heritage values, on information potential, on treasures in the cultural sense?”
“I think so,” says Owl. “It does make the exhibition sound exciting.”
“The odd blog post explaining our thoughts on the topic can’t hurt either,” says Christopher Robin, pointedly.
“True,” says Owl. “I’ll get right on that.”
Owl, Christopher Robin and Tigger
 The more you write and/or say words, the weirder it is.
 “A heffalump! Did you hear that, Pooh! A heffalump!” Piglet can be heard saying excitedly in the distance.
 “There is it again, Piglet! It must be nearby. A heffalump, Piglet, a heffalump! Let’s go!”
 And it IS exciting. You should all go and see it.
A. A. Milne, of course.