The word archaeology comes from the Greek archaia (“ancient things”) and logos (“theory” or “science”). So, archaeologists study past societies through the material culture. In other words, we write the history analysing what people threw away or left behind. That’s what it is, although the origin of archaeology was quite different!
Back in the day, great discoveries of ancient civilizations enchanted the curiosity of those intrepid explorers who travelled the world looking for antiquities. The ruins of Troy and the image of Henrich Schliemann’s wife wearing the Priam’s Treasure (referred to as “Jewels of Helen”) as well as the Tutankhamun tomb are probably two of the most iconic finds of the last centuries. On 22 November 1922 when Lord Carnavon enquired anxiously “Can you see anything?” and Howard Carter replied “Yes, wonderful things”, expressing the grandeur of the ancient world. Those expeditions became the excuse to plunder historical sites to boost either personal or museum collections, with no further interest other than hunting treasures, contradicting the rightful purpose of archaeology.
The archaeological discoveries at ancient cities also inspired the decoration on contemporary ceramics. Tea, table and serving wares also became a mechanism to emulate the magnificent past. Idyllic depictions of exotic and remote places, scenes with ruins of Greece, Rome and oriental inspired scenes are all relatively common finds on Christchurch archaeological sites.At that time of treasure hunting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the object itself pulled out of its place was the centre of attention. And that’s not our job. Rather than treasures by themselves, artefacts are precious because they help us to interpret and understand how people used to live. That’s their actual value. And that’s possible to achieve when studying the objects in relation to the context in which they were found. During the latter half of the 20th century, archaeology grew up as science, with the development of methods of fieldwork, recording and cataloguing and the use of specific tools and technologies, shared with other disciplines like anthropology or geology. Archaeology is a social science, so archaeologists are scientists. Unlike fossickers or curio hunters, archaeologists always take notes and make drawings and plans. This is key, because archaeology is essentially preservation by record.
By the sounds of it, the real profile of an archaeologist is unlike the idealised portrait of it. We are far away from one of the most popular archaeologists ever. Who pops up in our minds when thinking of archaeology? Of course, Indiana Jones… except for Hamish! Both share part of the outfit, it’s not the whip but the cool felt hat! Well, archaeologists wear usually safety helmets on site, but in their spare time, wherever archaeologists go, the hat would be a perfect accessory, aye?
The fictional image of a female archaeologist is probably even less accurate. Can’t find anything in common between Lara Croft and us. Well, she is presented as a highly intelligent, athletic and beautiful archaeologist… Maybe it is a little bit like us.
Beyond the stereotypes and the history of archaeology, constructed by and starring male archaeologists like Carter or Schliemann, there were women archaeologists as well, although it was ‘not a common thing, for obvious reasons’ (Star 15/04/1914: 7). Perhaps because those were so obvious (irony on going!), none of those reasons were nuanced… Anyway, the point is that Jeanette Le Fleming was an archaeologist. She married in 1885 Sir William Le Fleming, born in Christchurch in 1861, eight Baronet of Rydal and prominent settler in Taranaki district (Evening Post 3/11/1945: 11).
New Zealand’s newspapers in 1932 reported Jeanette’s return to New Zealand after a long trip. ‘In her capacity of archaeologist’ (crikey!), she had visited Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Denmark and investigated ruins in Zimbabwe. Among her experiences overseas, she considered her study of the ruins at Zimbabwe the most interesting of her professional experiences. There Jeanette analysed the acropolis and temple erected under the influence of Babylonian civilization. She wrote many articles on travel subjects, ancient history and archaeology. She published under a nom de plume, ‘which she keeps in complete secret’ and not even her sister was aware of her identification with a certain writer and archaeologist (Evening Post 25/01/1932: 10). Apart from Europe and Russia, Jeanette also travelled to Central and South America, India, China and Japan, among many other places. She preferred travelling alone (yes, a pioneer of women solo travellers!) as she was never afraid, and always keen to nature, climates, archaeology, medieval and other modern curiosities, as well as the present economic conditions of each country (Evening Star 14/12/1936).
Honestly, I’m so jealous! What an inspirational woman! Loving what I also love (and archaeologist in general!), travelling, exploring new places and cultures, being curious all the time, asking questions and looking for answers! Eventually, Jeanette Le Fleming died at her home in 1944, after a long and undoubtedly interesting life! (Evening Post 3/05/1944: 8).
As archaeologists working in post-earthquake Christchurch, we also have stories and the archaeology of the early city to tell you through Christchurch Uncovered blog, Facebook, Instagram and public archaeology events. Unquestionably, scientifically recording the past is the best way to preserve it in partnership with all of you, committed people, aware of the significance of our heritage as the witness of the history, the vestiges of the past from which we can learn so much.
To conclude, a summary that describes best what an archaeologist is, how our current day-to-day goes… Love it.
Maria Lillo Bernabeu
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/ (Accessed October 2018).
Paper Past, 2018. [online] Available at: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/ (Accessed October 2018).