I got into a conversation on twitter a week or two ago on looting and what archaeologists can do to stop that happening, and it got me thinking about how many times we as archaeologists refer to our finds as “treasure” and how this might actually be perpetuating the idea of archaeological sites as “treasure troves”.
From a student perspective this is an interesting question, because it reminds me of a quote from an interview with Bruce Trigger after being asked about the future of archaeology in the 21st century:
"Archaeology will continue to excite substantial public interest so long as it continues to discover ‘wonderful things’ and provides the mass media with ‘mysteries’ that entertain people."
Trigger is making an obvious reference, as many headlines have done, to Howard Carter’s words after his first look at Tutankhamun’s undisturbed tomb. Bill Kelso did something similar when he found the “rosetta stone of Jamestown" in 2010. Appropriating references to well known finds like these to drum up interest (and funding) is really nothing new, but if we as the archaeologists are making the association between our finds and "treasure", then aren’t we implicitly encouraging people to do the same?
How do we then get people to care without using a flashy, attention grabbing headline? If you’ll excuse me while I pull from another course reading, Palus, Leone, and Cochran make the point in a 2006 article that historic preservation in the U.S. works a lot like “treasure” logic- we tend to preserve “things, not the connections between people and things”. The solution that they suggest, which I’m sure will resonate with a lot of people, is to engage the public so that they are invested in what is being preserved and passionate about its being protected. For anyone who has ever worked in public archaeology or just public outreach this can seem like an uphill battle at times, but in the long run is something that will pay off much more than a flashy headline.