Misusing History and Manipulating History - Dubious Interpretations Promote Present Goals

Article excerpt

James Appleyard holds degrees in archaeology, prehistory, medieval history, and heritage management from the University of Sheffield in Britain. He is currently undertaking research into the public perception and understanding of museums. Lee Casterline is a former secondary educator in math and the sciences. She is a freelance writer specializing in scientific, environmental, and historical topics.

The year is 2999. An article is published by a world-renowned archaeologist detailing his finds of the remains of Nike running shoes, Levi's jeans, and McDonald's restaurants throughout Europe and Asia. His conclusions? The presence of these artifacts typifies what could be termed an "American culture" and illustrates the migration of American peoples to colonize those areas.

As incredulous and obtuse an idea as it might sound, numerous governments, ethnic groups, and archaeologists have adopted similarly dubious interpretations of archaeological evidence to promote their own political, cultural, religious, or scientific ideas. In the past, archaeology and the idea of an "archaeological culture" have been used to trace the origins and spread of peoples such as the Celts and early Germanic tribes all across Europe.1 Such arguments have also been used to support claims for territorial expansion, land claims and rights over territories, and claims over human remains uncovered at archaeological sites. These contentions, however, are biased, racist, and inherently dangerous.

Yet, this is nothing new. A University of Arizona archaeologist noted that "nations and states have always played with history. We remember what we want the way we want it to have been."2 History is and always has been interpreted in the present to suit modern political ideas that may in fact have no bearing in historical reality. This is simply because any interpretation of the past is affected by the beliefs, values, perspectives, and motives of those doing the interpreting. Therefore, any account of history or interpretation of material culture tells us more about the time in which that text is written and the person doing the writing than it does about the time to which it pertains. Consequently, the past has often been misinterpreted. Does this mean, then, that the past can never truly be uncovered, as any interpretation of the past is unavoidably slanted by the inherent biases of those studying it, or is it just that there has been a complete misunderstanding of how archaeology and ethnicity work?

These are important questions and ones that have increasingly made many scholars look at and reevaluate the way they view the past. As Martin Carver illustrated in "On Archaeological Value" (Antiquity, 1996), many of our values that were previously taken for granted are now being challenged or have at least been exposed to public debate, and the values of the past are no exception. This has to be a good thing. Peoples and cultures are back on the archaeologist's agenda. Their return is due in part to the growing awareness of the power of ethnicity in our contemporary world.3 The revival continues at a dramatic rate, becoming a battleground of sorts, pitting governments and ethnic groups against archaeologists and science, as well as archaeologists against themselves. The past is big business and is politically highly charged, powerful, and significant. The past is more about now than it is about then.

The climates of thought and the interests of particular groups strongly affect the questions that archaeologists bring to their material. They go on to affect the interpretations that are produced; that is, the arrows of cultural influence on the archaeological map go one way or the other, depending on the archaeologists' own ethnic makeup, political ideologies, or training. As cultures have varying criteria of relevance, meaning, and significance, so does the study of archaeology. The interpretation of a seventeenth-century New England cemetery is played one way or another, in relation to the current interests of the Native American group or descendants of European immigrants, who may each see it as part of their heritage. …