Posted by: fattaff | 17 April, 2008

Buddha was an archaeologist!

Er … OK… No he wasn’t, though contemplating myself in the bath this morning, there is a certain similarity!   No, the real reason for the headline is, of course, to draw you in.  To make you read the text.  Am I being sensationalist?  Yes, and sensationalism seems to be a theme which is increasingly evident in, what we might refer to as, ‘media archaeology’.

Take, for example, the coverage of the excavations which have been occurring at Stonehenge over the past couple of weeks.  For the most part, the press coverage has been balanced and even.  However, one headline from an article filed on the BBC website on 9th April, did stand out: “’Breakthrough’ at Stonehenge dig”.  Wow, I thought, when I saw this on the front page of the BBC News section.  They must have discovered something special.  Well, no.  In fact what had happened was that the dig had merely ‘broken-through’ to the previously un-excavated levels.  Was this deliberate sensationalism aimed at spicing up an otherwise bland story?  Probably, and I’m pretty sure that the journalist knew exactly what she was doing, though at least she had the courtesy to put ‘breakthrough’ in inverted commas. 

I guess that to many of us, trained in academic archaeology, such extravagant use of language is difficult to reconcile with the traditionally staid and understated approach we’re used to.  

Another example of this kind of exaggeration came earlier this week, with a programme broadcast on Channel Four entitled “The Quest for the Lost Ark”.  This covered the work of Tudor Parfitt, Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.  So, a respectable academic, with an intriguing remit.  The thesis was scoped out at the start of the programme; this was to be a quest for the Ark of the Covenant (so not jumping on the Indiana Jones bandwagon then?).  As the programme progressed, we travelled from Jerusalem, to the Yemen and on to South Africa, variously dismissing biblical accounts and relying on them depending on whether it reinforced the thesis or not.

Of course, the Ark was never found.  We all know that it’s really in a huge warehouse in America!.  But that wasn’t the point of the story.  The true revelation was that Professor Parfitt and his colleagues were able to prove through genetic analysis that the Lemba,  a black South African tribe numbering about 70,000 people were, as their oral history had always claimed, one of the lost tribes of Israel.  Not only was the genetic evidence able to prove their semitic origins, but it was also able to show that they had dwelt in the Yemen, and then migrated to South Africa.  Even more amazing, the evidence showed that a relatively small group had been involved in the migration – just seven or eight adult males.  Precisely what the Lemba’s own tradition asserted when it claimed that fourteen people had left, but that their boat had split and only half made it to South Africa.  As if that wasn’t incredible enough, the geneticists were able to identify a sub-group in the tribe who were descendants of the priestly pharisees – presumably the leaders of the expedition.

This could, and should, have been ample material for a fascinated documentary in its own right.  But sadly, Parfitt insisted that the tribe were the bearers of the true Ark of the Covenant, in the form of a artifact called the ngoma lungundu, a drum-like object.  Quite why this should be the Ark of the Covenant was never convincing argued; many cultures when embarking on migrations will take something of their motherland with them – witness the story of Aeneas and his bringing of the Palladium to Rome.  However, Parfitt scored another success in that he was able to track down this artifact, which had been lost for most of the last century, to a museum storeroom in Harrare.  Another great story which could have made a documentary of its own.  Where the whole programme was let down was by Parfitt’s insistence that this artifact was the lost Ark.  And when scientific dating showed that the object was only six hundred years old, he continued undaunted to assert that it was the Ark’s replacement!  A bit like Trigger’s insistence in Only Fools and Horses, that his broom was fifty years old – and in that time it had only had six new heads and eight new handles!  Clearly this part of the thesis was tosh. 

Parfitt’s programme could, and should, have been a fascinating documentary which could have raised the profile of ‘world archaeology’.  It contained tremendous discoveries and could have been used to demonstrate the value of genetic archaeology and the incredible contributions it can make.  Instead, by hanging on to the Ark hypothesis, the programme became sensationalised, and a transparent attempt to capitalize on the forthcoming Indiana Jones movie.

Archaeology, is in many respects, a fragile subject, and one which is often at the whim of broadcasters and journalists.  But sensationalising news stories like these does little to promote the discipline.  As with the Lost Ark programme, it can obscure truly fascinating stories, but at worst it can lead to archaeologists being accused of crying wolf and eventually losing the interest of their audience altogether.  




  1. “Professor Parfitt and his colleagues were able to prove through genetic analysis that the Lemba…were… one of the lost tribes of Israel”

    Is this in fact the case? I keep hearing about claims that DNA analysis has proved this or that thing, but I really have no idea how secure these pronouncements are, especially when they seem to be concerned with questions of the ethnicity of ancient populations (I appreciate that this is not exactly what is being considered here). What, exactly, has the genetic analysis proved here?

  2. Yes, this is an interesting point – wheras most elements of archaeology can be understood by those who have some knowledge of the subject, genetic archaeology is a subject so technical and so new that I think very few of us understand what caveats we should use when presented with such assertions. We should perhaps also bear in mind a number of criminal legal cases where DNA evidence has been proven to be, at the very least, questionable.

    In archaeological terms, perhaps the most questionable result of recent times has been the work done on Cheddar Man, (a 14,000 year old Homo Sap.Sap. skeleton from the Mendips in England) which was linked ‘genetically’ to people still living in the village. Other studies have purported to show that 60% of the current population of Britain are not Anglo-Saxon or Celtic, but have been here since Mesolithic times, having migrated here from Spain.

    With all these cases, ordinary archaeologists don’t have the skills to be able to objectively criticise the findings. Having said that, I think one of the really interesting questions is more sociological – why do we want to make these links? Why is it pleasing to find such a connection between Israel and South Africa, or between Britain and Spain? And of course, does ethnicity really depend on genetics?

  3. […] yea! Hear yea! Buddha was an archaeologist! Read all about it at the H-word. Headlines vs. contents, archaeology in the hands of […]

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