Tuesday 2 April 2013

Ology of the Month

At first glance it would seem that archaeology is a strange subject to include in my year of science and technology. After all, what do archaeologists do but dig up the ground and talk about history and dates and such. But if you think about it again you’ll begin to realise how much technology there is in modern archaeology.

One of the most popular programmes on British television since 1994 has been “Time Team”, a series following a team of archaeologists who dig up one site in 3 days. Last week was its last ever programme (except a couple of specials later this year). Every programme featured many scientific techniques used to locate and date their sites. Geophysics were used to locate demolished walls underground by radar or magnetometry, and most people will have heard of carbon dating. Many time x-rays are used to identify objects hidden in clumps of soil. Quite often DNA evidence in also used in modern archaeology, as happened recently with the high-profile discovery of the remains of King Richard III. The interest created by this discovery has seen an upsurge in the media reporting other similar incidents, such as the burial of a medieval knight under another car park and the mass burial of plague victims in London.

Perhaps its just good timing that a big exhibition is being held in the British Museum this year on Pompeii, and I’ll be looking at that particular subject later this month.

Another smaller exhibition of archaeology is held at the Petrie Museum. They hosted a special evening event called “Every Good Thing” for LGBT History Month in February. The event’s organiser, John J. Johnston, a gay Egyptologist, produced this guide to items of lgbt interest several years ago which formed the basis of the event.

Several high-profile lgbt speakers, not necessarily archaeologists, were invited to talk a bout one particular item they liked. Speakers included the gay astronomer Dr Marek Kakula (interviewed many times earlier in the year because of all those meteorites and asteroids flying around), and Prof Greg Woods (a pre-recorded piece, as he was actually standing a few feet away from me in Nottingham’s council house at the time, presenting awards for the lgbt heritage project I co-founded).

Ever since the growth of Queer Theory and queer studies there has been a re-examination of some archaeological finds and sites. Archaeology has always looked at the past from a western heterosexual male viewpoint (except when only an “homosexual” interpretation of the evidence is possible). Queer Archaeology is a growing subject. It grew out of the Queer Anthropology movement which looked at cultures and societies and their sexual attitudes. A pioneer in this field was Margaret Mead, a bisexual anthropologist who made a ground-breaking study of Samoan sexuality at the beginning of last century, and who was a leading inspiration in the Queer Anthopology movement of the 1970s.

Quite often lgbt archaeologists are accused of pursuing a “gay agenda” when interpreting evidence, and it will probably always be a problem as long as the interpretation is based on personal opinion of the evidence. Quite often the new queer interpretations are no more than alternative suggestions and not intended as definitive proof of homosexual behaviour. The whole point being that ancient cultures didn’t have the same attitude, or even definition, that we have for the words “homosexual” or “gay”. As I’ve said several times in the past with regard to the many same-sex relationships in ancient Greece and its mythology, they wouldn’t have thought of themselves as gay. But then, neither would Oscar Wilde, and he’s one of the biggest gay icons there is.

Together with other lgbt archaeological subjects I’ll try to keep my posts in some sort of archaeological order. I’ll be looking at the evidence of homosexual behaviour from around the world – from Egypt to China, from Pompeii to the North Pole.

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