Archaeology and Humour: An Archaeologist and a Zoologist Walk into a TAG Session…

Organisers Hilary Orange (University College London) and Joe Flatman (University College London)

This session aims to debate the role of humour in archaeological dialogue – the theorisation of which has received limited attention. Sillar (1992) forms a rare collection of papers on the subject, and more recently Clarke (2008) has considered laughter within Roman visual culture, suggesting that laughter plays a dual social role, creating and reinforcing social identity and operating as a response to ‘inversions’ – situations where expectations and understandings of normality are confounded. Between these two reference points, how has the theorisation of humour advanced within archaeology, especially since this period coincides with the full emergence of ‘commercial’ archaeology in the UK under the principles of PPG16? There is a need to consider humour within the archaeological record, within heritage and within pedagogy, as well as humorous representations of archaeologists and archaeology within the media. There are questions of the visibility and absence of humour – can we find it, can we interpret it, what does it mean, and what are the ethics and sensitivities of recording and reporting it?

Clarke, J. R (2008) Looking at Laughter: Humour, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 BC-AD 250.University ofCalifornia Press
Sillar, B. (ed.) (1992) Archaeological Review from Cambridge, 11 (2)


Pull the other one – it’s been archived

Speaker: Duncan H. Brown (English Heritage)

There is humour enough, of a darkish hue (Munsell code pending), in many of the pitiful archive offerings received even now by our fall-guy museum curators – but this paper will not be addressing that, well not directly. More tellingly amusing perhaps might be a review of how archive methods have developed, from school notebooks to context sheets and fag packets to self-seal bags (which do not actually seal themselves). That could be a useful starting point for an examination of the presence of humour throughout the archaeological recording process. Most of it is unwitting however, and mockery is rarely informative unless it serves to point up our own inadequacies. So yes, there will be some of that in this talk. More illuminating and entertaining than that (is it possible? I hear you ask) are the shafts of wit, introspection, reflection and despair that light up the margins of many different types of site record. Rarely in archaeological publications, never in OASIS reports, and hardly ever in the teaching of archaeology, is the digger’s perspective represented, yet for many of us it was, still is, a major attraction. A digger’s life is unconventional, untamed and often under-rewarded, which gives rise to a style of ‘trench humour’ that betrays the glimmering passions and infuriating frustrations of life on the front line. Those marginal expressions of individuality are important, not only because they tell us something about the way the project developed but also because they remind us of what fuels archaeology – togetherness, thirst, lust and dreams. Finding reminders of that in old archive material is salutary as well as amusing. This paper will show examples of witty asides from a variety of archive materials and at the same time explore the relationship between humour, individuality and the archaeological record. The conclusion may well be that we cannot have one without the other.

Visionary Voice/Silent Clown

Speaker: Andrew Cope (University of Plymouth)

The productions of cinema’s silent clowns might endure in popular awareness and philosophical relevance, through their critical development with—as much as their location at—the dawn of a new age of technology.

The creative impact of this synchronicity is, perhaps, most clearly registered in that clowning which has its protagonists tyrannized by novel modes of mechanization (such as the ‘automobile’). But if such scenes confronted modern audiences with negative visions of new technology, then their propagation—through cinema—nevertheless embraced technique and indulged the public’s appetite for its powers of mediation.

This ‘critical’ engagement—which communicated an anxiety through a symptom of its own subject matter—suggests that some such movies played-out meditations on late modernity, as its perceptions were actually information. It is the layered level of consciousness (of a materiality past, present and a future) supposed by the composition this scenario, which invites some ‘fruitful’ comparison of the slapstick hero with the mediating figure of the shaman: a similarly recognisable communal character, who likewise produced spectacular visions which were intended to embroil, yet also challenge, a given society’s way of seeing.

By revisiting some representative slapstick film footage, as shamanic—through some recourse to a perceived (and, possibly, surprising) modern precedent in Friedrich Nietzsche’s tragic variety of vitalism—this contribution foregrounds a mystical and restorative undercurrent in the on-screen utterances of a silent icon.  In this sense, the paper goes some way towards exposing just how slapstick’s archive could provide a resource for revisiting personhood as a distributed and participatory production occurring in the midst of a lively and provocative materiality: one which defies any anthropocentric analysis of objects, as it accepts the soulful activity of things themselves.


A funny thing happened on the way to the HER

Speaker: Ben Croxford (Kent County Council)

Archaeology and humour directly intersect in two principal ways: firstly, there is humour in the past detectable via archaeology; secondly, there is humour in the present expressed in archaeological settings. Concerning the first of these, the Roman world offers a wealth of evidence, as demonstrated at length by Clarke (2008). There is, however, a heavy reliance upon visual culture simply recovered during archaeological work as the means of exploring the issue in question. Not to be overlooked are instances where humour may have been the driving force behind actions that may be detected archaeologically. Initially explored as one possible explanation for the very unusual treatment of a piece of sculpture and even some inhumations from Roman Britain (Croxford 2008), this aspect of humour in archaeology offers the greatest theoretical challenge. It also leads neatly into the second form of humour in archaeology, that is the daily trench humour of site and rare instances of its preservation. Seen from the heritage management and conservation perspective (from an Historic Environment Record), is there evidence for this activity and what sort of record are we ourselves leaving of our own humour in the archaeological record and in our records of archaeology?

Clarke, J.R. 2008. Looking at Laughter: Humour, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 BC-AD 250. University of California Press

Croxford, B. 2008. ‘Humour in Roman Archaeology’. Fenwick, C., Wiggins, M. and Wythe, D. (eds) TRAC 2007: Proceedings of the Seventeenth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, London 2007. Oxbow Books: 151-162

Funny Museum or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love My Sense of Humour

Speaker: Subhadra Das (UCL Museums)

Everyone knows museums are no laughing matter. They are the repositories of a nation’s heritage with a responsibility for preserving objects and making them accessible to people who would never otherwise get to see them; they are Serious Business. Museums communicate with their audiences in a multitude of different ways, through exhibitions, installations, workshops, lectures, film screenings and storytelling sessions. While these tend to employ straightforward didactic communication, they can also appeal to the emotional from the sublime to the traumatic.

But are museums missing a trick when it comes to using humour to communicate their message to the public?

By examining the ethical constraints involved in museum communication, I will consider why, to date, museums have generally avoided communicating through humour. Using specific examples from stand-up comedy, panel and sketch shows, films and my own experience of performing stand-up, I will also explore how, by changing a single aspect of their practice, museums could take significant steps to reaching new audiences and engaging with them in much more meaningful ways.


Forget About The Car, Lets Talk About The Henge

Speaker: Sarah May (English Heritage)

The underlying narratives of archaeological explanation are rarely funny. The dominant tropes are romance and tragedy. The focus on loss is well suited to conservative explanations of the world and the anarchy of comedy rarely gets a look in. We tend to view our work as essentially serious, and seriously essential. As an example, I had a good laugh with some archaeologists the other day. The topic didn’t seem promising (transport delays) and the time wasn’t auspicious (in the middle of meetings about redundancies). But someone told a story of travelling with an eminent archaeologist by ferry. Another passenger had fallen from the gangplank and the ferry was delayed. The eminent man was furious – he had a dig to get to! Why did they have to wait?!  We laughed. Not, of course, about the accident, but about how well the story displayed the sense of importance the archaeologist attached to his work.

As with all good stories, I don’t know if it’s true, but it feels true and the wry recognition is funny. Humour is also great for puncturing self-importance and for filling that awkward gap between what we ought to feel and what we do feel. Humour within archaeological practice, dialogue and narrative allows us to experience real emotion. And if comedy is lacking in our narratives, many comedians are happy to fill the vacuum for us. Archaeology is a rich seam for cartoonists and stand-ups not to mention film makers. Stonehenge, as one of the world’s most famous sites generates a huge amount of comedy. This paper will examine the comic material associated with Stonehenge to see what we gain from it.


The mysterious case of the Phoenicians & the Cornish Game Hens

Speaker: Caradoc Peters,  Truro College, Cornwall

Abductive, as opposed to deductive and inductive, knowledge acquisition is a technique that is underused in theory, but is a major element in humour. The hypothetico-deductive method adopted wholesale since the New Archaeology means that archaeologists note the common, the usual, and show disdain for the unusual and atypical. This paper takes a subversive look at Cornish identity, and brings the Cabinet of Curiosities back into the full lime light of centre stage.

The landscape is the cabinet that this paper opens up for examination. Narratives of the Cornish landscape form part of local identity and tourist curiosity. They usually involve prehistoric megalithic monuments, fairy folk and Industrial period engine houses. However, these narratives are at odds with popular narratives among the ethnic Cornish communities oversees. Working from landscape metanarrative, a new narrative is constructed to describe the Cornish landscape to suit American Cornish communities. This story however has its pitfalls as one will discover! More legends, more fairy folk and a past that was forgotten for a reason! In creating this new landscape narrative, the temptation again arises to normalise and tame the unusual and the freakish.

“The Only Thing Archaeologists can really say for certain is we are all Skeletons who Lived Underground”: An Ultra Real representation of archaeology as humour.

Email: Joel Sperry (University of Winchester)

Within this presentation I will examine humour on/in archaeology within a context of its contemporary representation on television. I will avoid the traditional debates of archaeological representation and instead discuss our current era of ‘television archaeology’. I will describe this as the ‘Ultra Real Era’ and position my argument through the Ultra Real representation in the mainstream as humour.

The Ultra Real Era sits within a context that represents a shift from how on screen archaeology is routinely debated within academia. This shift is from the past classic television series on archaeology to a representation that cleverly mocks and parodies these shows and archaeology. To contemporary comedians and script writers archaeology is clearly seen as a rich source of comedy. Whilst this superficially may appear to be negative I will counter this by positioning the current humorous representation within a broader context,  debate how these ideas have come about and why humorous representation gives a positive and nuanced impression of archaeology. The jokes and sketches that feature archaeology contain within them a deep and complex understanding of archaeology which demonstrates how archaeological representation and academic endeavours has ‘worked’ to ‘educate’ audiences and imbed archaeology as part of mainstream British Culture.

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