[Time Trowel] From ancient artifacts to today’s trash: Debunking misconceptions about archaeology

Stephen Acabado

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[Time Trowel] From ancient artifacts to today’s trash: Debunking misconceptions about archaeology

Nico Villarete/Rappler

'Every coffee cup, every beer bottle, every tweet, is a breadcrumb in the trail of our collective story.... It’s a study of human life that invites everyone to the table — no time machine needed.'

I love airports and airplanes. Yet, as someone whose work involves climate change mitigation, I can’t ignore the environmental impact of air travel since carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning jet fuel are particularly harmful when released at high altitudes. For a flight from Manila to Los Angeles, the CO2 emissions can vary but are substantial, often estimated in the range of several tons per passenger. This environmental impact is compounded by additional factors like energy-intensive airport operations and emissions of other greenhouse gases.

My work as an archaeologist though, requires travel for collaboration, research, and community engagement. I’ve collected a treasure trove of comically bewildering questions during these adventures as an archaeologist. Some have made a beeline for the insect kingdom, assuming I’m all about ants because of the whole “ANThropology” mix-up. Others, clearly inspired by Jurassic Park, have inquired if I’ve ever had a close encounter with dinosaur remains. These misconceptions are, unfortunately, quite common, highlighting the esoteric nature of archaeology and anthropology for many. 

So, have you ever thought that archaeology was solely about unearthing ancient bones and relics? It’s time to reconsider! Archaeology isn’t just about delving into the past; it’s a lens through which we understand our present and how our everyday objects may be perceived by future generations. To demystify archaeology, there is a need that the knowledge it produces should accessible. Appreciating the discipline means that we must dispel the misconceptions and define what it truly entails. 

Traditionally, archaeology has been perceived as the study of human history by excavating and analyzing artifacts, architecture, and biofacts from the distant past. Indeed, it’s about piecing together the puzzles of past societies, from the opulence of their cities to the simplicity of their daily utensils, to form a picture of life as it was lived centuries or even millennia ago. However, this narrow view obscures the vital role archaeology plays in not only revealing our past but also understanding our present and informing our future. 

From ancient artifacts to today’s trash

But hold onto your fedoras, because archaeology has undergone a modern makeover. No longer just the study of the deep past, it’s now thumbing through the pages of the present, sizing up today’s world as tomorrow’s history. It involves the examination of modern-day “artifacts” and “sites” — from our digital footprints to the garbage of consumer culture — providing insight into our current societies. By redefining archaeology to include the present, we make it more accessible and relevant, inviting people to see that every object in our daily lives has a story and that they, too, are part of the ongoing human narrative. This approach demystifies archaeology, transforming it from a distant scholarly pursuit into a living, breathing study of human existence that everyone can relate to and learn from.

For example, do you know what happens to your Jollibee Chickenjoy boxes? You can be a time traveler in your own backyard, uncovering the not-so-ancient relics of daily Filipino life, just like future archaeologists sifting through the now-vintage debris of the early 21st century.

Their first find? A vibrant collection of Jollibee boxes and wrappers, each a mini time capsule of family outings and quick lunch breaks. These colorful artifacts might lead to spirited discussions among future historians about the cultural significance of fast food in Filipino society. Did Jollibee truly outdo McDonald’s in the local fast-food wars? These fried chicken boxes and wrappers could be the key evidence and could spark debates among future historians about the legendary Chickenjoy; whether it really brought joy or just cholesterol.

With an accessible archaeology, it becomes less of a scholarly enigma and more of a reality show we’re all unwittingly starring in. Every coffee cup, every beer bottle, every tweet, is a breadcrumb in the trail of our collective story. So, let’s embrace this newly spruced-up archaeology, where every moment is a potential exhibit, and every one of us is a curator in the making. It’s a study of human life that invites everyone to the table — no time machine needed.

Speaking of time machine, the archaeological richness of the Philippines offers an appreciation for our deep heritage, with the potential to uncover stories that have been overshadowed by the dominant narratives of colonialism. In this context, archaeology shines as a beacon, illuminating the lives of pre-colonial societies. The Philippines boasts a diverse range of sites, from the early human evidence found in Rizal, Kalinga dating back to 700,000 years ago, to the 20th-century American logging concessions in Bicol. These sites attest to the varied societies that have flourished across the archipelago. Particularly unique to the Philippines are the Butuan plank-built and edge-pegged wooden boats, discovered in waterlogged environments and dating from the 4th to the 13th centuries C.E.

These are not mere remnants of the past, but are voices that refute the idea that our islands were isolated from the rest of the world. They remind us that our heritage is not just a chapter in someone else’s history book but a story of its own — intricate and compelling.

The narrative of the Philippines is still being written by Indigenous communities like the Ifugao, the Lumad, the Aeta, among others. Their living history, expressed through enduring rituals and crafts, is a bridge from our past to our present, knowledge systems that withstand the test of time. However, engaging with this heritage demands both celebration and caution. Deeper dives into specific sites, explorations of archaeology’s role in shaping cultural identity, and acknowledgements of ethical considerations regarding Indigenous communities can enrich our understanding. Beyond appreciation, Filipinos can become active stewards of their archaeological heritage, participating in research, preservation, and educational initiatives, ensuring this rich chapter in their history continues to inspire and empower future generations.

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Archaeology today is more than just history

There exists a gap between archaeology and the public. The former often seems esoteric, reserved for scholars and history enthusiasts, but it doesn’t have to be. The archaeologists’ mission is to break down these barriers, to make archaeology as relatable and accessible as our legends. By translating academic jargon into captivating stories, we bring the past alive, inviting everyone to see themselves as part of this continuum.

Archaeology in the Philippines is more than an exploration of the past; it’s an engaged dialogue with the present, addressing today’s challenges of urban development and cultural preservation. It’s about ensuring that the lessons we unearth benefit everyone, respecting the voices of those whose histories are told.

In our classrooms, these stories enrich the curriculum, giving students a nuanced view of their heritage. They’re not just academic lessons; they inform policies and practices that honor and protect our cultural legacy, integrating the past into the living narrative of our nation.

In my work, I’ve learned to see archaeology as a key not only to our past but also to informing our future. As we face the challenges of climate change, our understanding of human-environment interactions is crucial for developing sustainable management policies for our landscapes and resources.

Through this journey, archaeology has revealed to me that every potsherd of pottery and each buried artifact is part of a larger story — our story. It’s a narrative that includes us all, a narrative that continues to unfold. It’s a discipline that connects the remnants beneath our feet to the lineage of those who came before us. By making archaeology accessible, we’re inviting everyone into a conversation about our shared heritage, demonstrating that these fragments are, indeed, chapters of a collective saga.

Archaeology is for everyone

Back to air travel, we can reduce our impact on the environment by prioritizing essential travel, combining multiple purposes into a single trip to reduce frequency, and actively engage in carbon offsetting measures. Additionally, advocating for and choosing airlines that invest in fuel-efficient aircraft and sustainable aviation fuels can help mitigate the environmental impact. 

Our travels and power needs contribute to the making of the archaeological record, especially with our use of fossil fuels. The emissions from our daily activities form part of the archaeological record, evident in sediment and ice core layers that reveal historical atmospheric conditions. These emissions contribute to climate change, impacting the preservation and condition of archaeological sites and artifacts. Additionally, the rise in carbon emissions affects radiocarbon dating techniques, necessitating adjustments to maintain accuracy in dating recent objects.

As such, archaeology shouldn’t be an abstract and esoteric concept locked in the past; it’s alive, dynamic, and evolving. It offers a place where we can view the journey of our nation and ourselves. Archaeology doesn’t mean everyone will have to dig; stakeholders can participate by being critical of the work of archaeologists. It’s a field that doesn’t just belong to the archaeologists; it belongs to us all — a heritage we share, a narrative we continue to shape together. As we look to the future, let us carry the lessons of the past with us to create a story that future generations will be proud to tell. –

Stephen Acabado is professor of anthropology at the University of California-Los Angeles. He directs the Ifugao and Bicol Archaeological Projects, research programs that engage community stakeholders. He grew up in Tinambac, Camarines Sur. He can be reached at   

A trowel (/ˈtraʊ.əl/), in the hands of an archaeologist, is like a trusty sidekick – a tiny, yet mighty, instrument that uncovers ancient secrets, one well-placed scoop at a time. It’s the Sherlock Holmes of the excavation site, revealing clues about the past with every delicate swipe.


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  1. ET

    Thanks to Prof. Stephen Acabado for this very inspiring article. It links to two phases of time: present and future, and to three subjects: culture, economics, and climate change. Lastly, I would love to read how Prof. Acabado will link Anthropology to the Political and Military Sciences.

    1. ET

      Second sentence correction: It links Anthropology to two phases …. (Sorry.)

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