When Karl Marx was interred in London’s Highgate Cemetery in 1883, two messages were inscribed on his tombstone. The first was a paraphrase of the famous conclusion of The Communist Manifesto, “Workers of all lands unite.” Below this line, a second message taken from Marx’s posthumously published Theses on Feuerbach was eternally etched in the stone, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways – The point however is to change it.”
It has been suggested that Marx kept the second line as well as the other ten theses on Feuerbach prominently displayed above his writing desk as a constant reminder of the purpose of his work.
As a reminder, these words were constantly referenced and consistently drove the production of works that were not mere philosophical wordplays, but instead, attempts to change the world by ideas put into action through the act of writing.
I offer this paraphrase:
“Archaeologists have only interpreted the world in various ways – The point however is to change it.”
For some of you, this phrase may already be your reminder of why you do archaeology. For others, the phrase may seem tremendously foreign, unscientific, and, perhaps even, ahem, “too political.”
Yet, I argue that anyone who studies the past does indeed affect the present and, in that way, affects the future. I would go so far as to say that an archaeology that does not serve the present in hopes of a more enlightened future is an archaeology that is not worth doing.
This is not to say that archaeology should become a mere reflection of the binary political system in the United States nor should it become the embodiment of the “liberal academy” to which David Horowitz and Fox News pundits ascribe such vitriol.
This is to say that the past is power.
Those who study the past hold in their hands a powerful tool in the fight against ignorance, in the fight against hatred, and in the fight against human beings’ inhumanity to their fellow beings. They also have a tremendous responsibility not only to the past individual who is their “object” of study, but also to the people of the present whose existence rests on the foundation of that past.
When asked, “Can archaeologists change the world?,” I answer, “We already do.”
This statement may seem strange or uncomfortable to many of you. But, I ask you to look deeper into your archaeological practice and I believe that you will find a truth in these words. “Change” does not necessarily mean uniting the workers of the world or overthrowing corrupt political regimes or ending global warming. It might. But, it does not have to be such grandiose “change.” In fact, I argue that none of those changes can be carried out by a single individual, but instead by the collective actions of many individuals who see a possibility for something different.
I am reminded of the reported statement by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, “We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.”
There is no more precise statement of truth than this one. And, once we realize that we have no choice as archaeologists but to change the world, we need to recognize the critical importance of guiding that change through our being and through our practice.
The Public Education and Interpretation Committee has allowed me to chart a new course for our quarterly column. The column will follow the theme of “Being Change” and will begin a dialogue addressing this theme and related issues. With each quarterly SHA Newsletter, a new column will provide critical insight and reflection upon this idea as seen in our practice as archaeologists. We also intend to start a blog to develop these ideas through a format that more closely approximates dialogue, so that as many voices as possible may be involved. Subsequent columns will address these discussions.
I hope that there will be as many voices of dissent as assent. I hope that the dialogue will be civil and productive. I hope that it will engage each participant to think critically about their own practice as well as that of their colleagues. I hope that you will all participate.
But, for those of you who are still not convinced by the idea that archaeologists are active in “being change,” I leave you with the quote that hangs above my own “writing desk” as a constant reminder of the purpose of my work. It is not written by Marx, but by one of America’s most famous transcendentalist philosophers, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and to endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
I hope that we can succeed in being the change that we wish to see.