A Theme for Archaeology

Uzi Baram

Professor of Anthropology, New College of Florida

Themes and Theming

Vacation spots have themes. Restaurants have themes. Malls have themes. Theme parks are, by definition, themed. Sociologist Mark Gottdiener in a 1996 book The Theming of America: Dreams, Visions and Commercial Spaces brought a term for consideration of social experiences: theming. Professor Gottdiener noticed the use of symbols and signs to integrate experience at a place. The most famous and successful example of theming is the Disney World theme park, with the mouse ears recognizable seemingly across all generations and social groups. Driving on I-4, the transmission tower is easily recognizable and connected to Disney World. That is successful theming.


Archaeology is a source for theming. Archaeological artifacts invoke history and adventure. So Busch Gardens, which is a theme park using Africa for inspiration, has a subsection for its Ancient Egypt area as seen in the Egyptology restaurant, gift shop, playground, and exhibit. Egyptology is just the most popular of archaeo-themes for theme parks.

Theming is not just for American theme parks. For the tourists to the famous archaeological site of Troy in Turkey, there is a replica of a horse. There has been a horse at Troy for decades; in 2004 after the Warner Brothers film, a new replica for tourists to photograph and climb was donated to stress the Homeric theme for the location.

Archaeology is a source for themes but archaeology is also themed. In the Middle East archaeological expeditions have been named after benefactors for decades, and many have logos that go nicely on tee-shirts. In the USA, the excavations are focused to highlight particular issues although most present the titles as informative for the research focused on the place or time period. In a 2005 essay in the SAA Archaeological Bulletin, I raised concerns over the competing demands of heritage tourism, with its want for themes, and academic research. But even then I realized themes do help with communication, clarifying the intent and goals for a research project in a concise manner.

Themes for Heritage Interpretation

I learned to appreciate theming as a member of the interdisciplinary public anthropology program Looking for Angola , the search for material remains of an early 19th century maroon community. At first when I presented on the project, I would start with a long discussion of the time period and then the meaning of the term maroon. The questions from the audience focused on techniques and the challenges of excavations. But when I heard historian Canter Brown Jr. in Vickie Oldham’s 2006 video Looking for Angola invoke the project in terms of freedom, I realized the clunkiness dissolved. An archaeology of freedom allowed concise, productive presentations. At public presentations where I explained the goal of freedom in early 19th century, the questions raised by audiences brought out the details of the larger historical context and a concern for the descendant communities – a more satisfying dynamic, more in line with the anthropology of the program and the social justice goals of the project.

So as I plan my next public anthropology program in partnership with Sarasota County, at Phillippi Estate Park, there are multiple steps before engaging the public but I am thinking about themes as well. What is the archaeology of trust at Phillippi Creek?

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