What watching the A-Team taught me about archaeology


As a young boy, I fondly recall watching episodes of the A-Team every week with my family. I remember snuggling deep into my Star Wars pajamas and curling up with a bowl of ice cream while we all watched Mr. T and the gang punch, blast, and shoot their way out of so many unrealistic, preposterous situations. I also loved the introduction monologue: “If you have a problem. If no one else can help. If you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.” (Queue: star-spangled action music and paramilitary montage of destruction). Man, how great (and appropriate) it was to be an elementary school kid and see grown men unload machine guns and blow up vehicles without harming a single soul. Aaaaah, the 80s. Aaaaah, memories.

What I didn’t know is how many life lessons I’d learn from watching the A-Team. While recently watching an A-Team episode on Netflix, I realized that I’d probably learned some valuable lessons that are immediately applicable to my career as an archaeologist.

In the two-part series “The Big Bend in the River” (Season 3, Episodes 2 and 3), the A-Team is hired to rescue their friend Tawnia Baker’s fiancée– an archaeologist named Brian Leftcourt who is searching for the lost city of Del Rio. The city is, of course, lost deep in the Brazilian Amazon (However, when the A-Team and Leftcourt find it, the city has been completely cleared of vegetation which means it would have been clearly visible from the air). The series begins when Leftcourt goes into the Amazon alone and, through the use of some exceedingly superstitious “native” guides, he gets captured by river pirates. That’s when things get really interesting and create a reason to call– the A-Team.

This pair of A-Team episodes is a classic example of 1980’s prime time action and adventure television. The plot has a twist that ends up giving the A-Team a reason to thwart the construction of a nuclear power plant in the middle of the Amazon, which makes them not only protectors of valuable cultural resources but also protectors of the environment. (I won’t tell you how they go from rescuing a friend to teaming up with the pirates in order to halt construction on a clandestine nuclear reactor in the Amazon. You’ll have to watch in order to witness this quirky turn of events.)

Aside from nearly overwhelming nostalgia and a strong desire to empty my bank account on gold chains and wear them around my neck all at the same time, I realized that while I was watching these powerful episodes I was also learning several valuable career lessons that I could use in the field. Here are some of the lessons I learned:

1.  We stick out like a sore thumb, especially in foreign places– In case you didn’t know, archaeologists stick out like a sore thumb almost everywhere we go. I have an almost bloodhound-like sense for sniffing out other archaeologists in public settings. Usually, our personalities are a combination of Jack Kerouac-style hipster that has cross bred with a hippie and mixed a little Crocodile Hunter adventurism in with the worst of an uptight librarian. Sometimes I’m wrong and mistake biologists or other graduates of the college of natural sciences as archaeologists, but you can really tell us apart once you hear one of us start talking.

This episode further highlighted how much we stick out from “normal” society. Of course, Leftcourt in the A-Team episode looked like a safari hunter in the same vein of Stanley Livingston, which meant he stuck out even more than a 1980s archaeologist would have in the jungles of Brazil. He was also carrying a gun (but that’s not too out of the ordinary for American archaeologists, especially in the American West). The main thing I took away from Leftcourt’s costume was that we archaeologists are a separate social group that has a unique identity that puts us apart from the other “normals.” Embracing this fact will help you “adjust” to society was well as possible. Normals are boring while archaeologists are interesting.

2.  Instead of listening to locals, we think we already know everything– Leftcourt does not listen to his native river guides when they warn him that the upcoming stretch of the river is the known domain of the sinister pirate El Cajon. Leftcourt briefly blathers about having paid the guide to take him up river and isn’t afraid of any mythological river pirates. Guess what? In less than 2 minutes after being warned of inherent danger, Leftcourt has been captured by El Cajon. Less than 30 minutes later, other villains are beating the crap out of him in hopes that he will disclose the location of the lost city of Del Rio.

This part of the episodes just reinforces the fact that, oftentimes, we archaeologists act like we’re the only ones that know about the past and are the sole guardians of history. I have seen the folly of this position many times. In fact, I’ve been guilty of it myself as I wrote in the book “Small Archaeology Project Management.” Sometimes it’s difficult to listen to the locals and try to incorporate vernacular information into our interpretations. But, incorporating locals into the archaeological process provides for richer interpretations, spreads goodwill within the local community, and empowers others to take charge of maintaining their own heritage.

I’ve also seen a number of archaeologists that, armed with a historical background, a research design, and GIS data, enter the field looking for a specific type of site or archaeological manifestation and overlook several other datasets in the process. I know archaeology and CRM forces us to behave and operate in rote ways, but we must always stay mindful of other opportunities and other varieties of data that inevitably come up through comprehensive archaeological work. We can still address our preconceived research design questions while also incorporating the happenstance stuff we acquired as well.

3.  We care nothing for gold and jewels– Once Leftcourt’s fiancée Tawnia discovers he’s gone missing, she heads straight to the L.A. condominium of the A-Team’s leader Hannibal. Hannibal is extremely interested in finding the lost city, which supposedly contains a rich “treasure” (the word ‘treasure’ is interpreted by the A-Team members as meaning gold, but, at the end of the series, they realize it means ‘archaeological data’ that may come in the form of gold. This must have pissed them off as much as bottle hunters that don’t find Antiques Roadshow-worthy artifacts after they destroy a privy). When Hannibal asks how much gold could be recovered from the lost city, Tawnia quickly explains that Leftcourt has a PhD in archaeology and is interested in the city purely for the archaeological data it can provide on early Peruvian tribes (She also goes on to explain that they are to be married after he has discovered the city’s “treasure”. Throughout the episodes she situationally vacillates between discussing the site based on its monetary value or scientific value).

This conversation is one of many that take place throughout the episodes where Leftcourt, and sometimes Tawnia, remind the A-Team and others of the information potential of the site. Leftcourt is an archetypal archaeologist that seems to be un-phased by the fact that the site may contain artifacts that may have high monetary value. He doggedly pursues the site purely for its scientific value, risking his life in the process. Nobody else seems to be interested in much more than its monetary value.

The differences in motivations, values, and goals between Leftcourt and the other characters is an example of how everybody except for Leftcourt is interested in the value of the gold rather than the data the site contains. This is an example of a real-life dialectical dilemma that plagues conversations between the public and archaeologists. It is rare that any of us encounter gold hordes during archaeological excavations, but, most of the time, we consider these items artifacts– bits of data that simply compose a small piece of the puzzle. Our careers are built on collecting data, rather than artifacts or treasure. Also, archaeologists that take artifacts are oftentimes ostracized by those of us purists that do not loot sites. There is a self-imposed line between those of us that do archaeology (i.e. investigate sites for their value) and looters (folks that dig sites for the stuff). This A-Team episode simply highlights this division.

4.  No matter how much you physically abuse us, we won’t willingly disclose a site location to a non-archaeologist– Leftcourt is physically beaten when he refuses to tell the pirates the exact location of the city of Del Rio. While we don’t actually see them striking Leftcourt, he is manhandled, placed in stocks, and shown with a battered and bloody face. All of that just to protect an archaeological site? Kudos, Brian.

I don’t know many archaeos that would take physical abuse just to protect a site’s location. Most of us would tell the pirates where it was at if they simply aimed a gun at us. Hell, I’d probably tell them if they just yelled at me and pushed me down in the mud.

While Leftcourt’s situation is extreme and unlikely, most of us regularly suppress site locations from the general public. This is mostly because we have the very real fear that members of the public will loot the site; however, this also keeps the members of society with good intentions from enjoying archaeological sites on their own. A few sleazy looters (some of whom have television shows) have made us wary of telling the general public about their own cultural heritage. It also reinforces our position as the unsung protectors and arbiters of cultural resources, which can make the general public angry that their perspectives and knowledge is rarely considered (see Lesson 2 above).

Conclusion: The A-Team is a teaching tool

The Big Bend in the River episodes of the A-Team are an excellent example of Hollywood/the general public’s perception of archaeology. This series speaks volumes about how television has crafted a stage persona for archaeologists that is a far cry from reality. Most of us are already aware of this, which is probably why we wanted to do archaeology in the first place. But, there is a small kernel of reality behind this and every show involving archaeologists.

The fictional archaeologist in the episodes has several traits that are typical of real-world archaeologists. It is these few traits that, believe it or not, made me think about my own career and how I behave at work. I wouldn’t take physical abuse just to protect an archaeology site, but I am socially awkward in many situations. I suffer from conducting archaeological projects based on my own preconceived notions and research interests and I tend to discount public input (Although in recent years I have worked hard to ameliorate the problems that arise from the last two character traits). I also tend not to disclose site locations to members of the general public that I meet, unless I know them well.

As a young boy I always thought I’d learn a lot by watching MacGyver, but I never thought I’d learn anything from watching the A-Team. Turns out that the opposite is true: MacGyver taught me that his gadgets are fake (believe me, I tried out dozens of them) while the A-Team continues to teach me lessons.

Who am I kidding? I just love watching the A-Team, MacGyver, and other 1980s action heroes blow stuff up, crash cars, and hit people. Always have, always will. If you haven’t already decided to watch this awesome cinematic treasure, I highly recommend you go on Netflix (https://signup.netflix.com/) or Hulu (http://www.hulu.com/) and stream it right now.

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