An American archaeologist in England: Perceptions of the past

Submitted by Mike Johnson (

Around this time last year, as I prepared to board a plane and begin my MA program in the United Kingdom, I began to ask myself if the complication and expense of continuing my education in the UK was really worth it. Could these folks with their “sophisticated” accents, meat-pies, and flat ale really give me some deeper insight into the nature and value of archaeology? Is it possible that they possess some knowledge of archaeology that we lack here in the United States? As the year went on, I gradually came to the realization that while the model of education was different, it was the environment that bespoke a fundamentally different relationship with the past.

cathedral_snow_CU                                                                                                                                           Mike’s first day in Durham viewing the castle and cathedral

Stepping off the plane and boarding a train for Durham, I immediately came to notice how the modern environment was constructed around that of the old. In Newcastle, as one crosses the rail bridge over the River Tyne, the most striking sight is that of the castle itself, surrounded by modern constructions. Indeed, no matter where one looks, structures and artifacts are pervasive, and many continue today as functional entities. This is something that is not apparent in the US. Certainly, we have our Mount Vernon’s and our Monticello’s, but these are unique places that have been preserved as specific examples and sit in isolation, almost as museum pieces. The rest, be it Colonial or Native American, is all too often destroyed or ignored.

I experienced a similar, albeit far more profound phenomenon as I traveled to Istanbul to speak with a professor at Koç University. As an ancient city, one cannot walk anywhere in Istanbul without being confronted with some part of antiquity. Having studied Turkish archaeology, I was already well acquainted with the amounts of money the Turkish Government had thrown at archaeological investigation in past years. But what struck me particularly was the level of pride and engagement I saw in speaking with local people. Being surrounded by the past created a fundamental sense of belonging for them.

cathedral_snow                                                                                                                                            Mike’s view of the first snows in Durham 2011.

So, as I boarded the plane to return home with my shiny new education, I came to the realization that while my professors were excellent archaeologists and had taught me well, the greater experience came from living in and amongst the creations of a time long past. The University of Durham is situated in an old cathedral town, built to protect the bones of St. Cuthbert from Viking raiders. It is not a big place and that makes the effect all the more acute. As you awaken and are faced with a view of the castle and cathedral, structures which have stood for the better part of a millennium and will continue to stand long into the future, there is a distinct sense of connectedness and belonging, a sensation that you are not simply passing through time, but are in fact a part of it.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson recently returned to Atlanta after completing his M.A. in Archaeology from the University of Durham in the United Kingdom. Mike received his B.A. in Anthropology from the Georgia State University in 2009 and is a member of the Greater Atlanta Archaeological Society (GAAS).