Biblical Archaeology Review 38:3, May/June 2012

First Person: Relics vs. “Real” Archaeology

By Hershel Shanks

After President Lincoln was assassinated, his wife requested a lock of his hair. Others soon made the same request. So his physician clipped a number of small locks of the deceased president’s hair. According to a Washington Post article, one of these locks of hair, the size of an eyebrow, was recently donated to a Gettysburg museum.1 The estimated worth is between $30,000 and $50,000. The superintendent of the park is quoted as saying, “This is one of those special objects that gives you the chills when you see it.”

Not to some highfalutin professional archaeologists.

Relics have a bad name in “real” archaeology.

To many (perhaps most) eminent professional archaeologists, a relic is something to be brushed off your clothes, lest it dirty your credentials.

Real archaeologists are looking at the bigger picture—details of social structure, the sweep of history, the course of civilizations. Relics are, at best, for the public. Real archaeologists have neither time nor interest in relics.

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