From Stonehenge to Las Vegas. Archaeology as Popular Culture.

Lanham: Altamira Press 2005.  ISBN 0759102678

by Cornelius Holtorf, Linnaeus University, Kalmar, Sweden


"Well, you couldn’t accuse this book jacket of being boring! Fluorescent yellow meets fuchsia pink perhaps symbolizing the culture clash between Stonehenge and Las Vegas. The title may sound a bit iffy but the people quoted on the back of the book (Michael Shanks, Neal Ascherson and Charles E. Orser Jr) seems to like it so I open the cover. Once again, I found the book much more readable and appealing than I had imagined and it wasn’t a pastiche of jargon and high-faluting ideas that attempted to justify archaeology’s recent ‘trendification’.

"Archaeology and history permeate places in our contemporary world, and minds, that would have been impossible to conceive of a hundred years ago, but what is it that we want from it. Do we want to be educated, bombarded with facts about the past, or are we looking for something much more meaningful to our everyday lives? From Stonehenge to Las Vegas is Cornelius Holtorfs journey to find an answer to this question, to discover why archaeology remains so popular and seemingly relevant to todays society, and what role it performs. In doing so he inevitably questions the role of archaeologists, and those that purport to bridge the gulf between the past and present, asking whether they are building on a vast database of knowledge about the past or whether archaeology as a science has become archaeology as popular culture. This book is for everyone who is interested in the past and wants to discover why they visit museums and ancient sites, why they watch Indiana Jones and Lara Croft with a longing to be like them, why they feel the need to travel to distant places to immerse themselves in the history of other cultures and whether archaeology is not so much about the past, but about how we remember and use it." (Oxbow Feature, October 2005)

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Some appreciations:
"This is a provocative and intensely thought-provoking book. All archaeologists may not agree with it, but they will be compelled to read and digest it. Holtorf sets a new agenda for archaeology, imploring us to see it as popular culture. Bold and assertive, Holtorf promotes archaeology as a field actually focused on our own culture in the present, and he courageously argues that the past is a renewable resource. This is a must for all readers interested in the meaning of archaeology, history, heritage management, and memory. It's a trend setter for the future." (Charles E. Orser Jr., endorsement)
"the volume distills a decade of research across the globe with Holtorf's own studies to set a new agenda for thinking about archaeological theory and practice in the modern world." (Howard Williams, Anthropology Review Database) read the review in full...
"In this witty and pungently intelligent book, Holtorf challenges archaeology to look in the reflexive mirror and learn to understand itself in new ways. Archaeology, he argues, is about the present rather than the past, and about the living rather than the dead. The discipline is not so much a science as a powerful emanation of popular culture, created by the dreams, metaphors and fantasies of contemporary society. Holtorf, one of the most exciting of radical young archaeologists, overturns one received idea after another. He deconstructs the notion of authenticity--and, heretically--alleges that the past is a renewable resource. Heritage is being created faster than it is being lost; sites are valuable because they are protected, and not vice versa. Using a wealth of examples and vivid illustrations, Holtorf describes the process by which artefacts and monuments are re-used and refunctioned, and awarded new meanings. In one of the 'Theses' attached to each chapter, he declares that, 'the process of doing archaeology is more important than its results.' Written for the general reader as much as the specialist, From Stonehenge to Las Vegas is a sparkling flow of ideas, and an outstanding contribution to the theory of archaeology." (Neal Ascherson, endorsement)
"Today we are all archaeologists. Cornelius Holtorf has done a superb job unraveling the archaeological aspects of our contemporary culture. It is a wonderful read." (Michael Shanks, endorsement)
"Cornelius Holtorf's playfulness should not be misunderstood as frivolity, but as an authorial intervention better equipped than reportage to deal with issues that he argues could 'redefine the academic meaning of the term archaeology' (p. vii). ... Despite its overt postmodernism (though Holtorf could be called a processualist for believing 'the process of doing archaeology is much more important than its results' - p. 74), there is a deliciously Marxist commitment to unmasking. ... From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: archaeology as popular culture is a great roadmap by which one can, in Benjaminesque fashion, get productively lost and hopefully take a few people along for the ride." (Sven Ouzman, Public Archaeology 6.1, 2007) 
"From Stonehenge to Las Vegas will ... influence readers to contemplate a cultural anthropology of modern archaeology and will be useful for sparking debates in graduate seminars dedicated to public archaeology, public history, or CRM. Heritage managers may also find it helpful for planning related to public outreach. Whatever use one makes of it, this book is provocative and should inspire professional archaeologists to rekindle the senses of wonder that attracted them to this discipline in the first place." (Kelly Dixon, Historical Archaeology 41, 2007)
"Holtorf ruminates on archaeology, popular culture, and interpretation in a cheerfully iconoclastic fashion that will rile many." Reference & Research Book News 2005 (unauthored) read the review in full...
"Even if I change my mind utterly and decide that Holtorf is wrong on every single issue, I’d still argue it’s a good book, because it’s well-reasoned and thought-provoking and I’d rather read something that was wrong for interesting reasons than right for dull ones. And if there’s one thing that Holtorf’s work tends to be, it’s interesting." (Alun Salt, 21 September 2005) read the review in full...
"... Holtorfs Buch zeigt, dass längst eine internationale Debatte über Authentizität eingesetzt hat, die von deutschen Denkmalpflegebehörden und Hochschulen fast gar nicht wahrgenommen wird. In Deutschland werden die Stichworte «Disneyland» und «Las Vegas» noch immer eifrig benutzt, um Rekonstruktionsvorhaben zu verunglimpfen. Für Holtorf ist «Las Vegas» nicht negativ besetzt. Er sieht die Chancen, die die moderne Erlebnisgesellschaft für ein positives Image der Archäologie bietet..... Holtorfs Buch wirft festgefahrene Meinungen durcheinander. Ein mutiges Buch..." (Matthias Donat, 3/2005) read the review in full... (pdf file)
"Cornelius Holtorf’s From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture is one of those lovely books where you may disagree with half of what the author is saying but still read avidly to the end to see where he is taking you. (...) Archaeologists and others in the heritage industry would do well to take note of what he says, particularly as heritage tourism looks set to increase; as the local ownership and management of archaeological resources becomes ever more desirable; and as it becomes increasingly important to enhance the public profile of archaeology in this country." (Natalie Swanepoel, South African Archaeological Bulletin, 2005)

Full list of debate and reviews:

forthcoming Russian Archaeology (Viktor Trifonov)

forthcoming Australian Archaeology 2008 (Claire Smith)

2008 "Should archaeology be in the service of 'popular culture'? A theoretical and political critique of Cornelius Holtorf's vision of archaeology." Antiquity 82, 488-492 (Kristian Kristiansen, with a reply by Cornelius Holtorf)

2008 Prehistoric Fiction: Swigart, Lessing, and 10,000 BC. Kris's Archaeology Blog (Kris Hirst) click here

2007 Public Archaeology  6 (1), 64-67 (Sven Ouzman)

2007 Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 13, 481-482 (Jennifer Wallace)

2007 Historical Archaeology 41 (2), 192-193 (Kelly Dixon) click here

2007 Anthropology Review Database (Howard Williams) click here

2006 Norwegian Archaeological Review 2006 , 172-177 (Eleanor Casella, with a reply by Cornelius Holtorf)

2006 Fornvännen 101, 295-296 (Anders Högberg) click here

2006 Arkaeologisk Forum no. 15, 20-26 (Mads D. Jessen, with a reply by Cornelius Holtorf)

2006 Muang Boran Journal 32, 147-152 (Thanik Lertcharnrit)

2005 Reference & Research Book News, 1 August 2005 (unauthored) click here

2005 Ethnographisch-Archäologische Zeitschrift 46, 549-552 (Stefan Altekamp)

2005 South African Archaeological Bulletin 60 (182), 127 (Natalie Swanepoel)

2005 CHOICE Review; book wrongly attributed to Thomas J. Green (C. S. Peebles) click here

2005 Rundbrief Theorie-AG 4/2/2005, 30-36 (Stefan Burmeister)

2005 Meddelelser fra Klassisk Arkæologisk Forening no. 59, 30-33 (Troels Myrup Kristensen)

2005 META  4/2005, 38-46 (Bodil Petersson)

2005 3/2005 (Matthias Donath), click here (pdf)

2005, 21 September 2005 (Alun Salt) click here