Preserving the Sex Pistols’ graffiti is an archaeological swindle

Comparing the scribblings of the Sex Pistols to cave art is a rotten attempt to drag archaeology into populist culture. Archaeologists should know better

Graffiti showing Johnny Rotten (left) and cave paintings in the Chauvet cave in south-east France. Photograph: National News and Pictures and AP

Archaeologists must get sick of kneeling in the rain, mud soaking into their jeans, trying to identify an ancient coin as sceptical farmers look on. They must get fed up of spending years analysing the foundations of a Roman villa, only for all trace of their discovery to be covered up by a road or a housing estate.

They try to get their message (that the past is magical) across to a superficial world. They dress up as Vikings to take school groups around a dig. They write books bubbling with matey phrases and contemporary comparisons. But still the relentless juggernaut of stupidity rumbles down the motorway, and archaeologists flip their lids.

I am just trying to understand the thought processes that have led archaeologists writing in the journal Antiquity to call for Sex Pistols graffiti in a London house to be preserved and cherished in the name of “anti-heritage”. They compare the wall drawings, mostly by John Lydon, with Paleolithic cave art.

The argument is bizarre for several reasons. When it comes to preserving the history of punk, how is that an innovative or provocative idea? Ever since Greil Marcus and Jon Savage wrote serious tomes on the Sex Pistols, the band have been recognised as fodder for cultural analysis and reverence. Lydon got so fed up with the pretensions of critical writing on the Pistols that he wrote his own memoir, giving his more down to earth version of the story.

From the point of view of Marcus’s book Lipstick Traces, the moment when the Sex Pistols tore through the fabric of reality would constitute an epochal event, worthy of commemoration. But the academics behind this latest study seem unaware that such recognitions are now a routine part of cultural history. They suggest putting up a blue plaque as if it was a daring idea to take popular culture seriously. Have they looked at blue plaques in London lately? Near where I live there’s a plaque to Kenneth Williams, star of the Carry on Films. A plaque to the Pistols would ruffle no feathers whatsoever.

Their real agenda is to provoke their own profession, to imply that archaeology should be about graffiti as much as it is about cave paintings. But here they are being the very opposite of subversive. Everything in our culture glorifies the immediate, the contemporary, and – as George Costanza once put it in Seinfeld – “stuff we don’t have to think about too much.” Archaeology has a subversive vocation to resist this shallow culture and make us recognise the existence of profoundly different pasts on our own soil.

The news stories that have leapt on the Sex Pistols “cave art” show how these disillusioned archaeologists are just playing to the prejudices of modern culture. Of course people love to be told the Pistols are more important than the remote past. But there is absolutely nothing subversive about such a claim. It is the cliched dumbness of our age. Archaeology has a duty to be different; this daft argument betrays that vocation.

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