Undergraduate explores serious, irreverent archaeology
Standing in front of the glass pyramids outside the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Sean Silvia is discussing the now-debunked myth that the pyramids of ancient Egypt were built by slave labor. It’s a misconception that dates back to Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian born 2,000 years later.
“Herodotus made the fatal mistake of believing everything the local tour guides told him,” Silvia quips.
A history and archaeology double major with a minor in classics at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Silvia goes on to describe how the pyramid workforce was treated in reality: Archaeological study has indicated that they lived in a diverse “hidden city” under the sand, one served by bakers, craftsmen and farmers. They ate hefty portions of bread, lamb and beef in order to stay strong enough to perform the grueling task of building such a large structure.
Cue the opening credits and song from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
It is this mixture of education and pop culture that characterizes the videos on Archaeologists Anonymous, Silvia’s YouTube channel dedicated to exploring the buildings of the ancient world, as well as the lives of those who lived in it. By mashing up archaeology lessons with a bit of irreverence, he hopes to appeal to a younger general audience, an aspiration reflected in the name of the channel itself. Archaeology, he explained, is often thought of as a field for the tweedy and the aged, and sometimes that stereotype puts off people his age.
“Academia can be intimidating, so having that approachable, relatable, filled-with-memes sort of video can appeal to that person who’s just trying it out,” Silvia said. “I want to be a bridge for folks who like the Percy Jackson book series or Greek mythology or ancient Rome but don’t know much about it.” He hopes his videos spark a greater curiosity in viewers, perhaps leading them to read up on or take courses that cover the ancient world.
Silvia writes, edits and films most of the videos himself; runtimes for most of them range from about five to 15 minutes. A Washington, D.C., native, Silvia often uses the city — itself full of allusions to ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt — as the backdrop of his videos.
Silvia hopes to keep producing the videos throughout the rest of the school year, and possibly beyond. And it’s not just the trilogy of Greece, Rome and Egypt that he wants to cover — after the COVID-19 pandemic dies down, his wish list includes travel to Angkor Wat, Morocco and Iran.
As educational and entertaining as his videos are, Silvia believes archaeology carries serious cultural lessons for today’s world.
“I want to get people to relate to these people of the past and see how they saw things. As young people it’s important for us to learn about the past because it gives us a sense of perspective and empathy,” he said. “I think in this crazy world we live in, having some empathy and perspective is really what we need right now.”