I help smart sceptics who like to question things use neuroscience, coaching & philosophy to create a  better life and maybe even a better planet.

Why Archaeology + Coaching Don’t Study the Past

One of the first things I learnt when I started studying archaeology was that archaeologists don’t study the past. Wait, what? – Yes, it confused me at first. But bear with me. There are at least two ways to think of this.

Archaeology is the study of human behaviour using the material culture (stuff) that people leave behind. But that material culture exists in the present. We are looking at objects in the present and need to understand what has happened to them since they were discarded in the past to be able to say anything meaningful about them. We don’t assume that how they are now is how they always were. Is there a bit missing? Have the colours changed?

The objects we study in the present were created in the past – but not everything that was created in the past survives. Even somewhere like Pompeii, which is endlessly fascinating, doesn’t preserve everything. Of course, some things were burnt up in the event, but even beyond that, it is not a full representation. Think about the smells, the sounds… the ideas of the people and how they thought about the objects around them… so much is gone.

Secondly, the material culture people leave behind doesn’t in and of itself say anything about human behaviour. We need to understand how the stuff was used and what value it might have had for the people who used it, in order to make it mean anything at all. That story telling – attaching meaning – interpreting the objects and assemblages of objects –that is done in the present. We construct stories. They may or may not be the same stories that the people in the past attached to their objects. We are interpreting what is left in the present and bringing meanings in the present – both. We cannot completely remove our present-day ideas from our interpretation.

How does this relate to coaching?



One of the concepts I learnt in coach training was ‘we treat the scar not the wound’. This means (to me) that coaching isn’t focused on looking back in detail to the reasons for things that happened to you in the past to ‘explain’ the present… (although past events come up sometimes). We are not trying to dissect the root causes of things – although sometimes people need to do that work first (and sometimes they do it at the same time as working through coaching). Coaching is more about looking at behaviour in the present and the thoughts we have that aren’t helping us move towards our preferred way of being in the world – regardless of what the past ‘cause’ of these thoughts or behaviours might have been.

Secondly, if we are suffering it is only ever because of what is happening in the present, regardless of how much we think it is the fault of past hurts. If something from our past is still hurting us – it is hurting us in the present. It is the present thoughts and experience that are causing us pain. For example if someone criticises us and we are hurt, we react. Once the event itself is long gone we cannot continue to be hurt in the past – but we may continue to reimagine the hurt and our brain experiences this in the same way. Or we may continue to dwell on what we think that past hurt means. Either way, the meaning we make about what happened to us and the sensation of the past experience takes place in the present.

While coaching cannot erase the hurt we felt in the past (nor would we necessarily want to in many cases), it can help us examine the way we are experiencing it in the present. It can allow us to consider the meanings, the stories we continue to tell ourselves about the event (told in the present) and change how we chose to experience our interpretations.

As someone who has spent a lot of time looking at the past, I absolutely think that it can be a useful source of information and we can learn things from studying it – especially with some detachment. But/and ultimately all we have is the present moment. Wishing that the past were different or thinking we can control the future only brings us suffering. Through coaching we can start to become more aware of our present thoughts/behaviours and the hold they have on us. We can take a step back and examine ourselves. We can look to disrupt or overwrite behaviours in the present to change how we respond – to change the patterns that we built in our past.

Interpreting the past starts with understanding that the interpretation is happening in the present. This is true for both archaeology and coaching.

Do you want to talk about past patterns? Present suffering? What the future holds? Sign up for a free call to discuss.