The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Tensions Inherent in the Work

So, here's something to consider. When we record archaeological sites, we are required to keep the location information (as well as any information that might lead you to find the location) confidential. The reason for this is that archaeological sites are prone to being looted - that is, they are prone to people locating the site and destroying it in an attempt to find collectable or profitable artifacts. Many sites have been lost due to this - I know of several sites that have been destroyed by everything from shovels to jackhaqmmers to backhoes to a bulldozer, all with the intention of stealing artifacts.

So, the reasons for keeping the information confidential seem pretty clear-cut.

At the same time, the laws that provide for archaeological research to be performed do so under the assumption that there is public interest in such research.

This, it seems to me, creates a weird sort of tension. On the one hand, we are required to protect sites, and that requires that we keep the hidden. On the other hand, we are required to be open about what we find. Now, we do a relatively good job of seperating information from specific locations, and as such we can usually meet the basic requirements to both protect and explain.

However, I often wonder what the long-term result of this tension will be. There is already rumblings both amongst archaeology and the interested public to make site location information available. There are also counter-rumblings amongst the same communities to prevent this from happening. In the end, it's anyone's bet who will win out.

Not the most interesting matter to those outside of my field, I suppose, but it's one of those things that I spend time thinking about.

1 comment:

Jairus Durnett said...

Actually, this is an interesting matter to those outside of the archeology field. Not the most interesting. Getting the lease transferred on my company car would be the most interesting to me, but this is a close second...or fourth.

This matters to the general public not just because it is a part of our history and can lead us to better understand ourselves and our culture, but also because of archeo-tourism.

Opening developed or developing sites can boost the economy of local communities, but not if the sites have been picked over. People (and here I speak for myself) want to see archaeologists at work and want to watch as discoveries are made. I even want to look through the thick windows at the labs where small fragments are cleaned and scanned and cataloged.

Of course, if everything has been stolen from the site except for a couple of rocks that are too big to move, there isn't much to interest me.

The upshot is that - like the scientists themselves - communities near discoveries and tourists are interested in making the locations known, but not before they can be protected.