Do archaeologists like finding things? A recent find of Stoneage artefacts in a previously glaciated landscape has been reported as a boon to archaeology. And many archaeologists are salivating at the thought of more to come.
This exposes a really uncomfortable contradiction within archaeology. Archaeologists do like finding things. We like the thrill of discovery and we like the new data that well recorded finds can bring. But we’ve also been taught through our whole education that excavation is destruction and best avoided. Further, most of the legislative structure which supports archaeology in the Private and Public Sectors is reliant on the argument that the first duty of archaeologists is to preserve archaeological remains in situ.
So how can the glacier find be good news? And in what way is it better news than finds from an excavation prompted and paid for by the building of a motorway or a new building? These circumstances are almost never seen as a boon to archaeology, despite the fact that the destruction is planned, controlled and well recorded. Surely its much better than things appearing from a glacier with no one to pay for their complex analysis and preservation. It reminds me of the ambivalence around the finds of metal detectors – often presented as a boon to archaeology. Again, the recovery of the material is unfunded, and of course a lot of information is usually lost about the context of the material.
While we put a lot of control on research excavations, especially at exciting sites, a new excavation is always greeted with joy especially when rare and delicate materials are uncovered (and in the process the site is destroyed).
The reception of the destruction, the archaeological response to it, is not a factor of what is being destroyed but how it is being destroyed, or even more importantly who is destroying it. So research archaeologists (operating under control and not for the purposes of development) are doing a good job destroying sites. Metal detectors can be doing a good job (according to some people) as long as they are acting under control and reporting their finds to us (are you getting a sense of pattern here). But destruction through development is always descried, even when the results are really useful and indeed often when they have operated under control. All of this exposes archaeology’s anti-modernist pro-control underpinnings.
Which is why I’m concerned by the joy which greeted the glacier find. The glacier is melting because of global warming. This is modernist landscape change at a scale vastly greater than any motorway project. What’s more, the polluter pays principle which funds the investigation of the archaeology of the motorway doesn’t extend to melting glaciers, eroding coastlines etc. This is a cost that must come out of an empty public purse.
I’d like us to be more consistent about whether finding buried things (which always involves destroying something) is an aid or a loss to archaeology.