The Field-Archaeological Paradox
In that context, I of course had to explain the field-archaeological paradox. As I will do in more detail in the following.
Here's the paradox: in most Western countries, a lot of money is spent on field archaeology every year, yet most of it goes into excavating poorly preserved and uninformative sites.
Why is this?
- Almost all excavation money comes from land developers who pay because they're obliged to by law.
- Given the choice between a well-preserved site and a ploughed-over one, land developers try to place their project on the ploughed-over site, because the archaeological fieldwork will be much cheaper and quicker there.
- The county archaeologist's job is to preserve good sites. She will encourage land developers even further to avoid well-preserved sites, and may in some cases even forbid the development of a particularly nice or unusual one.
- To further the twin ends of preservation and economy, archaeologists will be employed to identify an area's archaeological hotspots long before the plans of a highway or railway or housing project are finalised. This gives the engineers the opportunity to slalom around the hotspots.
- If contract archaeologists find something really interesting, then this is a sign either that the evaluation has failed, or that the developer has some priority that overrides cost concerns, e.g. that the topography permits only one placement of a highway.
- Our primary objective is to get interesting new data for research. We should use the money to dig cool sites instead, to hell with the ploughed-over ones!
- Our primary objective is to minimise the damage we do to the archaeological record. If we preserve the cool sites then our great-great-grandchildren will be able to excavate them with much better methods than those available today.
But this discussion is of course academic. There is no way we could persuade land developers that they should pay us to dig where we want to, just because they're building something somewhere else entirely. We should look at land developer money as not quite real. There is in fact hardly any real money in the world for archaeological fieldwork.
[More blog entries about archaeology, Sweden; arkeologi.]