Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Field-Archaeological Paradox

I gave a short interview this afternoon to national TV. They'll air it on Friday evening as part of a programme on SVT2 called Kulturnyheterna. The topic is skilled yet un-paid labour in culture-related projects, in my case archaeological fieldwork staffed with students.

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?
  1. Almost all excavation money comes from land developers who pay because they're obliged to by law.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
So excavation money (much of it public) is not giving optimal scientific returns. Now, there are two ways to look at this.
  1. 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!
  2. 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.
I tend to oscillate between these positions, myself. It is incredibly frustrating that all the information we have about many really cool sites dates from back when labour was cheap and documentation standards far below those of today. But on the other hand, the information from the contract digs, seen in aggregate, is telling us lots of interesting things we didn't know before. Even if some individual digs are, in all honesty, tragically boring.

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.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kulturnyheterna nästa då! Kul

22 March, 2006 16:27  
Anonymous Cornelius said...

This is an interesting problem you raise. I had never really thought about "the paradox of field archaeology" as such. But thinking about it now I believe that there is something important you are missing here: a third way of interpreting the paradox.

If you are right and most the money spent on field archaeology every year goes indeed into excavating ... uninformative sites then arguably this is a waste of money. As a consequence the legislation making developers pay for such uninformative rescue digs should be scrapped, though not the requirement to minimise damage to known sites or to pay for destroying informative sites.

However, here is an alternative way to explain the paradox. Rescue archaeology may in fact not primarily be about gaining information. Instead it might be about rescuing! In this day and age many people in the West love to care for and rescue all sorts of "non-renewable" resources (trees, the Ozon layer, whales, the rainforest, tigers, children, woods, mistreated pets, biodiversity, Antarctica, etc). I would argue that ancient sites are another such resource that (apparently) we must rescue in order to make the world a better place. Rescue archaeology, then, is not primarily about gaining new knowledge at all (although it may still be informative to dig many uninformative sites).

22 March, 2006 21:46  
Blogger Martin said...

I wouldn't say that the money put into rescue archaeology is wasted, just that it isn't buying us as much interesting information by far as it would if archaeologists could use it to dig wherever they wanted to.

1. Archaeological data cannot be evaluated in terms of any external real-world value base. What constitutes an interesting set of archaeological data is a matter of taste. There are people (most of them archaeologists) who find the kind of ploughed-over Early Iron Age settlement sites commonly excavated for road projects really interesting. I'm not one of them though, nor is the general public, I suspect.

2. Sometimes even a site that looks hopeless turns up interesting surprises. The only way to determine if a site is informative is to dig it.

I'm afraid I don't buy your idea of an collective-unconscious aesthetic motivation behind rescue archaeology. There is no collective unconscious in my world-view.

My belief is that the decisions that lead to rescue archaeology are made consciously by a finite number of flesh-and-blood people. It isn't the act of any abstract Volksseele. Everybody involved most likely feels that the work is being done in order to collect scientific data on sites that are scheduled to be obliterated.

22 March, 2006 22:09  
Blogger si cleggett said...

Greetings and salutations from the UK.It would be a delight to hear everyones perceptions on the current state of archaeology! Try www.bajr.org forum as it plays host to many differing opinions on the current state of archaeology in the UK and beyond.With the very best of wishes,

si Cleggett

20 February, 2007 11:15  

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