Saturday, 27 March 2010

Earth Hour (3): an Archaeological Resource Awareness Day?

Sitting there in the dark watching the candles release fossil fuel-derived hydrocarbons into the atmosphere during Earth Hour, I remembered making a flippant remark last year about metal detectorists going out on that day "with no batteries in their detectors". But what positive action could we take to raise awareness about the fragility and nature of the archaeological resource?

Perhaps it would be an interesting thing to do to organize some kind of a World Archaeological Resource Awareness Day (WARAD?). Like the "join the millions turning lights off around the world" idea of Earth Hour, or SAFE's candlelit vigils, it could encourage people to think about these issues by engaging in a practical action with symbolic meaning. Perhaps it could be timed to coincide with Earth Day (founded by Gaylord Nelson, a US senator from Wisconsin), usually held on April 22nd each year.

I suppose on an "Archaeological Resource Awareness Day" some of us so-called "radicals" could live up to that name and go and picket antiquities dealers and coin shops selling dugups. But a leaflet campaign would sacrifice too many trees. Or maybe we could organize an action of sending people, while members of the public look on, into these shops every twenty minutes to persistently ask awkward questions about the same items: "where does this come from?" "I read in the paper there are a lot of stolen artefacts around, how do you know this one is not stolen from an archaeological site?" ("and this one?"), but with a dictaphone turned on in the pocket (recordings gratefully received here and at your local police station and newspaper office). What shopkeeper would refuse to answer such questions as fully as he can? (In some states you'd have to ask "do you mind if I record your evasive answers?" to be the right side of the law doing this). I tried it once(without the dictaphone), got thrown out of the shop - it was mostly old tat on sale and some obvious fakes anyway. The guy was most unpleasant.

As the candle started to splutter and the light in the room grew dimmer, I recalled Renfrew's suggestion of "recontextualisation". Perhaps, since the surviving bits of the ancient archaeological resource are being depleted at an alarming rate, we could encourage people as part of the event to "make a new one, for archaeologists of the future", thus highlighting why the old one will not survive for them to do anything useful with.

What small group of small objects buried in the ground together would, by virtue of their association and surroundings, convey information to an investigator about our society or local community? Just to make it more interesting, they must be "non-addressed sources", so no letters sealed in bottles, CDs with the entire contents of your computer downloaded onto it. Nothing with writing or pictures intended to convey information (let's make coins and packaging with pictures or writing on them an exception to that though). To be used as an archaeological resource in the future, the objects have to be something that has a chance of survival in a context that will not be disturbed for - let us say - the next three hundred years. To make the point that it is artefact hunting that is the main concern here, they'd have to be within six inches of the current surface (the depth of a metal detector pentration). Most importantly, the place that is chosen to put them cannot be a historic monument protected by law (we don't want people contaminating them) or cemeteries (too easy and disrespectful).

Such an exercise would get people thinking about context and association, rather than the individual objects themselves. Deciding where to put the group of objects where they will certainly not be disturbed in the next three centuries is in fact very difficult, if making a risk assessment was treated seriously, it would be seen just how vulnerable any surviving bits of the archaeological record are under our fields, streets and pavements.
There is nothing new to the idea, people have been burying "time capsules" for generations. There is even advice on how to do it on the Internet. Here though the newly-created archaeological assemblage would itself be the "capsule".

Of course there is nothing to say that when an archaeologist in three hundred years time finds the hole in which somebody apparently deliberately buried an odd selection of objects it will not be described as a "ritual deposit". Which I suppose it is, a ritual of affirmation how important we feel the past is to us. What would an ancient artefact collector bury?

What other suggestions are there for drawing attention to the fragility and importance of the archaeological record on an Archaeological Resource Awareness Day?


Marcus Preen said...

How about these four?

Left to right, Digger, Middleman, Dealer, Customer.

What a shame the fourth one doesn't turn his head to his right as he hands over the money.

Paul Barford said...

That's a funny place to keep the monkey money.

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