Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Bread and Circuses Archaeology: "Shiny Stuff Sets the Agenda"

Over on Will Anderson's "The Assemblage: political archaeology" blog is a post raising a point dear to my own heart. It's called "shiny stuff sets the agenda" and is about treasure hunting in the UK. Will makes a significant distinction, not made by many UK archaeologists:
I should say that I think antiquarianism – the documenting and collecting of things from the past for their own sake – is not archaeology.
and it is nice to hear this said out loud by somebody else. No, it is not. Will is also as puzzled by the rest of us about Renfrew's odd stance:
Why is Colin Renfrew vociferous to condemn the illicit antiquities market but is comfortable with ‘responsible’ detecting?
That never has been satisfactorily explained by his Lordship. Surely if the exploitation of archaeological sites merely as a source of collectables is archaeologically bad for the archaeological record where it is illegal, it is equally archaeological bad for the record if it happens to be situated beyond a line on a map which says it is legal. I really do not get his logic. For Anderson, the big archaeological paradox is that:
But though finders who swiftly report major discoveries are described as ‘responsible … exemplary’, is this responsible and exemplary archaeology? [...] In terms of expenditure, buying finds and conducting salvage digs must rank only behind building development as a public cost for ‘archaeology’. But who does it benefit? [...] Archaeologists aren’t entirely blameless [...] Why is there not more pressure to rebalance spending towards investigation of important questions about the past rather than buying shiny stuff and running around after holes dug by looters, er, I mean detectorists?
While the general outline of the argument is one with which I would wholeheartedly agree, I think the writer has been severely misled by the British establishment just how much money is spent on those 'salvage digs'. The whole area is severely under-resourced in what passes for 'policy' over these matters in Britain. In the case of the Staffordshire Hoard for example, a trench 9x13 m, costing a mere 25000 GBP - so about 1% of what the finder got for selling the nation its own cultural heritage - is all that was done to put the metal detector find in a landscape context, when it is clear that so much more needed to be done before the nighthawks got there and further decontextualised the original find. British archaeology simply has not the resources to deal with this properly. Many of the 800 reported Treasure finds from England, and most of the ones reported in Scotland do not get any kind of excavation follow-up whatsoever. Many of the objects themselves never see any kind of full archaeological report (such as all those individual coins from those coin hoards). Basically archaeology here is reduced to just "getting shiny stuff out of the ground and into showcases". As Will points out, this Bread and Circuses pseudo-archaeology differs in no way whatsoever from the kind of antiquarianism practised in the nineteenth century. He concludes:
Perhaps there is just too much invested by the establishment in the shiny stuff. It’s safe, it makes for happy stories, it allows for superlatives – the biggest, most significant, most valuable, goldest … It doesn’t demand the difficult questions and uncomfortable answers that archaeology provides.
Except it raises the very cogent question, just what on earth do British archaeologists think they are doing? About the only thing they are actually doing effectively is keeping the public debate very, very muted.

[all we can hear instead is that the sound of pigeons cooing not only in Bloomsbury Square but the gables of every single university archaeology department and museum building in the country is drowned out by the raucous calls of the magpies gathering shiny things into their nests].

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