Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Collector: "Archaeology Big Business"

In a post below this I questioned the use of the term "trade group" referring to bodies like the European Archaeological Association, and said it was sloppy terminology. Nevertheless the author of those words is insistent that it is true:
archaeologists certainly advocate for the business purpose of monopolizing control over antiquities, and let's face the fact that archaeology is a big business now-- what with TV deals, government contracts and the like.
Leaving aside the emotive (and untrue) formulation "monopolising the control of antiquities" (sic) - which basically means, doesn't it, trying to keep them off the market for illicitly obtained items...

Does archaeology have a "business purpose" (ie commercial purpose) in protecting archaeological record from destruction? Can one say that rhino wardens in national parks are preserving rhinos for commercial reasons (because once the rhinos are gone nobody will pay their salaries to guard them)? Its the same argument, isn't it? I think there are a number of reasons why people make huge efforts to protect a resource and encourage others to help them. Commerce - doing business with it - does not necessarily play a part in it. Make money out of protected wild orchids growing in a field, or an osprey's nest. Perhaps the writer of those words finds it difficult to envisage there being other aims in conducting an activity, or running an institution, than making money. I do not know anyone who has entered archaeology thinking they'll get rich - you've much more of a chance of getting rich buying a metal detector and looking for a hoard or two in likely spots.

In the sense that developer funding plays a large part these days in financing so-called archaeological heritage management (in particular rescue archaeology) and this is contracted out by normal means to commercial archaeological bodies which undertake the work (so none of the institutions we are discussing), archaeology has become more commercialised. But in fact what money is being made from here is the controlled destruction of archaeological context. Perhaps then archaeology could be accused of having commercial interests in retaining context until such a time as commercial groups can be paid to take them apart methodically rather than, as was said above, loose "antiquities"? This however seems to be pushing coiney conspiracyism to its limits. In any case describing commercial archaeology as big business seems rather an exaggeration when the work is tendered out and often the cheapest option gets chosen, and the cost of an excavation is often only a fraction of the cost of a development. I know very few archaeologists who get rich doing rescue work, the ones I do know here in Poland are currently sitting out a jail sentence.

As for "government contracts", I wonder how much money the writer of those words thinks governments hand out to contractors in the field of culture and environment worldwide? These too are frequently tendered out and are often (as we see in the case of Britain's PAS for example) subject to stringent cuts. Thinking about some of the more lucrative UK government contracts I know of, they have been for creating policy documents, surveys or reports, and nothing whatsoever with either having or not having "antiquities" or excavation, just simple paperwork. The contracts in question also went to archaeological entities which have nothing to do with the kind of lobbying about which the anti-archaeological critic was writing.

TV deals, now we get to the crux of it. We all of us of course make a packet from our TV appearances, day after day in the studio and out of it. The makeup, tight filming schedules, paparazzi, autograph hunters... its a terrible life. Now, the PAS - on the back of Treasure hunters - reportedly has made a TV deal, but I do not think the average commercial archaeology makes much money out of filming its work.

Perhaps there is just a hint of jealousy there. One can imagine it now: "Chasing Denarii" presented by Zanny Harris III, Wisconsin coin collector, BBC2 8:00 pm Saturdays. "Come and explore with Zanny the treasures of the ancient world he has in his back bedroom":
"and here's another one, now this may look very much like the other 23 I showed you, but this one is really quite interesting, it was struck just a few years before his death, note the fine cabinet toning. I'll just put it down so the cameraman can zoom in on some of the details of the leaves on the wreath on the forehead [...] and here's another, but this time minted in Antioch! See, there's the mintmark just there..."

Vignette: Men in ties

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