Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Austin Declaration 'on the Excavation of Archaeological Material in the Popular Media'

Austin Morris
The presidents of the Australian Archaeological Association, the Canadian Archaeological Association, the European Association of Archaeologists, the ICOMOS International Scientific Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management (ICAHM), the Pan African Archaeological Association, the World Archaeological Congress, and the Secretary-General of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association have together prepared this document after discussions initiated at a meeting of presidents held on 5 April 2014 in Austin, Texas, concerning the proliferation of content in popular media that celebrates and encourages the destruction of the archaeological record.

The Excavation of Archaeological Material in the Popular Media 
August 12, 2014

 Excavating an archaeological site is an unavoidably destructive process. Archaeologists mitigate this destruction through the use of careful excavation techniques, documentation, preservation, and reporting procedures that have been developed over the past century, and are updated as new technologies become available  [...]  To excavate a site without following such protocols is unmitigated destruction of the archaeological record, and with it, all of the information that might have been gained from that record about human history and the changing relationships among human groups and the environment. [...] In certain countries, notably the United States (with the exceptions of a few states), the legal structure is such that property owners have the right to engage in undertakings that disturb or destroy archaeological sites, or to allow others, including non-archaeologists, to excavate archaeological sites on their property. In such countries, it is crucial to inform the public about how proper archaeological research is conducted, why it is undertaken, and what this research has revealed that might be of interest to them. In most countries, however, archaeological sites cannot be disturbed without a license, and sometimes they are not even considered private property. In such countries, broadcasting programs that depict excavation for pleasure or profit can only encourage illegal activity. For these reasons, we, the undersigned, call upon the media to refrain from broadcasting any program that presents in a favorable manner excavation of archaeological materials in any way that does not adhere to the excavation protocols outlined in the first paragraph above, which conform to standard archaeological practice around the world. Further, we note that, if appropriately produced, archaeology- and heritage-related programs in the media can be effective tools that provide the public with knowledge that is satisfying on a personal level and useful to all of us as we plot our course through a globalized and rapidly changing world.
Although I think that we should all (responsible collectors too) support any endeavour that aims to underline and promote ethics, standards and legality in the use of the cultural heritage and especially archaeological sites and material, I cannot but help think this document falls wide of the mark. First of all for an intended (I assume) international document, it is awkwardly Amero-centric in its approach, which goes deeper than the spelling. Its structure and wording are both shoddy, giving very much the impression that this was begun and completed in three hours by seven happy guys around a downtown Austin restaurant table with much pizza and beer and not subsequently consulted to any degree outside that circle (for example with UK archaeologists).  In my presentation above, I've cut out three bits, the full text can be seen here, among other places.

The first is along list of the conditions these guys say any media portrayal should fulfil to be kosher. I feel it was a mistake putting it in the introductory paragraph, rather like scooping the jam out of the jar before you've buttered the bread. This needs to go in an appendix for two reasons, firstly the document would then cut to the point much quicker for busy TV executives to see what's landed on his or her desk. Secondly, if we assume this document has any lasting significance, those criteria may need to change as the discipline and perceptions alter with time, which requires only revision of the appendix and not the whole document. Not to mention the need to expand it as new problems come up. I can imagine that in the eventuality of a repeat of something like the recent "Nazi War Diggers fracas", it might be thought advisable to add to that list the manner of treatment (and showing in the media) human remains.

The second ellipsis is where the author wrote the purpose of archaeology which is no less than Save the World. Pure positivistic blather ("information that might have been gained from that record about human history and the changing relationships among human groups and the environment. Such questions have never been more important as we move into a future in which human alteration of the environment and social change continues to accelerate enormously"). The questions are important, but archaeology can never provide the answers. Too much New Archaeology here.

The third bit which in my opinion is superfluous and confusing is the bit "Further, anyone excavating archaeological sites has an ethical responsibility to engage with all interested and affected parties, in particular local communities". Now, I think the authors probably had something more complex in mind, and the position gets very complex in cases like the "Nazi War Diggers". My bet is that many readers are going to see the bit about involving local people, which is exactly what artefact/relic hunting etc are promoted as doing. The promoter of a planned project may well skip some of the documenting guff the reader skipped through at the beginning to get to the meat, but at least - the promoters can say - it fulfils that "ethical responsibility" to "engage with local people", they are doing the digging!

One crucial point, the Austin folk present archaeology (and the collecting of archaeological material) as only through excavation. Both in archaeology as well as artefact collecting, surface retrieval are very important, indeed much collection driven exploitation of archaeological sites is through removing material from assemblages near the surface and not deep-dug. This is what will be shown on many programmes depicting artefact hunting. This document, ridiculously - given its context - totally ignores the key issue of how surface retrieval of archaeological evidence differs from surface retrieval of collectables.

The Austin folk (despite the EAA President being there) seem to ignore the whole block of activity clustered around Britain's Portable Antiquities Scheme, which seems here to have been marginalised (wonder why?). So, to bring them back into the fold, how many of these things does the PAS get its local community partners doing? The first paragraph says that to be useful as archaeology, it's not all about just hoiking the finds out. That's fine by me, that's what I've been saying now for over a decade and a half. But this document sets high standards for any future TV programme on metal detecting (of the PAS-approved "Britain's Secret Treasures" ilk). In the light of this document, to be true partners, artefact hunters will have to fulfil conditions like these:
"Procedures include documenting exactly what was done in the field; analyzing and describing in detail all that was found that might be pertinent to a wide range of questions regarding human and environmental history; obtaining and analyzing samples of material relevant to those questions (for example, soils, pollen, micro faunal remains, and charcoal or other organic materials); comprehensively documenting, describing, and analyzing of all recovered artifacts; developing a catalogue of artifacts and other material taken from the site; preparing field notes each day that include photographs and drawings; treating all materials taken for storage and placing them in an environmentally controlled facility; and writing a report that describes all the above activities and provides an interpretation of what was found in the context of current research questions and interests.
Now, considering that all is one single sentence, my guess is most UK and many US metal detectorists started rolling their eyes on line three. TV producers probably don't have either much time to try and pick their way through an unsolicited forest of words from some US-spelling ivory-towerists. I'd say this document is an Epic Fail as a piece of public information material by archaeology. When you are going to do something, what is the point if you are not going to do it well?

The current EAA President is Friedrich Lüth a Neolithic specialist from Germany.

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