Saturday, 30 January 2016

Portable Antiquities Attitudes: Challenge for Archaeology (Blogging Carnival)

Collection-Driven Exploitation of the site of
Apamea, Syria. Would a 'voluntary record'
of one-in-five of the artefacts hoiked here
have made this in any way 'acceptable'?
Doug’s Archaeology has set a new blog carnival for the month of January: The Grand Challenges for Archaeology: A Blogging Carnival. I would say one of the biggest ones is relevance. What relevance is what archaeologists do and why should resources be allocated to support it? Those of us who do archaeology (and even call it pragmatic archaeology) have some familiar answers. The most common involve things like:
national or regional identity ( Vorgeschichte, eine hervorragend nationale Wissenschaft/ Ahnenerbe),

"enhancing social inclusion" (community archaeology, ethnic and other minorities),
academic importance

"avoiding making the mistakes of the past"/ "understanding the present",

generating tourist revenue ("and jobs"),

It can easily be perceived that the use of the past to create identities involves problems, but surprisingly in archaeology this is still promoted in subtle and less subtle form - though running alongside archaeological concerns for the global heritage. In the age of all-pervasive globalisation, what role does the notion of "national heritage" play, and what should it play? Is the notion of a national heritage divisive or does it together with historiography and allied disciplines provide some form of basis for group cohesion within a broader internationalist framework?

Then, in that context, whose identity is being promoted through the use of the archaeological record? One thinks for example of the archaeology of former colonies of European powers (the most obvious being the USA where sometimes the cultural remains of the 'indigenous people' can even be found displayed in natural history museums and are subject to specific laws not applicable to the archaeology of the colonisers). Is not the fact that archaeology paternalistically engages in 'giving these people a voice' in itself an element of division? What is or should be archaeology's role in creating social coherence?

A more ivory tower approach sees what we do as of importance as an academic discipline with its own (?) methodology, body of theory and methods. The development of increasingly sophisticated approaches to the study of the past are seen as playing an important role in the development of the humanities. Seeking the relevance of archaeology in this however begs the question just how relevant the latter is to the man in the street and the policy makers who, in one way or another, foot the bill?

To argue that archaeology provides firm 'scientific data' which can be used to predict the future results of a process occurring or being initiated today ('warnings from the past') ignores the post-processual demonstration that archaeological interpretations, like other forms of historiography, can never be objective. We cannot honestly pretend otherwise.

I find the last argument somewhat shaky too, though it is the one which seems to be most commonly articulated. Firstly, is it really archaeological knowledge tourists in general 'consume', or is this an incidental factor? Would visitor numbers drop at any major site (like Stonehenge) if we did not have seeds and snails from the primary silts of its second phase? We tend to overlook the fact that 'not knowing ' about the past ('the mysteries of the past') is often a significant draw for tourism (and media edutainment). Gawpworthiness is also an important factor. A nice ruin covered in jungle plants is at least as photogenic as some heavily repointed wall-stubs displayed between immaculate green 'Ministry of Works' lawns. A museum case with a small heap of gold coins found accidentally in upcast from a mole hole by a dog walker is at least as much of an attraction for visitors as a carefully designed display of the snail shells and carbonised seeds and 'what they tell us of the chalkland environment here a long, long time ago'. I do not think the bulk of tourists actually need archaeology to make a site visit-worthy. They need access (a car park and paths through parts of the site), somewhere to relieve themselves, and something to photograph, and the marketing does the rest. In any case - as Egypt (not to mention Iraq and Syria) show all too starkly - tourist revenue cannot be taken for granted. It is difficult to predict whether in future decades the tourist industry in whole regions of the world will be expanding or contracting.

I think we need to consider also the changing social contexts of 'knowledge'. It cannot fail to be seen that the 'democratisation' of knowledge is being accompanied not only by the challenge to academic authority unthinkable even half a century ago, but above all by a severe dumbing-down. It is in this context that archaeology needs to function, but (manner of presentation aside), to what extent should the discipline adapt itself to 'fit'?

Though similar changes are occurring to a greater or lesser degree elsewhere, I think we see this problem most acutely in the British context. On British TV first we had factual and balanced archaeology/history programmes of the excellence of "Chronicle", today we have "Nazi War Diggers", cheap, amateurish, sensationalist and superficial. The archaeology of Britain is being publicly presented as 'digging up interesting things' of the "Britain's Secret Treasures" ilk. People with metal detectors are presented as amateur archaeologists, what they are finding is narrativised and presented as archaeology. That it is not is not the message that is getting through to the public. We show them the snail shells and they'll shrug and move on to the Staffordshire Hoard. We say snail shells are really important to understand the environment,  and we really need to fund more and better laboratory work on soil samples to get snails and seeds in context... and the Portable Antiquities Scheme will be shouting out that another member of the public with a spade and finds pouch - they'll likely not mention the shed full of collectable items hoiked from sites up and down the country -  and "the experts are delighted" (oh and he gets to share x0000 quid of your money with a landowner and the loot will be on display in the county museum). How long will the obsession of a few academics with the recovery of snail shells or the taphonomy of sherd density in fourth century reflooring of the Baths Basilica of Barchester be seen as anything worthy of note and funding by the public? How relevant will that sort of archaeology be to anyone except ourselves?
Treasures promote national and regional pride,

Treasure hunting promotes social inclusion, Baz Thugwit can hardly write his own name, but can amaze/astound/delight/help the experts with his metal detector

A steady flow of nice Treasures found by the public keeps the academics happy,

Treasures embody the 'mystery of the past',

Treasures make our museums more attractive to visit than any old snail shells. 
The collecting of archaeological collectables is being promoted as a form of 'archaeology for all' - a move well received in the antiquities trade of course. Dealers and their lobbyists all over the world love the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Why curb the commercial exploitation of the archaeological record when it is "not destruction" but instead - it is argued - "finding and putting on record things the archaeologists would not otherwise excavate themselves"? Artefact hunting is "saving culture", any archaeologist who invokes arguments that suggest otherwise is nowadays treated as a snobbish, PAS-hating dinosaur - paradoxically even in some archaeological circles in the UK.

It should go without saying that dealing with the indiscriminate manner in which the antiquities trade is still carried out is a major challenge for archaeology. The bigger challenge however is first countering the severe apathy we see among archaeologists when more is required of them than simple declarations. Indeed, British archaeology has instead declared itself  to be 'in partnership' with artefact hunters and collectors. It is disturbing to see heritage professionals not only figuring in, but participating in, the rhetoric of the antiquities trade.

What is the heritage of the influence of the PAS on public perceptions of archaeology in Britain and beyond (or indeed within the discipline itself)? I would argue that it has had a severely damaging and erosive effect and also with far-reaching consequences. That is not, as some would have it, academic snobbery or elitism, it is a pragmatic observation of what has happened over the past two decades. From my point of view, counteracting this is one of the great challenges before archaeology over the next decade or so.

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