Sunday 13 January 2019

Archaeologists, Attitudes to Conservation and the Elephant Hunter Argument

Portable Antiquities Scheme Database
Diplodicus Snarl, the famous Styrian big game hunter has just published an article in the Moldavian periodical 'Ökologische habitatspflege' (Snarl 2018, An empirical examination of ecological damage caused by non-professional extraction of elephant ivory ex situ ('poaching'). A case study from the Republic of Equatorial Guinea'). He argues that ivory is a very useful material, and left on the living animal often never gets even seen by the man on the street and ends up being lost when the animal dies and disintegrates on the decomposing carcass under the tropical sun. He dismisses the conflict of interest between the conservationists who see ivory hunting as causing significant ecological damage (Snarl, 2018 p. 2) and the group of people who argue for the harvesting of as much of this material as possible by amateur hunters so it can be used and not 'go to waste' (Snarl 2018, passim) He says:
'The major disagreement between the two groups thus mainly lies in the cost-benefit analysis: is it better for preservationists to prevent damage to the undisturbed ecosystem is [sic] situ, so that it isn’t disturbed, even if that means that much will be lost completely, because it will never be seen at all? Or is it better for us to extract and use as much ivory and get as much use as possible from what is extracted 'ex situ', whether it has been professionally obtained or not, even if that means that some elephants will be destroyed by non-professional ivory extraction?' (Snarl 2018, p. 2).
Archaeological site after 'collection-
driven exploitation'
I think this is a similar argument to the one applied to archaeology, isn't it?  There have been those that have suggested that there is a similar 'cost-benefit' conflict when it comes to the preservation of the archaeological record as a resource for future use. This goes on the lines of something like: "is it better for archaeology to prevent damage to the undisturbed archaeology is situ, so that it is not disturbed prior to its professional excavation, even if that means that much will be lost completely, because it will never be excavated at all?....". But then is that not what elephant conservation is about? Individual elephants will die a natural death, so will be lost anyway. In the same way we conserve remains of the past (and that goes for historical buildings and other types of cultural property) for a future, without necessarily knowing what that future will be or having any control over it, but trusting that in that future there will be those that care enough to do something about its eventual deterioration and destruction, just as we do. That is what conservation is about - optimism about the future of our concepts of heritage values rather than nihilist pessimism. What these people are saying is the equivalent of: "we might as well scrape all the gold off the stucco in Venice and strip the lead from the roofs there now as the city is sinking and the buildings will be underwater and collapse within a century or so anyway, and Italy will probably be inhabited by uncaring philistines who will not value it as much as we do and have less idea than we do about how to look after it - so we should use them up now as we do not know, cannot know, which ones will be saved". This is the arrogance of presentism.

These supporters of collection-driven exploitation go on:
"...or is it better for archaeology to record as m[any] data as possible about what is excavated and thus destroyed in situ, whether it has been professionally excavated or not, even if that means that some ‘ undisturbed ’ contexts will be destroyed by unprofessional finds extraction?" (Karl 2018, 2).
What 'data' are these? Concerning what? 
This raises a whole load of questions. First of all, what is meant by [archaeological] data here? An ivory tusk from Botswana is evidence of the former presence of an elephant in Botswana, as much as a Roman coin from Bognor is evidence of presence of Romans there, and we can even say roughly (TPQ) when. We can even have loose reports of 'lots of Roman coins' from all over the Bognor region dug out of the archaeological record. But these are not data on the sites and contexts they were hoiked from. They illustrate the historical record to which they can be related (narrativised) because we recognise their shape, can name them, and they have pictures and writing on them They document recent collecting and reporting activities by random individuals engaged in a minority hobby. Not much else. Artefacts are not data in themselves.

Secondly is archaeological evidence an objective existing entity, or is archaeological evidence co-created by the observer? Obviously the latter. If the observer knows what to look for, what it means - understands site formation processes and taphonolmy and how to document it. If not we get the equivalent of ancient aliens, or Inigo Jones' square Stonehenge. It should be obvious that a metal detectorist that cannot even string more that a handful of words into a coherent sentence in his native language or (apparently) read more than eight consecutive sentences without getting lost, has about as much chance of correctly reading and describing the archaeological record of a Roman deposit in a field near Bognor as my cat (the intelligent one - the other one could not even find the field).

Here is the problem for glib soundbite notions of 'citizen archaeology' - coterminous with 'digging up old things'. Through learning and the use of a recognised methodology, we standardise our excavation and recording methods in the way we do so that their reliability because we can see how the knowledge they embody was constructed, where its strong and weak points are (this will be apparent to anyone working on documentation from old excavations as I am doing at the moment). Amateur archaeology is amateur archaeology because it employs archaeological methodology. If archaeological methodologies are not applied, it is not archaeology.

In the same way, and following on from that, bad archaeological evidence is not better than no evidence. Bad evidence is bad evidence, a rotten apple is not better than no apple and should not be packed in a box going to the shop with fresh ones to make up numbers. It has to be discarded. In the same way archaeological material inexpertly 'excavated' and improperly recorded are data that must be discarded or at least treated as wholly suspect and unreliable in any analysis.

Metal detectorists mostly produce loose collectables, not data that tell you anything about the taphonomy of the deposit in which they were preserved, and from which they were taken. Furthermore, by removal of that object, those objects, the original structure of those deposits is changed by the artefact hunter. But anybody later doing a surface survey, of that site will never know that in the first week of July 1982, Bob, Baz and Jez spent a couple of days in tents 'doing over' the site (the boxload of diagnostic artefacts long ago ended up in a skip with a load of other stuff - Jez sold the hammies he found in '86) and eight years later Jayn and Terry 'found a few bits' - one brooch is in Barchester Museum, but only has a four-figure NGR and three other guys also tried their hand several years later, but decided it was not worth their while as they could see by what was now coming up that the site had been 'hammered' by previous visitors, the names of whom the farmer has forgotten. Doing a surface survey of the site, one might tell the field had been 'done over', but not where had been searched, what was taken, and where the surface of the field is relatively untouched by such activity. In that way, any distribution of material across that field is totally distorted, and as a source of information, the distribution pattern of material on that site has been destroyed as surely as if the site had been randomly bulldozed.

Reading what they write (and I've read a lot of it), it seems to me that the archaeologists who support collectors seem to me to be seeing the whole issue from three narrow viewpoints:
1) archaeology as discovery and not a conservation issue,
2) Archaeology as primarily about objects/artefacts, and
3) Archaeology as about individual spots, trenches that are dug, rather than landscapes (that's not the same as dot-distribution maps) and surface survey. Surface sites seem in general outside their field of view* 
The sites are destroyed, nobody profits
The archaeological context is not a coin in a box, and as archaeologists who believe in a future for archaeology, our responsibilities surely go further than dig up everything so the current generation can use it all up now. The cost benefit analysis of trying to use Collection-Driven Exploitation of the archaeological record as a form of ersatz archaeology is that the cheap costs of getting 'stuff for an arkie to write about' (ivories) are relatively low, but the material is obtained at the cost of destruction of a part of the archaeological record (the killing of an elephant) and in fact on more caereful analysis, those random loose decontextualised bits and pieces that enter the database are really not of as much benefit to anyone as they are often made out to be.

* Unless its demanding a 'metal detector survey of the topsoil' to 'get those objects out' before digging [digging to find more old objects?]

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