December 19, 2012

Into the confessional once again

Filed under: Uncategorized — acagle @ 9:32 am

I’m writing this up over several hours or days so it might seem a bit disjointed.

You may have noticed that I’m a bit lax in posting since I got back from Egypt. In fact, I’m undergoing something of a ‘crisis’ (I use the term fairly lightly here) having to do with archaeology and I shall now describe that for you. I’ll start off by saying that none of this is really reflective of the project I was on; it was actually one of the best projects I’ve been on in Egypt and I don’t regret a minute of it (well, maybe the cold showers. . . ). But the whole thing did sort of. . . .undermine?. . .my faith in archaeology. I say that like it was a revelation, but such thoughts have been percolating for a while and I think that actually participating full-bore in this project sharpened up a few of my feelings. I’m going to crystallize what I’ve been thinking in one quick sentence, which is obviously an oversimplification, but it really cuts to the heart of how I’ve started to view archaeology — generally — and archaeologists — generally. So here goes:

Archaeologists have been, and still are, abysmal caretakers of the archaeological record.

Now, I come at this from several angles, both personal experience and observations over many years. But first, I’ll go through my work this season and examine how that shaped what I typed above. Looking back to these two previous posts, what we find is that the Roman bath I cleared away has undergone extensive deterioration since archaeologists uncovered it almost 40 years ago. In less than 40 years it’s probably deteriorated more than it did in the 1500 years previous. That is really quite frightening. Now, one might be tempted to put the blame elsewhere: officials who don’t “do enough” to protect the structure, careless tourists who damage it while visiting, etc. True enough, although the simple fact of it being exposed to the elements (cultural and natural) is the basal reason why it has been subject to such forces in the first place. And it was archaeologists who exposed it in the first place. It was archaeologists who located it, cleared away its protective sand cover, let everyone know about it, and then left it to fend for itself. On top of that, it wasn’t very extensively published — in fact, much of the work done by that entire project wasn’t published at all. How much information was lost simply because the archaeologists involved simply had to dig up a bunch of cool stuff?

And the rest of the site is similar. Great heaping gobs of architecture is lost because it was excavated and then left exposed by a university team in the 1920s (although large amounts of the site were destroyed by sebakhin as well). They were practicing state of the art archaeology then, but there is still precious little to show for it, all things considered. I don’t really mean to denigrate either those projects or the Egyptians in general either, at least to the extent that I’m singling them out. We all know this has been going on for decades all over the place: Archaeologists excavate a site, recover a small portion of the artifacts and dump the rest, leave it open, and it starts to decay.

“But,” you say, “we’re much more enlightened than our forebears, we are much better curators of the archaeological record than those people.” Yeah, well, maybe. I’m old enough to remember people saying the same thing in the 1980s. We still routinely only keep a fraction of the artifacts we recover — ceramic body sherds are still routinely weighed and then discarded, for example, and usually only the “diagnostic” pieces are kept. In addition, only a tiny portion of the sediments are examined in any detail. And what happens to the material we do save? I’d wager a good portion of it is bagged, tagged, and forgotten about. I’ve known of and been involved with more than one project where material that was supposed to be analyzed by one graduate student or another ended up just sitting there because said grad student decided archaeology wasn’t really for him or her and went off to do something else. Not only does the material go unanalyzed and unpublished, but it will often molder away in a museum basement (or a professor’s office) for years, the bags and tags steadily degrading until the description of what they are and where they were from is gone for good. And that doesn’t even count the other documentation regarding the excavation — notes, drawings, photos, etc. — that either degrade or are simply lost or are uninterpretable. Off the top of my head, I personally know of four projects that have been vastly under-analyzed and under-published. And these weren’t done by some rank amateurs 100 years ago, they were by university professors in the last 30-40 years.

And while I’m at it, I’ve done something similar, albeit on a much smaller scale. I collected a small amounts of material 20 years ago that was only marginally published and those objects are now sitting in an Egyptian magazine, probably lost to eternity. I could go into the reasons for that, but does it matter? The stuff is still sitting there despite the various forces that came together to prevent my completing the work. So I’m not simply casting aspersions on others while I hold myself blameless and above the fray. This happens because we’re people with private lives and life histories that cause us to shift directions and ignore stuff that doesn’t fit our latest life trajectories. That’s just the way it is; one person to whom this has happened wasn’t some egotistical chump who just dug stuff up for fame and fortune — though more on that later — he was a guy who had some very severe personal issues and medical conditions which sent him way off track, resulting in the loss of much material, both figuratively (unmarked bags, etc.) and literally. And the same thing happened with others that I know of: grad students who washed out, who had family difficulties and never finished, or had life-changing medical problems that necessarily took them away from archaeology. That’s life as a human being with a limited life span.

And, of course, we operate in a larger world that often doesn’t care about the things archaeologists do or collect. Local authorities can decide archaeologists can no longer have access to their stored collections, or political considerations alter the ability to even work in a place. What will happen in Egypt if the Islamists do consolidate their power to such an extent that the country is largely closed off to further work? All those artifacts so diligently collected and stored locally could not only become permanently inaccessible or possible even destroyed or looted. As we’ve seen elsewhere lately, that’s really not out of the realm of possibility.

But of course that doesn’t mean diddly from the archaeological record’s perspective: regardless of the reason(s), it’s still gone, still destroyed, still never coming back.

Yes, we seem to be getting better at curating what we recover — frankly, I’ve always looked askance that term; we ‘recover’ something that was ‘lost’ — and preserving objects we deem suitable for preserving. On this latest project we backfilled every hole we dug which should at least protect the walls that we exposed, and the record-keeping is better than it has been in the past. But I wonder if we’re really that much better or if we’re just deluding ourselves over the short term? Yeah, we’ll carefully bag and tag everything with acid-free papers (which we didn’t do; even that’s not very common) and put them in (at least sometimes) climate-controlled spaces, and make all of our written records as readily available as possible. . .but how long will that last? Twenty years? Fifty? A hundred? We still tend to think only on the order of a human lifetime and sometimes only as long as a professional career extends, not for the hundreds or thousands of years that much of this stuff has been sitting preserved in the ground (until we dig it up). Are our curation methods good for a couple thousand years, or just a couple of decades so we can feel good about ourselves after we’ve moved on to the next project? And what about our records? Our electronic files will probably be on obsolete media before too long, paper records deteriorate, photographic media degrade, and even sticking it all on the Internet. . .well, who knows where that stuff may end up in a decade or two once the principals have retired or died. How long are state-sponsored facilities (e.g., museums) going to last? Eh, maybe as long as the state that sponsored them exists, after which the new regime might not find preserving all that stuff to be terribly worthwhile (or more lucrative to simply dispose of it all). You may scoff, but on the order of millennia, that’s probably quite likely.

The other issue I’m somewhat at odds with is the big question of Why We Do This in the first place? Ask any archaeologist and they’ll probably repeat some boilerplate about wanting to understand the past, contribute to our shared knowledge and cultural heritage, etc. Well, maybe that’s part of it. In reality, I’m convinced it’s more from a desire to dig up cool stuff, to get a PhD for ourselves, publish articles so that others can ‘ooo’ and ‘ahh” over our intellectual abilities, stand in front of classes and lecture at those less knowledgeable than we are, go to conferences and have fun intellectualizing with Others Like Us, and at times demonstrating our great knowledge to the vast swaths of plebes out there — and telling them what they can and can’t do with the same stuff we’re digging up.

I noticed this about myself during this project. I liked finding cool stuff. I’d never found that many really neat items in my work previous to this, and here I was finding fabric, roofing material, stone vessels, cordage, whole ceramic vessels. . . .wow! I thoroughly enjoyed it, but at the same time I was aware that my excitement had a price: probably losing (eventually) all of the stuff I was digging up. And what was I — and my compatriots — doing it for? Well, for the rewards I listed above, for the excitement, and to get MA’s and PhD’s and give presentations at conferences, etc.

At the time I was finding all this neat stuff, it caused me a bit of soul-searching, but then I went over and started working on the Bath and realized that the people excavating this structure back in the ’70s were probably thinking much the same thing: “We’re doing this for humanity, so people can see what Life Was Like, and then we will publish our findings and be famous. Oh, it’ll be fine the way it is, it’s survived for 1500 years. Besides, someone will look after it.” Hardly, on many counts.

Again, I’m reminded of a television special that aired some years ago. Some may roll their eyes at the example, but before you do, consider that the person involved was not only a high government official but also received a Ph.D. from an ivy league school. He was as fully credentialed as anyone out there doing archaeology. I speak of none other than Zahi Hawass. He, along with the National Geographic Channel (possibly Discovery), did a live special where they opened up a new tomb. At one point they opened a sarcophagus and a fairly nicely preserved mummy was inside. Well, not for long actually: as the cameras rolled it literally turned to dust. I’d read about such things happening, but never saw it actually occur. But there it was, a body that had been preserved for around 4,000 years completely lost — because an ivy-league PhD and a television network felt like uncovering cool stuff.

As in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: “Ask yourself, why do you seek the Cup of Christ? Is it for His glory. . .or for yours?”

At this point you might say “Yeah, well, we can’t just sit around and wait for some miraculous technology to come along that allows us to see in the ground without excavating or something like that. We need to use the tools at our disposal to get what information we can now.” To which I reply, yes we can wait. It wasn’t too long ago that studying a mummy in any detail meant nearly destroying it by doing an autopsy. Now we can send it through a CT scanner and see fine details that wouldn’t even be visible during an autopsy, all the while protecting the mummy for later. I imagine it won’t be too long before we can do chemical and genetic analyses remotely as well, without even removing tissue samples. How long before we can precisely map every grain of sediment in an intact site without turning over even a shovelful of earth?

So what do we do in the meantime? I would argue that we have more than enough material that can be recovered simply from rescue operations to keep archaeologists occupied, not to mention maybe devoting ourselves to the conservation of what we’ve already uncovered. One problem in CRM is that there is limited funding to do any kind of extensive data recovery (there’s that word again) unless a site is of clear “importance”, let alone doing a proper analysis of the material later. Funding, such as NSF, doesn’t currently work very well for doing the sort of quick-turnaround that CRM requires. Construction crews probably wouldn’t wait around for a year or more while the merits of an NSF proposal are debated, schedules set up, field crews of graduate students are assembled, etc. Maybe that could be changed. Perhaps funding could be made available that could be tapped quickly rather than appropriating money on a per-project basis. Perhaps anthropology departments should be reorganized to provide data recovery to the local area rather than having students and professors all going to far-flung locations.

No, you wouldn’t have quite the quality of data as a “pure research” project would obtain. Yes, it would require an entirely different model of funding. Yes, it would require a very different model for the “doing” of academic archaeology. And, yeah, it might necessitate cutting down on the number of archaeologists wanting to use the archaeological record as a research resource. All major considerations. But. . . .isn’t protecting the archaeological record — the very lifeblood on which our profession rests — worth it?

As for me. . . . .well, I’m not sure where I’m personally going with this. Obviously, I don’t expect this short missive in the backwater of the archaeological literature to create even a minor ripple. But it’s caused me to rethink what to do with my remaining years. For one, I’m not sure I’ll ever engage in “new” excavations again, although in something of a field school environment that might be appropriate. I’m far more interested in actually doing conservation work in the field. But my recent interests in disease and public health don’t really require new materials and a good chunk of that will be with modern populations anyway. And what CRM I do is almost exclusively in sterile sediments or is aimed quite explicitly at preventing and preserving materials in the ground anyway. So maybe this isn’t much of an issue for me personally. Of course, the question naturally arises as to whether I’m promoting the normal mode of archaeology by even posting stuff here. . . . .


  1. This was a really good post. I had to do a lot of soul searching myself a while back when it became apparent that I was not going to get that PhD. I realized that I really only wanted the PhD because, well, it’s tactile evidence of my excessive intelligence, right? And since I just really couldn’t finish it, that was evidence of my excessive stupidity. Or something. Anyway, I had to take a hard honest look and myself and ask: why am I trying for a PhD? Do I want to be an academic? Nope. Do I want to write articles? Nope. Do I want to write reports? Nope. I like the digging up cool shit and knowing what it is. It’s hard to justify continuing to throw money after a degree that you aren’t going to use to further the enlightenment of man (or whatever professors tell themselves as they publish yet another article on source material that they don’t want to share with anyone else) and very hard if you begin to realize that what you love doing is actually the destruction of what you love for vanity’s sake. But I don’t think I’ve ever really explained that to too many people, mostly because I don’t want to sound like I’m bad-mouthing archaeology. ‘Cause neither of us is, we’d both like to see it done in a way that actually preserves what is there, rather than bagging it, tagging it, and letting it rot in storage crate a la Raiders of the Lost Ark. But I keep thinking of the naturalists of a century or more ago – who used to study nature by trapping it, killing it and nailing it to a board for display purposes and helped wipe out whole species in their quest for new species and better specimens. Today we look at them and say “my god, what assholes.” Will historians of the future say the same of us?

    Comment by Archaeogoddess — December 21, 2012 @ 4:26 am

  2. >>I like the digging up cool shit and knowing what it is.

    Ha, that cracked me up.

    Funny, but the only reason I got a PhD was because I decided one day I was going to get one and that was that (at the time it seemed a more realistic alternative to the Foreign Legion, IYKWIM). I actually wanted to be an academic until I saw what academia was *really* like. Which is probably why I’ve had such a difficult time since actually getting my PhD: I didn’t plan any farther ahead than that. . .

    Comment by acagle — December 21, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

  3. Yes, that was a very good post and good comments too.

    I considered myself an archaeologist for about 8 years and worked in three states and Greece, France and Mexico. I had no doubt I would get a good university position and be able to work outside during the nice weather. About 1972 I realized this plan had little chance of paying the bills, so I became a carpenter.

    Way back then my big complaint was how much fieldwork was being done to prove a hypothesis. Things discovered unexpectedly got ignored. I remember a bluff shelter in Oklahoma where shards were carefully recorded, but corn cobs were mostly tossed out. And an Iron Age cave burial in Greece that was just in the way of getting to the Neanderthal stuff underneath.

    Hermann Schliemann is faulted for not keeping records and just looking for treasure. It is ironic to consider that eventually much of today’s records will eventually be lost. At least Schliemann published.

    I think the big truth is that academia is just not very good at doing useful research. When was the last time you read a doctoral thesis that was significant?

    Comment by John Dickerson — December 22, 2012 @ 11:48 pm

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