Friday, June 27, 2008

Community Archaeology

I am no fan of SAFE or what it normally posts on its website. However, I did find this article by Barbara Betz, a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, to be quite worthwhile:

Let's face it. Most "looters" are locals who may view foreign archaeologists and the governments that sponsor them with suspicion, if not outright hostility. It stands to reason then that the more archaeologists and host governments take into account the interests of local communities, the less likely the local populace will loot or otherwise damage archaeological sites.

1 comment:

Cultural Property Observer said...

This comment sent via email from Alan Walker may be of interest. Alan is a well-known numismatic scholar and member of the numismatic trade:

This is a cute article but it glosses over and leaves out quite a lot of stuff.

The first point is that any archaeological team digging up a site has to get a permit from the state - from the central government - not necessarily from the local authorities. In fact, the local authorities are often overruled or not consulted to any
great extent before the excavation team comes in. It is the ministry of culture in the capital that hands out the permit. In addition, unless things have changed radically, all the museums and sites are under the control of the
ministry,not the local uthorities, so getting the kind of local participation in jobs and the like in the end means that the central government is going to be calling the shots. Thus, being able to ensure that local people run the
museum will have to be cleared with the government - especially since government funds will, presumably, be paying the salaries (unless, of course, the foreign excavators have a long-term budget provision for financing the site museum and all its staff over a considerable period of time - how many situations like that do you think there are?).

Local participation in and understanding of excavations will make local people more likely to guard against looters, but only if the locals feel they are getting something out of it: a local museum that gets 5 tourists a year because it is hard to get to (and of the 5, 4 are students living on $5 a day) is not enough.

This article also glosses over the problem with the discovery of items that are in political or religious or ethnic conflict with the beliefs of the present inhabitants. no matter how much frankness is thought to be desirable by the archaeological elite, the discovery of sculpture glorifying ancient gods is not going to go down too well with a
conservative Moslem population (just as during the Middle Ages in Europe Christian populations routinely destroyed unearthed items that seemed too overtly pagan. Remember, the only reason why the great equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome survived is that it was thought to be of Constantine: otherwise it would have been melted down and
made into coins. The discovery of sites proving that ritual cannibalism was practiced by the ancestors of the present population may well end up being suppressed by locals uncomfortable with that idea. In some ways archaeologists have to be able to politely diplomatically ignore local beliefs in the hope that their findings will,in the future, be deemed more acceptable b;y the local peoples. Somewhere in one of Aurel Stein's reports is the tale of a farmer in Moslem central Asia who found a whole cache of documents preserved in the ruins of a desert site: he was so terrified that he would be found with them by a Mullah and accused of blasphemy (it was assumed that since they weren't in Arabic they
had to be pagan) that he threw them all into a nearby river.

And what happens if the local inhabitants democratically decide that they'd prefer to have 95% of the finds sold to pay for a new school and a clinic rather than retain them for study -is that when the archaeological elites pop in again?