Sunday, October 19, 2008

Iraqi Cultural Heritage Project Addresses one of Archaeology's "Dirty Little Secrets"

The Iraq Cultural Heritage Project will evidently include funding for publishing old site reports. See: Iraq Cultural Heritage Project Fact Sheet at ("Complementing this professional capacity building will be: a) The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq Archaeological Publication Project (TAARI). In consultation with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and Iraqi archaeologists, TAARI will publish heretofore unpublished archaeological excavation reports prepared by Iraqi archaeologists.").

I have heard the failure to publish site reports characterized as one of archaeology's "dirty little secrets." I suppose some might be tempted to blame the failure to publish the results of past excavations in Iraq on the effect of Saddam era international sanctions on the Iraqi archaeological establishment. But, of course, sanctions did not stop Saddam from spending money to build palaces in places like Babylon. In any event, I've also read about the failure to publish site reports or even properly record finds elsewhere, in places like Egypt and Cyprus. See: (quoting Zahi Hawaas as follows: "A full scientific report must be published within five years, or the project will be suspended. This is very important. There are many expeditions that have been working here for 20 years, and have never published their work. Scientific results that are not available to scholars are useless and contribute nothing to our knowledge of the past.") and ("Demetriou said the association was alerted to the fact that scientific means were not always used, when a retired archaeologist on a recent dig admitted to not keeping a daily diary, which under archaeological rules is sacrosanct and is a requirement of law.").

The fact that site reports are not published or that digs may not be properly documented is relevant to the debate over import restrictions. Archaeologists often justify import restrictions by claiming that such restrictions limit demand for artifacts and thereby ultimately discourage the destruction of archaeological context by clandestine diggers. But doesn't the failure of the archaeological community to police their own colleagues when it comes to properly recording and publishing site finds seriously undercut this claim? If archaeologists themselves don't always properly record and publish their finds, how can they then claim preservation of archaeological context as a major justification for the imposition of import restrictions on cultural artifacts?

In any event, I am glad that the State Department has included funding for publishing site reports, but even when site reports are published, they are not usually easily accessible to the public. Hopefully, the State Department will also insist that at least some of the information is put "online."

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