What is an archaeologist?

Right, so I’ve seen a few people posting on this recently and I think it is an interesting question. Who gets to excavate sites and, by extension, what is an “archaeologist”? Don’t worry, this post won’t bring up Indiana Jones… wait, too late.

Firstly, to define the professional archaeologist. Technically, one could argue that anyone with an advanced degree in archaeology is an “archaeologist” since they have the background and training. However, particularly for North American Classicists I don’t think this definition entirely works: after all it is possible, though not common as you reach the higher degrees, to study archaeology without actually spending much time in the field. Again, this seems uncommon, but there is certainly no guarantee that a person with an archaeology degree knows a pick from a shovel. Though they may know how to ask for these items in multiple languages… sorry, off topic.

Is an archaeologist an individual who has spent a lot of time in the field. Until this summer I hadn’t realized quite how many people on site had either no degree or a basic university degree – they learned specialist skills in the field. Are these individuals the true archaeologists? Can we measure it based upon amount of fieldwork – is there a point where you suddenly go “right, that’s my 500 hours and 16 minutes of hands on experience… now I’m a PROFESSIONAL…” Are contracted diggers archaeologists? They may not have the degree but they must understand the practicalities in order to perform their job.

At the end of the day, the term archaeologist tends to be applied to all of the above. To me, though, an archaeologist is somebody who follows a planned methodology (as opposed to just digging for a specific object) and publishes or presents the materials studied. For me, both elements are necessary (excavating and studying) to be classified as an “archaeologist”.


Writing about Heritage Claims

Another interesting article over at the Guardian this morning: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/dec/08/turkey-british-museum-sculptures-rights?fb=native&CMP=FBCNETTXT9038

The content of the article is of course interesting: the claim is being made by Turkey for the return of various statues on the basis of Human Rights Law. It is the language of the article, however, that intrigues me.

There seems to be no attempt made in the article to seem impartial – the message comes across loud and clear: The British Museum is being “robbed” of artifacts by “human rights violators”. Firstly, its really not that black and white but secondly, is such open bias ever acceptable? The presentation of Turkey here as a threat to the British Museum and museums world wide might be technically valid but is is hyperbolic in the sense that the focus seems to be not on the claim to the objects but on the actions of Turkey in the past.

Is this an acceptable argument. I’m sorry, Britain, but if all we’ve got on the moral stage at this point is “We’re not giving it back because we don’t like you” then we’re in trouble. I’m not saying this is the case, nor am I saying that this is how all individuals see the issue, but it is the feeling I got from the article. Note that human rights violations were raised – the sense seeming to be that “Turkey can’t claim under human rights because they have broken the guidelines themselves”. We can’t approach heritage in this way – somebody has to take the high ground at some point. If every group who at some point has disobeyed legislation is then discounted from it then what is the point of having the legislation in the first place…

The topic is an important one to discuss… I simply found the tone of the article questionable, and, to be frank, rather immature.

Museum Displays and Moral Loopholes

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the difference between art and artefact. Or rather, I’ve been questioning if there is an inherent difference and what effect this has on the presentation of objects. This has in part stemmed from a paper I’ve been writing on the Staffordshire Hoard. In the paper I criticise the presentation of the collection as ‘treasure’. This has got me thinking about the types of exhibits that appeal to me when I go to a museum or gallery.

I’d like to claim I read all the information panels. I don’t. I might check the card next to the display so that I can read up on the object later. I have rarely read the actual information in full, however. My mother is the exact opposite. She reads every sign, every panel and every information card. You might imagine we run into difficulties moving through a museum at the same pace; surprisingly, we don’t! She glances at the objects, then reads about them in depth. I might spend 15 minutes considering the object, without ever looking at the information card. We just have very different ways of approaching exhibits. As a result I tend to enjoy exhibits with an aesthetic appeal and appealing use of space. She favours simple presentations that clearly link information to object.

I genuinely don’t believe that either of us is approaching the gallery in the “wrong way”. I also don’t believe that displaying objects in a manner which accentuates their visual appeal is inherently wrong. Having talked a lot recently about how to address archaeological issues in the exhibition space I find the “place a sign commenting on lack of provenience” or “explain in the information sheet” method to communicate ethical issues relating to specific collections problematic. Firstly, this isn’t usually a practical suggestion – few museums will discuss possible ethical issues in such an abrupt manner. Secondly, this relies on individuals reading the information. I’m not sure on this, but I suspect that there are a lot more people using “my” approach than my mothers.

The issue I have here is that by suggesting “putting up a sign” we are suggesting that by acknowledging the ethical problems we provide a loophole through which we can display/discuss an object. This has been troubling me for weeks. Does simply admitting that there is an ethical issue in an artefacts past give carte blanche for the presentation of the object?

Early Morning Musings on MAD

So, I’ve been somewhat lax in my blogging recently (must be December!). I claim distraction by multiple sets of shiny objects – and I’m not talking about Christmas decorations.

Down to business – in class last week a question was posed. What is the way forward for archaeological ethics? Are there concrete steps we can take? No sitting on the fence answers allowed.

It seems to me that the term “archaeological ethics” covers questions of access and dissemination of material (who should have it and how much should they have?), protection of sites and questions of ownership. It’s about claims and responsibilities. What “archaeological ethics” seems to come down to, at the end of the day, is a balancing act. Balancing the claims of several different parties and coming out with the best compromise possible. In each individual case – whether we are questioning the location of the Elgin Marbles, arguing over the study of human remains or debating whether looting and collection are intrinsically linked – I think it is actually important at the end of the day to accept that there isn’t a single “right” answer.

This may seem like I AM sitting on the fence. I’d argue that since in most cases there is generally more than one strongly held opinion it is completely counterproductive to try and determine a “right” course of action for each situation on a case by case basis – it leads to some fascinating discussions, but won’t actually lead to anything getting done. There not being a “right” answer does not mean that there is also no path forward for “archaeological ethics”. I believe, as I have stated before, that the focus here must be on drafting legislation that ensures compromises can be reached by parties. This legislation needs to include clear, concrete terms and ensure consistency (two weaknesses that are present in existing legislation).

This takes me all the way back to undergraduate political science lectures: we need a social contract or we will wind up with Mutually Assured Destruction. Without external guidelines (ie. legislation) compromises will not be reached. Without compromises it is the sites and artefacts in question that will suffer.


Review: “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” Robert M. Edsel. Center Street Publishing, 2010.

The title says it all really. The story told in this book has every element needed for a “ripping yarn”. Nazis, brave Allied heroes, stolen art and British pubs. It’s a story that is relatively unknown and Edsel’s effort to honour the men who worked so hard to preserve heritage in war torn Europe is laudable. I was at times moved to tears or laughter by the story in which the characters are eminently sympathetic and the morals are fairly clear cut – much more so than they likely were in real life. This is an exciting world of espionage and of “goodies” fighting “baddies”. The book moves beyond a two dimensional portrait of the events becoming a fascinating discussion of the issues of protecting heritage in war time; a concern that is still clearly resonant today.

Unfortunately, while the story told is a fascinating and compelling study of extraordinary actions in extraordinary circumstances the major downfall is not the content of the narrative – it is the structure. The short chapters and insertion of personal and official letters (which are interesting primary documents, but often seem to have no connection to the immediate story) make the reading experience entirely disjointed at times. Though the indomitable Stout is clearly the central figure the constant shifts in time, location and character becomes distracting.

Furthermore, Edsel never seems to quite settle on a genre; is this historical fiction, or a dramatized history? He has clearly done his research but the book often contains long passages of speech or internal dialogues. Despite his assertion in the introduction that “in all cases [these are] based on extensive documentation” they rather detract from the credibility of the book as historical fact. Edsel writes well enough to have made this a compelling thriller but the focus on historical documentation never allows for the book to function on that level. Unfortunately, by never settling on one genre or the other, I’m not sure what audience he will best please.

Lastly, there is actually not a lot of discussion in the book of the monuments themselves, or of the factors that went into the determination of what the “Monument Men” ought to protect. Admittedly, the books title clearly indicates that this is the story of individuals, but some discussion of the nature of the objects and places themselves would have been useful to the reader.

As a final note – along with the book Edsel has a visually appealing website concerned with a variety of looting issues related to the period and, apparently, the book is set to be made into a film with an all star cast. I’ll be interested to see how this is handled – I rather fear that it will turn into “Inglorious Bastards… with Art”. This would be a shame, since the real story here is one that deserves a wider audience.


The safeguarding of intangible Cultural Heritage

Browsing UNESCO’s website I came across two lists; the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding and the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The concept of intangible heritage intrigues me; clearly a dance, a song or a ceremony can be classified as cultural heritage. Indeed, when we talk about our heritage, these intangible elements are often a key aspect of cultural identity. I am somewhat curious though, as to how we “safeguard” this type of heritage? More to the point how do we “protect” the old skills and traditions without inhibiting development?

Take, for example, the first item on the list – Al Sadu, the traditional weaving of the United Arab Emirates. UNESCO describes the threat to this traditional skill:

“The rapid economic development and social transformations brought about by the advent of oil in the Emirates have caused a sharp decline in the practice of Al Sadu. The pastoral Bedouin communities have dispersed among urban settlements, and young women increasingly work outside the home. The bearers of Al Sadu are now mostly older women whose numbers are declining.”

So, to summarise, the changing socio-economic climate of the country and the changing role of women has led to the natural decline of this skill. Should we really be stepping in to preserve it in this case? Is the skill an important part of the countries cultural history? Clearly, yes, since someone sought its nomination for the list. How do we safeguard this skill, though? We cannot simply declare that the skill must be practised or preserved by the local people.

UNESCO also comments that “To be kept alive, intangible cultural heritage must be relevant to its community, continuously recreated and transmitted from one generation to another.” Given this definition this weaving skill does not seem to be still “relevant to its community”. The list leaves me asking who gets to determine intangible elements and, more to the point, should the international community have the right to intervene in local lifestyles?



Legality vs. Morality

I have (thus far) avoided adressing the Elgin Marbles debate on this blog. In part this is because I really don’t feel that I have much to say that hasn’t been said much more eloquently by others. In part it is because I recognise that my own opinion is very much coloured by the fact that I spend hours as a child knocking round the British Museum. I am not going to directly deal with the rights and wrongs of the situation here.
However, earlier this week I had the opportunity to listen to two groups of first year university students debate the issue. It was interesting to see their approach; these are mostly students who have no background in ethics, archaeology or even ancient history. For most of them this was their first time reading about the Marbles. They approached the topic, as educated but generally not particularly invested Canadians (and yes, I do think the fact that they were not British or Greek makes a difference), in a much more abstract way than I have seen elsewhere.

What interested me most about their approach was how much they focused on the importance of the emotional and cultural elements to the debate, rather than the legal issues. Even those arguing for the retention of the Marbles in the UK tended to focus on their “importance to British culture”. Legal issues were hardly mentioned. In part this is probably because the majority weren’t actually aware of the laws and guidelines that exist governing cultural heritage. However I suspect the real reason is because “morality” has far more rhetorical power.

A few weeks ago I would probably have taken much the same approach. I still very much believe that morality has a role to play in archaeological ethics. Yet I am wary of relying too heavily on “moral” arguments, simply because they lack parameters. Whose morality is “correct”? What if (as with the Marbles) too sides vehemently declare themselves to be acting morally? We cannot measure morality.
I may not always agree with the parameters laid out by cultural heritage laws; however they do have the benefit of bringing some black and white to a world of grey. I may still change my mind on this one but right now I think that legality should hold more sway than morality based arguments – one is at least semi-measurable, the other is too subjective to be applied across the field.