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Subject:

Sustainable archaeology - was archaeology v. treasure?

From:

Michael Haseler <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

British archaeology discussion list <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 25 Jun 2008 10:33:16 +0100

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

text/plain (98 lines)

1 MIN SUMMARY:

Sustainable archaeology is the conservation of the archaeological 
information resource so as not to compromise the ability of future 
generations to meet their needs from that information resource. In 
particular, even if there are limited sites, if those sites are dug in 
such a way as to conserve information and result in the improvement of 
tools and techniques so as to increase the potential information 
resource for future generations that archaeology is sustainable.

And treasure hunting is not sustainable archaeology, but not all 
archaeology is sustainable!
======================================================================

The Brundtland definition of sustainability is: "Development that meets 
the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future 
generations to meet their own needs"

When dealing with a specific resources this would become:

"using resources so as not to compromise the ability of future 
generations to meet their own needs with those resources".

"How" you might ask, "is this possible with a limited resource?", since 
there are only so many sites that can be dug and when they are all dug 
future generations can't meet their needs.

To answer this lets look at another limited resource like fossil fuel. 
If you lived on an island with 60 billion barrels of oil in the sea off 
your island, and you were consuming 2billion barrels a year, if each 
year you invested that 2billion barrels into economic infrastructure so 
that you used 3% less oil each and every year and therefore the field 
would last one more year, then there would be each and every year 30 
years oil ad infinitum and it would be sustainable use.

So, it is possible to consume a limited resource in such a way that it 
is certainly sustainable by my interpretation of the Brundtland criteria.

Archaeology reserves can be treated similarly with three important 
differences:

1. They reduce with time!
2. Extracting the resource is not inherently financially beneficial
3. Extracting archaeology destroys most of the potential information

Treating the first issue. Whereas oil left in the ground remains largely 
available to future generations, much archaeology degrades for various 
reasons and simply leaving it in the ground makes it less available to 
future generations. Therefore unlike almost all oil, it is arguable that 
in many circumstances any form of archaeological recovery is better than 
none.

Secondarily, unlike much North sea oil which is inherently cost 
effective, archaeology (as opposed to treasure hunting) is only 
available if the funding is available to extract it. Therefore it is 
possible to fail the Brundtland criteria by conserving the 
archaeological resource in such a way that less public funding is 
available in the future so that the total available resource diminishes 
due to loss of public interest.

Thirdly, the very act of extracting archaeology destroys almost all the 
information from a site. Whereas oil fields only recover around a third 
of the potential oil, arguably that figure is much much less on an 
archaeological site. 100 years ago the typical archaeological artefact 
needed a few people to carry away. Today there is much more archaeology 
because the typical artefact is much smaller and usually anything that 
can be seen in a trench. But in the future there may be much more 
potential information from the dirt thrown away by today's 
archaeologists in the same way that useless broken pottery was thrown 
away and unreported by previous generations. In a few years, the typical 
artefact may only be visible under a microscope, later still, virtually 
all the information from a site may be chemical analysis at the 
microscopic level meaning it is only visible under an electron 
microscope. How much of the potential information is recovered by 
today's techniques? 10%, 1%, 0.1% 0.01%? who knows!

SUMMARY

So, it has to be accepted that digging any site destroys most of the 
information resource in that site. However, that destruction can be 
justified:

A. In all circumstances where the information will be lost if not dug.

B.
1. If the information is conserved by freely accessible reports and 
conservation of artefacts (and/or bulk analysis and sample conservation)

2. And if the destruction is used to retain public interest and promote 
archaeology so as to retain the resources for future conservation

3. And, even if there are limited sites, if by digging the site, the 
tools and techniques are improved so that the potential information 
resource for future generations is increased by better techniques even 
though there are less sites it is sustainable.

Mike

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