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
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
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!
So, it has to be accepted that digging any site destroys most of the
information resource in that site. However, that destruction can be
A. In all circumstances where the information will be lost if not dug.
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.