Saturday, August 23, 2008

What have archaeologists ever done?

A collector I respect recently asked me 'what have archaeologists ever done?'

He wasn't asking me to name books and reports written by archaeologists. He was asking why modern societies value the professional archaeologist so highly.

Most societies seize land and treasure if an archaeologist reports that antiquities lie beneath the surface. In the United States it's a little different; here municipalities attempt to buy land to protect it. We sometimes declare a monument to have 'landmark status' meaning the owner cannot remodel it without governmental permission. In most of the world, including some rich democracies of Europe, the state owns almost all of antiquity. Only items found before the mid-20th century remain in private hands.

That's surprising. Other professions don't have this power. We don't give electrical engineers the right to size land containing magnets. We don't give chemists the right to seize rare chemicals or drug designers the right to nationalize rare plants.

These professions have given the world amazing boons such as the electric light, plastic, and penicillin. Yet we expect these folks to join corporations or universities that pay for research materials. There is public outcry when the legal principal of eminent domain is used to transfer property for the benefit of these helpful sciences.

What archeology does, in my opinion, is the measure and test history. The study of history is necessary in democracies which depend on educated voters and judiciaries. The historian and the classicist tell us what life was like in other times. It's important that some citizens know history for the same reason that it's important that some folks travel. We need to understand how other societies work so that we can make good decisions for our own. Archaeology tests the results of the ancient authors and the modern interpretations of historians.

The names of the dynasts of ancient Egypt are not interesting to me. I'm interested in how those societies worked and faced problems.

Accounts of ancient times give people a national identity. People sneer at nationalism as outmoded beliefs that lead to many 20th century wars but nationalism also inspires good struggles such as the end of colonialism.

Society should encourage young people to become archaeologists and interpret the past for us. Societies should acquire ancient relics for scientific study. I believe socities should pay the landowner. Societies need votors and jurists who understand history but few will pay for their own education in this field! Like schools, fire departments, and the military archeology is a public good that can't easily be privatized.

Sometimes people tell me that the poor countries of Eastern Europe can't affort to pay for culturally important relics. Other folks have suggested state auctions of antiquities to raise the money for some to keep. Another idea is to pay the land owner in lottery tickets.

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