What’s the difference between archaeology and grave-robbing?
The HMS Victory (not that one) is set to be recovered according to the BBC and many other sites. You could say speed. Archaeology is an enormously inefficient of robbing graves. These days archaeologists can take years to study one barrow (an earth mound marking a burial) while in the 18th century aristocrats used to go on picnics and have the workmen open up one or two in an afternoon for gold.
There is a deeper reason.
Archaeologists are so slow because they want to say something about the people who live there. There’s a great Paul Bahn line: Archaeology is not about finding things, it’s about finding things out. Obviously finding things out is easier if you find artefacts with people and that’s why sudden disasters are great from an archaeological point of view.
It doesn’t stop a disaster site effectively being a grave. If you’re genuinely interested in finding out about people, it’s would be odd if you didn’t give a damn about their grave. Digging up a site is effectively destroying it.* If you’re going to do that you’ll want to go slowly and make sure that the story you can tell about this person’s life is a better memorial than the one he or she already has.
The news stories this weekend are all about finding the ship, along with a brief mention of the up to £500 million value of gold on board. What they don’t mention is that the UK government has sanctioned the recovery in exchange for 20% of that. Is the government more interested in the treasure, or has it developed a keen interest in archaeology so that, as Lord Lingfield says: “We hope it will give a unique insight into the world of the mid-18th century Royal Navy.”
The answer can be found in this story from October 2011 in the Daily Mail.
Odyssey said yesterday the UK government was ‘desperately looking for new sources of income’ and was urging it to find more British wrecks. It is also investigating HMS Sussex, lost off Gibraltar with 10 tons of gold in 1694, and HMS Victory, a precursor to Nelson’s flagship.
There are thousands of deserted medieval villages in the UK. In the 21st century the biggest defence any burials in them have have against feeding bankers is that the financial payoff of cracking them open is too low.
*Not hyperbolae. It’s recognised by professional archaeologists then if you dig up something it’s not going to be there for someone else to dig. +Kris Hirst collects quotes on her site, and a great one from Kent Flannery is: “Archeology is the only branch of anthropology where we kill our informants in the process of studying them.”