What’s the difference between archaeology and grave-robbing?

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HMS Victory sinking by Peter Monamy

Loss of HMS Victory, 4 October 1744 by Peter Monamy

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.

A post that ori­gin­ally appeared on Google+.