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

HMS Victory sinking by Peter Monamy
Standard
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+.

Bookmarks for 16th of November through to 18th of November

Standard

These are my links for 16th of November through 18th of November:

  • The Academic Journal Racket « In the Dark
    Telescoper explains how aca­demic pub­lish­ing works. The only thing that would improbe the post would be the theme from ‘The Naked Gun’ in the background.
  • A Case in Antiquities for ‘Finders Keepers’ — NYTimes​.com
    You can make argu­ments in favour of repat­ri­ation of antiquit­ies. You can make argue­ments against. Being on either side doesn’t make you inher­ently fool­ish. But when you write that the British Army took the Rosetta Stone from the French and “returned it to the British Museum” then some­thing has gone wrong. It’s prob­ably a case of moment­ary brain­fade rather than idiocy, but it mat­ters because the whole ques­tion of own­er­ship of the Rosetta Stone is about where it right­fully belongs. Using the word ‘returned’ builds in the assump­tion that all antiquit­ies are inher­ently British.
  • Notes & Queries; Sledges — Theoretical Structural Archaeology
    Geoff Carter con­cluded he didn’t have evid­ence for a stag­ger­ingly early cart shed in Poland. Could it have been a used to house a sledge? I’ve just real­ised I know abso­lutely noth­ing at all about the his­tory of sleds and sledges. Not only that, but I can’t recall much atten­tion being called to them in early pre­his­toric archae­ology other than when people want to talk about mov­ing mega­liths to Stonehenge. Yet Martha Murphy (guest blog­ging) shows there’s plenty of ques­tions to ask about neo­lithic transport.
  • British bank turns to treas­ure hunt­ing via @johnabartram
    Avast me hearties! Robert Fraser & Partners be scourin’ the high seas in search of booty. They be fundin’ Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. ter search the Caribbean fer Spanish gold. Arrr!
  • CRM Problem in Cadboro Bay « Northwest Coast Archaeology
    More on the prob­lems of pre­serving her­it­age in BC. Ancient buri­als have been scooped out of the ground, <em>after</em> an archae­olo­gical assessment.

Bookmarks for 12th of November through to 14th of November

Standard

These are my links for 12th of November through 14th of November:

  • Is the new policy state­ment PPS 15 a threat to her­it­age? — Building Design
    I’d love to have a pithy and insight­ful opin­ion on this, but first I’ll have to look up what PPS 15 says. it’s import­ant as PPG 15 and 16 have been the basis of pro­tec­tion of her­it­age in the UK for many years.
  • Pagans for Archaeology: Why reburial won’t work
    It’s all very well me say­ing there are eth­ical reas­ons to be against reburial, but I still haven’t found the time to write them down yet. Now this post hits almost every point I was going to make, espe­cially the point about memory. This won’t stop me from writ­ing up my thoughts when I can find the time though.
  • Identity : Gambler’s House
    Teofilo talks about Chaco and Navajo iden­tity and dis­cov­ers neither is as simple as you might think.
  • 3rd-century build­ing fuels debate over lost coun­try … asahi​.com(朝日新聞社)
    “The cent­ral axis of each build­ing forms a straight line. Each build­ing is believed to have faced the same dir­ec­tion. Such care­ful plan­ning for build­ings was com­mon for palaces and temples dur­ing the Asuka Period from the late sixth cen­tury to the early eighth cen­tury. But it had not been found at sites from the early third century. “

    This is why I need to find an intro­duct­ory book to early Japanese his­tory. There’s a huge amount of fas­cin­at­ing stuff there.

  • Shameful hypo­crisy threatens our ancient shared her­it­age
    “One of the most egre­gious hypo­cris­ies we enter­tain in British Columbia is our cava­lier atti­tude toward the destruc­tion and dis­posal of indi­gen­ous cul­tural land­scapes, arti­facts and her­it­age sites. In any enlightened nation such import­ant his­tory would com­mand pro­tec­tion — here it earns indif­fer­ence and even contempt.”
  • Moai in Captivity — a gal­lery on Flickr
    A great idea for a gal­lery. There’s some­thing about the facial expres­sion that makes even fake Moai appealing.

Blogging and Honesty

Standard

A ramble rather than a rant.

scrabble
How do you put your blog posts together? Photo after erix!

There’s been a spate of ‘Why Blog?’ posts in the Biblioblogosphere. They hap­pen every so often amongst blog­gers. Sometimes they’re insight­ful and some­times they’re navel gaz­ing. Thankfully the dis­cus­sion leans towards the former here. Charles Ellwood Jones has put up a round up of posts at the Ancient World Bloggers Group.

The entries that par­tic­u­larly caught my eye were on hon­esty in blog­ging. Jim West kicked that strand off, you should read the whole thing, but key pararaphs are:

In sum, do we refrain from blog­ging what we really think about this or that or the other because we are unsure of ourselves, or because we are fear­ful of the reac­tion or– and worst of all– because we are afraid we might not be called to serve at Harvard or Yale if someone there reads what we cheekily say?

I find myself, at the end of the day, con­stantly amazed at the unwill­ing­ness of some to be them­selves. I take this as noth­ing but hypo­crisy. Hide your­self, don’t say what you think, play the hypo­crite, and someone may hire you or pub­lish you. As though being hired or pub­lished were more import­ant than hon­esty. Which I sup­pose, for some, they are.

Roland Boer is in agree­ment. There were a couple of other responses. Mark Goodacre com­men­ted on the split between his blogs into broadly pro­fes­sional and per­sonal, because some one might want to read the one and not the other. In a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion Missives from Marx argues that in some cases anonym­ity is neces­sary for hon­esty. I think that MM makes a mis­take. Missives from Marx is not an anonym­ous blog. It’s a pseudomym­ous blog and there’s the con­stant pos­sib­il­ity that someone will con­nect the pseud­onym to the per­son. To be hon­est you may struggle to find people openly blog­ging “Yes! I am a hypo­crite, AND PROUD OF IT!“
Continue read­ing

Neanderthal Ethics

Standard

Here’s an oddity I star­ted think­ing about fol­low­ing a tweet by Dr Kiki who poin­ted to this art­icle Return of the Neanderthals: If we can resur­rect them through fossil DNA, should we?. The strange thing was my reac­tion to this. The answer seems obvi­ous. I thought I’d missed the boat on this when The Philosophers’ Magazine blog covered it. Again the author, Jean Kazez, missed the obvi­ous objec­tion, so I left it in a com­ment, and it was eas­ily dis­missed — or rather ignored. Seeing as two people see no prob­lem with what I see as an insur­mount­able prob­lem I have to be open to the idea I’m being dog­matic.
Continue read­ing

Why other histories matter

Standard
brothel fresco
Photo Lupinare III (cc) Nick in exsilio.

I have an interest in ancient pros­ti­tu­tion. It’s not what I’d call a guilty pleas­ure, because when you read about the miser­able lives the women had it’s hardly pleas­ure, but there is plenty of guilt. I don’t find ancient pros­ti­tu­tion sala­cious but given the expli­cit art, I can see how people would think it is and this trig­gers the feel­ing of being a dirty old man. Yet more and more I think to under­stand how ancient cit­ies worked you need to know about the seedy under­belly of the city. For every poet whose frag­ments sur­vive and whose words are pored over by philo­lo­gists, thou­sands of pros­ti­tutes died after miser­able lives missed only by their friends. I wouldn’t say that the study of poetic frag­ments is wrong or inher­ently inferior to the study of the ancient under­classes, but I think for the sake of hon­esty about the clas­sical world someone needs to tell these stories.

Someone who’s just done this recently is N.S. Gill. She’s pos­ted Firebaugh’s notes on Roman pros­ti­tu­tion. In some ways it’s depress­ing the notes are still rel­ev­ant enough to be worth post­ing. The lan­guage is dated. Well, no even that might not be true either des­pite Firebaugh refer­ring to ‘har­lots’. Even more depress­ing is how little atti­tudes to pros­ti­tu­tion have shif­ted since ancient times. For instance who becomes a prostitute?

According to the Romans it would seem that they were women who were mak­ing a delib­er­ate choice.

If the girl was young and appar­ently respect­able, the offi­cial sought to influ­ence her to change her mind; fail­ing in this, he issued her a license (licen­tia stupri), ascer­tained the price she inten­ded exact­ing for her favors, and entered her name in his roll. Once entered there, the name could never be removed, but must remain for all time an insur­mount­able bar to repent­ance and respectability.

I sus­pect it was a choice, but the choice was between pros­ti­tu­tion and star­va­tion. It is also a stain on the woman’s char­ac­ter, not the client’s. In mod­ern terms it’s been noted that crim­inal fines for pros­ti­tu­tion can actu­ally lead a woman back onto the streets in order to pay it off. Again it’s the woman’s choice. The notion of the will­ing pros­ti­tute serves the need of the cli­ents who could either be wish­ing for a will­ing part­ner, or else wish to feel mor­ally jus­ti­fied in their actions.

It’s not a choice any­one would want to forced to make. The Constitution of the Athenians gives a pretty grim pic­ture of where flute-girls, not the low­est pros­ti­tutes, fit­ted in the import­ance of the city.

[T]en men are elec­ted by lot as … City Controllers, five of whom hold office in Peiraeus and five in the city; it is they who super­vise the flute-girls and harp-girls and lyre-girls to pre­vent their receiv­ing fees of more than two drach­mas, and if sev­eral per­sons want to take the same girl these offi­cials cast lots between them and hire her out to the win­ner. And they keep watch to pre­vent any scav­enger from depos­it­ing ordure within a mile and a quarter of the wall; and they pre­vent the con­struc­tion of build­ings encroach­ing on and bal­conies over­hanging the roads, of over­head con­duits with an over­flow into the road, and of win­dows open­ing out­ward on to the road; and they remove for burial the bod­ies of per­sons who die on the roads, hav­ing pub­lic slaves for this service.

I can­not believe any­one would want to be classed along­side dung and corpses. Life for the typ­ical pros­ti­tute must have been miser­able. It might explain why people have tra­di­tion­ally over­looked ancient pros­ti­tutes when writ­ing his­tor­ies, but it doesn’t explain why they are import­ant. Being poor merely makes you poor rather than inher­ently more worthy than the rich.

Another reason for ignor­ing pros­ti­tutes and the rest of the under­class is they have been con­sidered invis­ible. Could it be they are leav­ing traces, but it’s we in the cur­rent era who choose not to see them? A recent thesis by Clare Kelly-Blazeby could turn upside down a lot of assump­tions about the ancient city.

She’s been look­ing for archae­olo­gical evid­ence of tav­ernas. You wouldn’t think drink­ing would be dif­fi­cult to find in the ancient world. The texts have many ref­er­ences to the masses get­ting drunk in their bru­tish way. Yet whenever drink­ing assemblages have been found it’s been inter­preted as archae­olo­gical evid­ence of the sym­posium. The sym­posium is the drink­ing party of the élite. It’s the set­ting for many debates and the sort of his­tory which you can see chan­ging the world.

On top of that it’s very archae­olo­gic­ally vis­ible. Not only are there the cups and bowls there’s also the lay­out of the sym­po­sion, the room where the sym­posium was held. It con­veni­ently has couches arranged around the walls, head to foot so every­one reclines on their left side. Kelly-Blazeby has found that many assemblages of drink­ing cups are not asso­ci­ated with sym­po­sions, but ordin­ary look­ing houses. Even today archi­tec­tur­ally Greek tav­ernas can look the same as ordin­ary houses. After re-thinking what a tav­erna of the sort would look like, she’s rad­ic­ally altered how we see the urban eco­nomy and town plan. It also means we need to re-think what we mean by élite, which in some cit­ies may be a lot smal­ler and more élite than pre­vi­ously acknowledged.

Sometimes look­ing at unfash­ion­able his­tor­ies can mean that more his­tory is being writ­ten. Yet some­times, like in the case of Gender History, or Crime or Class it not only makes more his­tory it also makes the sub­jects of tra­di­tional his­tor­ies richer and more vibrant. This is why I’ve found Mercurius Rusticus’s sum­mer strop both fas­cin­at­ing and pitiable.

Given two sexes and a vivid ima­gin­a­tion regard­ing sexual taboos seems to be a con­stant of human his­tory I think it’s a con­stant issue which needs to be tackled. I don’t think gender dif­fer­ences can be seen every­where in the his­tor­ical record, but it is wor­ry­ing if people can’t even see there is a ques­tion. If they can’t see these issue in the past, then why think they’re equipped to be able to see them in present?

Bad news for the Christians

Standard

There’s a 1st cen­tury BC tab­let which has been found pre­dict­ing a Messiah that will rise after three days. I can’t really see this shak­ing Christianity by con­nect­ing it to Judaism. The whole concept of a Messiah is Jewish. It’s not like Judea was short of Messiahs in this period. As for proph­ecies Matthew is known to have drawn on Jewish proph­ecies for his gos­pel, hence the whole being born in Bethlehem thing. It is of his­tor­ical interest though. It seems like a mes­siah proph­ecy we didn’t know about before. That could have told us more about the devel­op­ment of Christianity.

Sadly it can’t tell us a lot, because the mater­ial is unproven­anced. Anyone who’s Christian has had inform­a­tion about tab­let of import­ance to their faith trashed and it’s inform­a­tion which can­not be replaced. It’s been com­pared to find­ing the Dead Sea Scrolls.* It’s not like find­ing the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s like burn­ing them unread and sift­ing through the ashes to see what you can make out.

However as long as there’s a mar­ket for unproven­anced and illi­cit antiquit­ies there’ll be a profit to be made from other people’s beliefs.

See also: The Boston Globe and Jim West’s web­log.

*Actually in some ways it is. An awful loot of inform­a­tion about them has been lost too due to the trade in unproven­ance antiquities.

The Burglars. Photo (cc) John Carl Johnson