To dig or not to dig?

As a fairly cautious individual who likes to control as many variables as possible before taking action and gather as much information as possible before reaching conclusions, archaeology positively terrifies me.  The inherently destructive nature of archaeological excavation referred to in one of the first lectures of this course means that data can really only be gathered once from any find, and conclusions must be extrapolated from only that one set of data.  When one considers the possibility for error and the constant increase in technology that allows ever more data to be extracted from a single site, the natural impulse (for me at least) is to delay excavation until the optimal resources are available.  There are, of course, two obvious problems with this approach.  As time goes on better resources continually become available, and archaeological sites continually degrade.  There is, therefore, no best possible time to excavate.  The decision to dig must be made based on the ever-changing factors of development, decay, and – of course – funding.

I am driven further towards caution by the losses of the past.  Though their work laid the foundation for modern archaeology, one cannot help but wonder what could have been found if those excavating in previous centuries had waited for modern tools and modern thinking before plunging into their work.  Stories about Heinrich Schliemann digging rapidly and carelessly in his single-minded quest for Homeric artifacts make the modern reader cringe, as do accounts of fabrics and other delicate materials disintegrating just after the opening of sealed chambers.  Many items were simply removed from their sites for the purpose of filling out museum collections and private curio cabinets with no scientific care whatsoever.  The discovery of a site often led to just as much destruction by looters and tourists as it did to the advancement of knowledge.  How much more could have been found with modern methods and sensibilities?  More importantly, will the archaeologists of the future look back at us the same way?

The difficulty of deciding whether or not to excavate a site is exemplified by the debate over the tomb of the first Qin emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. Though the location is famous for the army of terra-cotta warriors outside, the actual tomb itself has never been excavated.  The reluctance of the Chinese government is partly due to respect for the dead, but largely because it is feared that an excavation with the present technology would destroy much that could be preserved by an investigation farther down the road.  The terra-cotta warriors themselves provide an example of what the government fears.  When they were originally unearthed, the original pigments flaked off the warriors soon after their exposure to air.  Two thousand colorless statues later, a technique has been developed to preserve the pigment after the warriors are dug up.  If the tomb is as lavish as surviving accounts claim, it could be well worth the wait, but how long exactly should the government delay?  That debate has gone on for decades, and will likely rage until the day when – for better or for worse – the tomb is opened.  In the meantime, with every new discovery and piece of unbroken ground, archaeologists must confront the eternal question: to dig or not to dig?

1 thought on “To dig or not to dig?

  1. A very interesting point you make here, since, as Professor Watrall made quite clear in class, Archaeology is notable as a science for being innately ‘on hard mode’ in that a researcher only gets one chance to excavate a site, and if some mistake is made or an artifact destroyed, there is no way to go back and redo the excavation, like there would be in other sciences.
    You mention Heinrich Schliemann as one of the most notably destructive ‘archeologists’ the world has seen, and you are completely right there. And yet the worst destruction, like you alluded to, wasn’t even by archeologists, but by those seeking to pad egos or collections with another contextually-useless piece of ancient what-have-you.
    But, in light of the growing possibilities of looting or destruction, not to mention the growing age of every site of potential, the question you asked must be answered with the latter of your answers.
    We must dig.
    We must dig and catalog as many sites as we can, both to prevent corporate expansion from bulldozing ruins, and to have sites attended by academic professionals instead of fortune seekers. As (aspiring) Archeologists, we need to support the excavation and catalog of as much as we can, since the longer a site is left unattended or uncataloged, the more opportunity exists for time, crime, or expansion has to destroy anything we could gain from it.
    Although I have expressed urgency above, I must add a caveat to my own sensibility. Like in the first few lectures, we must be careful to leave sites for the future to discover, and, while having cataloged location and some preliminary excavation of many sites, the actual excavation we can do must be limited, as to allow future archaeologists to conduct research as we do, rather than limit them to museum curators or laboratory technicians.

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