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?