The Excavator: Creator or Destroyer?

By Frankel, David | Antiquity, December 1993 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Excavator: Creator or Destroyer?


Frankel, David, Antiquity


Our special section on heritage in the June issue took the conventional current view that excavation is destruction. A more creative vision is offered. A generation ago Mortimer Wheeler articulated the basic principle that 'all excavation is destruction'. This has come to be accepted as a fundamental article of faith, and underpins the conservation philosophy expounded in the special section on Heritage in the June 1993 issue of ANTIQUITY (67 (1993): 400-445), which may be summarized in a syllogism: all excavation is destruction; destruction is wrong; therefore all excavation is wrong. I would like to respond with a contrary view that excavators do not destroy archaeological sites; they create them.

Although the impact of archaeologists is minimal when set against the multitude of direct or indirect impacts of modern society, the simple acceptance of the concept of destructive excavation can be seen in the prejudice against excavations held by many cultural heritage managers. In Australia, for example, the size of most excavations has rapidly shrunk from half the site, to 10%, to very small (50 cm x 50 cm) holes -- if excavation is allowed at all. There is little consideration given to different scales of excavation required by different research aims. Excavation is seen as exceptional, with an associated feeling that it is important to leave parts of sites untouched for future excavation, which can then 'test' the work of current researchers. While there is certainly some value in the ability to re-excavate sites, there are several problems with this argument. A policy of sampling small portions of sites rather than excavating on a larger scale has an implicit assumption of site homogeneity or uniformity; that one small part will be representative of the whole. While this may be true for the coarser scales of analysis common in much Australian hunter--gatherer archaeology, it involves a model of site formation and function which needs to be demonstrated rather than assumed. A belief in uniformity and homogeneity is also essential to the idea that future excavations can 'test' previous work by using the material from one part of a site to demonstrate that the collection of material from another part was 'wrong'. If our successors are able to excavate so much better than we can, they may never be able to relate the finer scale of their excavations to the coarser scale of ours. They will have black holes of uncertainty in the centre of their site-plans, and will curse us as much for digging small portions of sites and destroying spatial patterns as for digging the whole.

This discussion so far has presupposed that sites are identifiable and bounded entities. But, while individual as a place, a site is only one representative of a class. While some are so unusual that they must be treated as special cases, many sites conform to general patterns. There are many examples in Australia of absurd limitations where only partial excavation of one of many equivalent neighbouring sites is permitted, with the result that we have inadequate information on one site, with no data on its internal patterning of discard, and no possibility of deriving this information without digging another. It is surely better to treat the whole set of features as the sampling universe, and to dig at least one completely, or on a scale commensurate with the extent of the site.

Preserving sites for future study presumes that archaeological skill in the future will be better than the present (or how could future work test that of today?). Skills and techniques of field archaeology can only be improved by training, practice and experience; we need to excavate continually in order to assess critically the earlier field research. Knowing our skills to be limited, we must practise them in order to improve: even if this is at the expense of some of our sites.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Excavator: Creator or Destroyer?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?