Editorial

Article excerpt

This editorial is begun while I am staying in the Disneyland Hotel, Anaheim, California, whose Vice-President tells me in a mini-mission statement in the room, 'My staff and I want your visit to be a dream come true. All of us believe that Disney Resort Experiences Are Magic' [bold in original]. Different my Disney experience certainly has been, and it could be useful comparative material if my research interests more concerned monopoly capitalism, infantilization and the subtler mechanics of social control, but not what I would call an Experience of Magic. A pity that 'mission statements', useful devices to remind organizations just what they are for, have turned into absurdities. Many, most of the societies that archaeologists study are so remote and strange they would seem quite unnatural if we were to be translated into living inside one; staying at Disneyland may fall under the useful category of 'secondary fieldwork'.

I have been summoned to Disneyland by the Annual Meetings of the Society for American Archaeology, at about 2000 head surely the largest of the annual gatherings of the thundering archaeological herd. The usual zoo of simultaneous sessions; you sit through one indifferent paper knowing that somewhere on the programme, in some other meeting-space, there is likely a first-rate paper you are missing -- if only you knew how to figure out which one it was. No wonder the canny prefer to 'surf' from one star paper in one session to another in another to another in yet another, rather than sitting through the whole of a symposium; tough on the fellow without reputation who stands up after the star performer, and watches most of his audience walk away. Or they instead devote themselves full-time to practising the skills of social archaeology in the bar (I name no names).

Meeting in Disneyland, emblem of the treating of the past for such popular pleasure and private profit, has been a reminder to me that archaeology is an idealist business, of no or slight utilitarian benefit. And it chances that the SAA has this year been thinking hard about its ethics, not just the high or petty crimes and misdemeanours which archaeologists may inflict on each other or on the stuff we work with, but by reminding ourselves what are the ideals that direct the whole venture, and distract us from the better-paid lives we could spend in something more practically useful like cost-accountancy. A mission statement, in short. And the Society's membership has this year chosen as its President-Elect Professor Bill Lipe, whose memorable call to a true spirit of conservation archaeology, made a generation ago in the Kiva, is still an ideal far ahead of what most of us actually practise, and surely ahead even of what his own Chaco Canyon research centre is able to do.

Here is the opening to the ethics statement, from a draft that pretended to rhetoric on the old American model (before it was toned down into more contemporary idiom):

'The archaeological record is the material memory of our human predecessors on earth, by which we may come to know them. It is a common good, to be held in public trust.' (If the Disneyland Hotel uses bold, then so may we.)

Much -- not too much -- follows in discussion papers(*) addressing a variety of ethical aspects, that reach as far as an obligation to public education and to fair dealing with colleagues in publication. All of it follows from this short and splendid statement of the driving ideal: the stuff of archaeology is not an asset to be possessed and exploited, but a responsibility to be looked after in trust. This is true and this is simple; it should underlie most of what we do, and explains why our ideals do not provide for appropriation of the stuff of archaeology from the common good into private possession.

'Material memory' is a striking -- and perhaps a new -- statement of just what the stuff of archaeology amounts to, and the purpose of coming to know our predecessors underlines the human factor. …