Article excerpt

* Our science produces huge quantities of artefacts--more than 50 000 a year are collected off the surface of the fields of a small island like Britain, urban archaeology unearths millions of bits and pieces, and there's plenty more where those came from: the output of a Roman potter spread over the empire and broken into sherds must run to hundreds of millions. We have never really worked out what to do with all this stuff. The majority sits in museum basements while a glamorous handful perform as desirable assets in an anarchic version of the art market. For researchers, all artefacts are data, or fossils of behaviour, witnesses of action that speak only in context. But objects get personal too, and even data-hungry archaeologists can understand this--who can forget the sensation of first uncovering a bronze brooch, or a flint scraper, an ordinary thing suddenly transfigured through chance encounter? While for most people a postage stamp (if they ever use one) remains a receipt for payment stuck on a letter, for others an array of stamps in an album becomes a picture gallery and a world geography combined. And surely such material collections awaken curiosity just as often as the narratives of myths, history or prehistory?

Sooner or later, however, the weevil of mammon spots more food, and passion is turned into price. Price has other rules, even other-worldly ones: it's not governed by archaeological ideas--how much effort it took to make the artefact, the rarity of its materials, the distance it travelled--not even by what it might fetch in the market; it obeys some ethereal sentiment, like a religion. If a high priest of the art market utters a paean of praise about a heap of nails and string, its price also soars up to heaven. The infection has reached the antiquities market too, evident in the witless quantities of money paid to metal-detectorists (Antiquity 84: 295-6). What possible use could the Staffordshire hoard (2.5m [pounds sterling]) be to a private purchaser? You could wear it I suppose, or invite an impressionable young person upstairs to see your sword pommels. Objects without contexts are worthless except as bullion, but to melt down artefacts is equivalent to making people into meat.

The power of archaeological materials to tell us about the past is locked in a permanent duel with their power to enrich someone, be it a collector, a community or a nation. Take the case of the stunning treasure just recovered from the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, located inside East Fort, in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India. Chamber A, one of six known to contain gifts realised from centuries of brilliantly successful international trade, included 17kg of gold coins dating back to the East India Company period, gold trinkets weighing one tonne, an 18ft-long golden necklace weighing 2.5kg, a sack full of diamonds and thousands of pieces of antique jewellery studded with diamonds and emeralds, not to mention golden vessels and crowns.

According to many Hindus this is the property of the god Vishnu, whose jewel- encrusted statue it includes, and whose earthly custodian is the Martanda Varma Travancore family, ancestral maharajahs. Others believe it should belong to the Indian state and that the state should curate it. Others have expressed the view that it belongs to the people of Kerala, and should be turned into money (est. $22.3 billion in total for Chamber A, 'without even calculating the antique value of the objects') and distributed forthwith to the needy. The icons of gold could be seen as extravagant monuments to ancient centralised power, power that could now be properly exercised by returning to current generations the symbolic storage of their ancestors. But there are other ways of generating revenue, of course, like admitting paying tourists to the temple, something only allowed presently to Hindus.

The granite doors of Chamber A were allowed to be levered open as a result of a successful action in the High Court by lawyer T. …