Preservation and the Academically Viable Sample

By Startin, Bill | Antiquity, June 1993 | Go to article overview

Preservation and the Academically Viable Sample


Startin, Bill, Antiquity


To dig, or not to dig, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrag'd professors, Or to take picks and shovels against our past, And by digs explain it? -- To dig -- explain -- Destroy; and by digging to say we end The thirst, and the thousand natural questions That we are heirs to, 'tis a consummation Devoutly wish'd by some. To dig -- explain; -- Destroy! perchance publish: ay, there's the rub; For through that publication what may come, When we have shovelled off this mud and soil, Must give us pause: there's the critique That makes a mockery of such conceit; For who would bear the developer's scorn, The professor's wrong, the academic's abuse, The pangs of ignorance, the law's delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, When he himself might his digs undertake With a bare trowel? Who would restraints bear, To grunt and swear under such restriction, But that the dread of critical review, That uncover'd error from which no Reputation returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear preservation Than fly to study what we know not of?. Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; And thus the impetus for revelation Is stifled with great policy and law; And enterprises of great pith and moment, With this regard, their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action. -- Soft you now! The fair Inspectorate! -- Colleague, in thy earmarks Be all my bids remember'd.

This adaptation of Hamlet's soliloquy describes a 'dilemma': to study and thus destroy or to preserve and thus severely restrict study. And, just as Hamlet was not expecting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to choose for him the alternative of 'not to be', so we cannot expect a simple right or wrong solution. The archaeological resource is finite and, inasmuch as we need to study it by destructive processes, we are like the confirmed tippler marooned on a desert island with his last bottle of whisky -- if he drinks it it's gone but, if he doesn't drink it, what use is it to him anyway? 'Use value' versus 'existence value'. Hamlet's tragedy was to fail to resolve his dilemma; how are we to avoid a similar fate?

In practice, the texts that guide us recognize this dilemma, albeit implicitly rather than explicitly. From the Institute of Field Archaeologists' Code of Conduct (Principle 2) we have:

The archaeologist has a responsibility for the conservation of the archaeological heritage.

Further, from the Code of Approved Practice for the Regulation of Contractual Arrangements in Field Archaeology (paragraph 2) we have:

An archaeologist's primary responsibility is to safeguard the archaeological resource and to seek preservation in situ as the first option.

However, from the Code of Conduct (Rule 2.3), we also have:

An archaeologist shall ensure that the objects of a research project are an adequate justification for the destruction of the archaeological evidence which it will entail.

This reference to both aspects of the dilemma is commonplace and any concerns we may have must be seen in the wider European and world context. For example, the recent European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage (Article 2) states:

Each party undertakes to institute, by means appropriate to the State in question, a legal system for the protection of the archaeological heritage, . . .

But also (Article 3):

To preserve the archaeological heritage and guarantee the scientific significance of archaeological research work, each party undertakes: . . . to ensure that archaeological excavations and prospecting are undertaken in a scientific manner . . .

And, in the explanatory notes:

This is not to say that the heritage must remain inviolate. By the use of scientific techniques, both destructive and non-destructive, the heritage can be used to provide information on the evolution of mankind . …

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