Is Archaeological Valuation an Accounting Matter?

By Carman, John; Carnegie, Garry D. et al. | Antiquity, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Is Archaeological Valuation an Accounting Matter?


Carman, John, Carnegie, Garry D., Wolnizer, Peter W., Antiquity


This paper aims to combine two major current developments in the field of international archaeological resource management (ARM). The first - which can broadly be described as 'practical' - concerns the requirement imposed upon non-profit public museums in Australia to ascribe a monetary value to their collections for financial reporting purposes (Carnegie & Wolnizer 1996). The second - which can broadly be described as 'theoretical' - concerns the increasing interest being shown in discussions of the kinds of values it is appropriate to ascribe to archaeological material and what this means for its treatment (e.g. Lipe 1984; Darvill et al. 1987; Schaafsma 1989; Darvill 1993; 1995; Bruier & Mathers 1996; Carman 1996; Carver 1996). The authors of this paper are not concerned with establishing yet another new method for valuing ancient remains, but seek to raise issues surrounding the consequences for archaeology of doing so. The question this paper specifically addresses is whether, by taking the approaches archaeologists currently take towards the evaluation of their material, they are not in danger of supplying ammunition to those wanting to reduce the value of such material to arbitrarily-determined financial terms. The answer we propose is a shift of focus away from archaeology as material remains towards archaeology as a set of practices.

Collections as assets

Assets are conventionally defined by accountants as 'future economic benefits controlled by' an organization (AARF 1995: para. 14; Micallef & Peirson 1997: 31). In the case of 'not-for-profit' organizations such as museums, any item which provides benefit 'by enabling [such organizations] to meet their objectives' is also construed to be an asset within the definition, even if the organization's objectives are not commercial (AARF 1995: paras. 14 & 21; Carnegie & Wolnizer 1996: 374; 1997b). From I July 1997 public museums in Australia have been required to include in their accounts a statement of the financial value of their collections (AARF 1993, revised 1996; AARF 1995). The matter has been intensively and widely debated, but hitherto largely confined to issues concerning accounting for publicly-held cultural, heritage and scientific collections in Australia (cf. Carnegie & Wolnizer 1995; 1996; 1997a; 1997b; Hone 1997; Micallef & Peirson 1997).

Treating public collections as assets for financial reporting purposes is rationalized on the grounds of public interest - especially public concern with the accountability of collection managers and the efficiency of their performance (Micallef & Peirson 1997, 34). Financial values, being numerical, may be construed as having the appearance of 'objectivity' since the act of assigning a financial measure infers that the valuation represents a monetary reality (Churchman 1971: 30; Carnegie & Wolnizer 1995: 44). Financial valuation, it is said, will allow assessment of 'whether the value [of an item] has been eroded, improved or retained' (Micallef & Peirson 1997: 34). In particular, it is claimed (Micallef & Peirson 1997: 34) that

a large part of the collections controlled by many [institutions] is in storage rather than on public display. [Whether] the level of items in storage is excessive and should be reduced cannot be [determined] without information about both the quantity and financial value of those items.

Conventional accounting does not require assets to be measured at market value, which is an idea rooted in commercial reality. In the context of accounting for public 'assets', replacement cost or deprival value accounting is one such alternative. In the case of archaeological material, this would mean calculating the current estimated cost of mounting an excavation at the same scale as the original: the cost of transport to the site, and arranging consents to excavate; the salaries and subsistence costs of excavators, site supervisors, director and assistant director, and of finds and other specialists employed; the cost of museum and laboratory time and space, and of using any specialist equipment; of publication and dissemination of results, and of opening the site to the public; and any other costs involved in acquiring and interpreting the material. …

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