jeffthelinguist asks:

So, as an archaeologist, can you answer the age old question of how much time needs to pass before grave robbing becomes archaeology? What’s the appropriate time period for looting the dead to become acceptable?

I’m assuming you’ve seen the screenshot of an archaeologist commenting, in answer to this question, that this is actually a super awkward and uncomfortable question?  I’m fortunate enough to work in an area where it doesn’t really come up much – we’re all pretty sure that two thousand years is comfortably in the safe zone.  Even then, though… it would be a mistake to think that archaeology can be a pure science, that our study of the past can remain detached from the present. It’s all grave robbing, in a way. The only difference is in how pure your motives are… which is a matter of perspective.

You dig something up, you find an object that has, through decades or centuries or millennia of waiting, been transformed into a piece of “the present.”  You infer, from the type of object, its condition when you found it, the nature of its deposition, the other objects found together with it, and a thousand other tiny details, that it was once part of “the past.”  You deduce on the basis of evidence what “the past” was like, what its people were like and how they lived, and what sequence of events produced the site you are now looking at.  Whether you’re doing crime scene analysis or archaeology is largely a matter of how long it took you to get there.  What questions you wish to ask about the past, where you choose to dig and which civilisations we devote resources to studying, which details of the evidence are thought to be relevant, why we actually need to know any of it, and who gets to decide all of those things… those are all questions about the process, not the evidence itself.  Many different answers can be legitimate, and the questions aren’t independent from modern politics, art and philosophy.

There’s a famous Onion article, where a bunch of classicists confess that they actually invented the entire ancient Greek civilisation on an all-night coffee bender.  That sounds ridiculous, but the reason it’s such good satire is… we did invent the country that Greece is today.  Not by making anything up, but by deciding that certain facets of our evidence about the past were important, and fixing on a particular relationship that we saw between the past, the present and the future.  A certain set of notions about what “Greek civilisation” was, and a conviction that the world still needed it.  And for Greece itself this has been a double-edged sword, because the world’s obsession with ancient Greek culture is a fantastic rallying point for national unity, but they also have to deal with the global media constantly talking about them in this condescending cadence of “failing to measure up to their magnificent ancestors” (especially in the last decade).  In Italy, archaeology was part of the propaganda wing of Mussolini’s fascist regime, because he saw himself as resurrecting the Roman Empire.  Major parts of the archaeological landscape of the city of Rome exist the way they do today because his followers designed them to emphasise Rome’s antiquity, austerity and power.  Many brands of nationalism emphasise an intrinsic connection between a country’s people and the land, the soil itself.  Pulling artefacts out of the soil that can be interpreted (with a little motivated reasoning) as being part of your cultural ancestry… well, it shouldn’t be difficult to see how that might be powerful.

I mention all this because one obvious rule of thumb to the question about archaeology and grave robbing is that we should wait until there is no one left alive who would be harmed by violently bringing the past into contact with the present.  All things considered, two thousand years might not be long enough.

A burial site has two sorts of cultural value; its original purpose can be maintained for the spiritual benefit of people who identify with the culture that established it, or it can be excavated and its contents turned towards active cultural work – whether that’s propaganda, or enhancing the state of human knowledge (and I hope I’m not being too generous by making that distinction).  If you’re dealing with a graveyard that is still actively being used, you’re probably going to cause pretty serious harm by exhuming bodies; if you’re dealing with a burial site that’s a few millennia old, and the local people no longer share the religious beliefs of its original owners or identify with them ethnically, you’re probably in the clear.  If it’s the 18th or 19th century and you’re dealing with a non-European culture that you’ve colonised, maybe you don’t even give a $#!t, and archaeology lets you claim a superior understanding of that culture’s past than the people themselves.  In New Zealand, where I come from, there is a tradition among the Māori people, still practised in some places, of digging up burials from the previous generation or two and retrieving precious objects, taonga, from them, so that the ancestors who once owned them can live again through their continued use.  I don’t think that’s so different from the western academic conception of archaeology; you recover the treasures of an earlier generation in order to better understand them and benefit from their wisdom.  These days, we would put it in more clinical terms, of course, and we’re no longer as interested in “treasures” as we were in the early 20th century, but I suspect the underlying impulse is the same.

So, when is the dividing line?

Well… when would you like it to be?

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