Should we stop excavating to preserve sites for the future?

This topic can have a lot of controversy surrounding it but it all comes down to one question: is preservation or education more important? Arguably they are the same thing, education will lead to the preservation of a culture and its people through the minds of the current generation, however poor excavation techniques can lead to both the failure of preservation and education.

So is it worth it? Is risking the loss of a civilisation to poor planning and tourism boards worth the knowledge and information that might be gained, in short, is education worth it? One of the most influential and famous historical sites for archaeologists and tourists alike is Pompeii. Pompeii is a Roman town locked in time by the devastating eruption in the year 79 AD and much has been learned about the life of the average (or closer to the middle class) Roman from these remains. Though the site has been extremely important in our understanding of Roman life in the 1st century BC and 1st century AD a lot of what we learnt could have been learned from primary historical sources. Pliny the younger, for example, tells us in detail about the eruption in Pompeii, describing it as ‘ memorable disaster’ and goes on to give detailed accounts that are thought to be the best in the world [‘ Letters of Pliny’ by Pliny]1. All of this has been discovered without the destruction of any historical sites. Though historical sources are not a replacement for archaeology, however valuable they can be, because they can be biased and only come from the people who could afford an education and a life of writing, in short, they come from the upper class, it is, in its very nature, exclusive.

This is all well and good for learning about rich Romans but there is little that can be used from any lower class citizens, excavation, however, can solve this problem. Using again the example of the Romans there is a lot that we can learn about how the average Roman city-dweller lived from the excavation of places like Ostia Antica. Large flats with up to two or three floors still intact show the size, or lack of it, in each of these apartments, showing that they were practical not comfortable. This is further supported by the hotels, brothels, bars, workshops and hundreds of shops that have also been found, the life of the average Ostian was fast paced and crowded and this amount of evidence couldn’t have been found through any literary source [Ostia introduction, Ostia-antica. org]2.

On top of this literary sources can’t give us information about everything, already they are biased and written only about the upper class but there was a time before sources, before even writing that we would know nothing about without the work of archaeology. Pre-historic archaeology is the study of history before the records began and is paramount to our understanding of how we lived and developed. In 2014 archaeologists discovered some of the oldest cave paintings known to us, they were discovered in Indonesia and show us how early human developed art [‘ Cave paintings change ideas about the origin of art’ BBC news]3. This isn’t something that could have been found without excavation. Though of, course, going back to the question of preservation a large problem when excavating anything is the problem that as soon as something is above ground and exposed to the elements it starts to decay again. Houses are beginning to collapse across Pompeii including, recently, the Schola Armaturarum Juventus Pompeiani (House of the Gladiators).

As Esther Addley writing for The Guardian points out, if it’s a miracle that Pompeii can survive an eruption in AD 79, bombing and poor excavation then surely it a tragedy that harsh Neapolitan rain and neglect from funding can cause this building to collapse. Quoting Dr Jo Berry of Swansea University “ Pompeii will continue to decay unless there is more basic maintenance of a regular basis” [‘ Neglected ruins of Pompeii declared a ‘ disgrace to Italy’ The Guardian]4. This can sometimes result in there being an improvement of the way we treat excavation sites, the decay or destruction of a site can sometimes be enough to push people towards action as is shown with the prehistoric Mimbres potters. These beautiful bowls depict animal and human forms and where highly sought by both archaeology and art lovers. This meant that in the 1960’s a way of getting as many of these pots out of the ground as possible was developed, by systematic bulldozing they could remove as many unbroken pots as possible. However this resulted in taking all of them out of archaeological context and destroying the site that they were in, which meant nothing could be learned about the Mimbres.

The Mimbres foundation was eventually able to find funding from a private source to carry out excavations in some of the looted and less damaged sites. Everything that was lost couldn’t be recovered however since then they have bought sites all across America in order to preserve them they ‘ also reached the conclusion that archaeological excavation is an expensive form of conservation’ which adds to the argument that arguably education is preservation, but we also can never back the parts of the site that were destroyed [‘ Archaeology: theories, methods and practice’, Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn]5. Technology in the field of archaeology is growing all the time, what we can do today is of course ahead of what could have been done in the past, meaning that in the future better technology will be available that can more safely excavate important sites. A good example of this is geophysics: geophysics is a non-intrusive way of surveying sites that allow you to see the layout of buildings and location of possible excavation sites without risking damaging anything by digging them up. There is multiple ways of doing this including Magnetometry, Earth Electrical Resistance and Ground-penetrating Rader [Geophysical survey, Durham University, Sep 2015]6 .

This is obviously a highly useful piece of technology however it doesn’t show the small intricacies of a site, it can’t show you smaller objects or colours for example. This advancement shows that there is better ways to discover more about our past than excavation but it also shows that there is always a long way to come. Looking back on past techniques it shows that it might be worth waiting until technology is advanced enough that everything that we can learn can be learned while also leaving everything underground. A method used called wall-chasing where everything was literally just ‘ dug-up’ and context was ignored, as were the layers of history surrounding the artefact meaning all history of a site was lost, was widely used until better ones came in. Human remains would also be discarded under the false believe that there was nothing that could be learned from them. There may come a time that moving any soil at all could lose us information that couldn’t be found it any other way, if this is the case then it’s better to leave everything that is currently underground completely alone until future technology is advanced enough to take full advantage of a site, but that raises the question of ‘ how will we know when our technology isn’t going to get any more advanced?’ Then there’s the question of getting people interested in the world of archaeology, which is of course paramount to future generations discovering and learning more about our past.

We can cover up anything that’s exposed which would solve the problem of decay however there is no way to generate the excitement that sites such as Pompeii have surrounding them if you simply bury everything after you dig it up. Though it is very expensive to leave things above ground for tourists, especially if you want to keep everything well preserved it can inspire the next generation of archaeologists. Excavation also has an element of chance, you could discover nothing, or even more than you originally hoped, it’s these exciting and inspiring ideas that will generate new archaeologists, rather than just scanning or reading all your information. Of course the main problem will always be the finances, the aforementioned Pompeii example shows that we can’t look after what we already have and excavating anymore can just add to this cost, the easier and cheapest option is to cover everything back up again, but this isn’t necessarily the best. In conclusion there is some merits for archaeological excavation however there is more progress that needs to made in the area of preservation before it becomes just as sustainable and worthwhile as literary sources and also so that we can learn the maximum amount that we can from these ancient sites without wasting them.