Placing a Value on the Past
As archaeologists we place certain values on the objects we work with; these values often differ with those placed on artifacts by the public. Archaeologists and conservators do not place monetary value on artifacts and objects, instead, we value objects from the past based on the information we can gain from them about the people who used them. The public often values objects from the past based on their monetary value. Examples of this can be seen on popular television programs across numerous networks. Many of these programs ‘dig’ for artifacts and give dollar amounts to the objects they remove, with little to no regard for the valuable data that can be gained by the less glamorous analysis involved in the archaeological and conservation process.
As previously discussed in my blog “Ethical Principles in Conservation and Archaeology”, the Society for Historical Archaeology sets out a number of ethical principles to guide its members. One of the critical components of this document is Principle Six, which states that archaeologists must not profit monetarily from the sale or trade of artifacts, and should discourage the placing of financial values on archaeological specimens (Ethics Statement, SHA 2007). We have a duty to protect the past, and placing financial values on artifacts could easily contribute to the illicit antiquities trade. Archaeologists and conservators desire to learn about past cultures through an analysis of the material remains they left behind. We value artifacts not for their rarity or beauty, but for their ability to better inform our interpretations of the past.
Contrary to reality, television shows and films portray archaeology as a financially driven hunt for artifacts, skewing the public’s perspective of what professionals do. This extends back to the founding of archaeology in popular culture: Indian Jones, where he is shown as essentially a glorified looter, plundering ancient sites for treasure to put in a museum (Hall 2004). This trend is upsetting, and made tougher to stomach by current programs that follow television personalities with metal detectors that hunt for artifacts. Inserting a measure of true archaeology into these programs, although not as glamorous, could really help alter the public’s evaluation of archaeological sites and specimens.
All that being said, these programs do provide a crucial service to archaeology: public awareness. That value cannot be overlooked. The public is at least being made aware of archaeology, even if it is a skewed version. Archaeologists and conservators should strive to work with these programs to insert as much actual archaeology into them as possible, while maintaining viewership and interest. In this way we can attempt to alter the public’s interpretation of archaeology, and potentially get our values all in line: to help understand and preserve the past.
“Ethics Statement”, Society of Historical Archaeology (2007). http://www.sha.org/about/ethics.cfm
Hall, M.A., 2004. “Romancing the Stones: Archaeology in Popular Cinema” in European Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 7(2): 159–176.