Archaeology and Conservation, An Uphill Battle Against Human Nature
Anthropologists often face a grave threat to their research and even to their profession at large, from renegade amateurs, history enthusiasts, and rampant treasure hunters. Treasure hunting in particular has become a problem in the United States where cemeteries and ruins are at the mercy of locals, especially because many of these sites are not properly recognized and protected by state and federal law. Often, anthropologists and others seeking to protect sites have to rely more on the contents of a site rather than obtaining recognition for the site as a whole. At the same time, anthropologists are required to back track the claims of some of these amateurs and re-evaluate sites that were partially destroyed and misrepresented or misunderstood. These two problems are by no means a recent problem only, even during the last hundred years, where supposedly modern scientific methods and responsible science was being done; there have been cases of gross neglect.
(Hanson/Fort Craig): Torn cup left by a looter in exposed grave at Fort Craig. Sourced from works cited below.
Anthropologist Jeffery R. Hanson’s article in American Antiquity is centered on the cultural interest in treasure hunting and amateur archeology, both of which he claims is causing significant damage to historical sites both discovered and undiscovered. In the article, Hanson discusses the story of a man nick-named Gravedigger, who was an amateur archeologist and treasure hunter with many ties to the archeological community in the American South West. From these ties, he acquired tactics, skills, and general information that aided his efforts in pillaging a civil war fort, Fort Craig, its neighboring cemetery, and possibly other sites in the area.
According to Hanson, archeologists at the site discovered enormous amounts of damage and evidence that the site had been pilfered many times over the last five decades. Archaeologists had to spend a great deal of time and effort, not to restore the site, which was destroyed not just by local treasure hunters in addition to Gravedigger, but to reclaim the remains of soldiers and other artifacts. There is a National law that Hanson refers to which gives the government authority to relocate the remains of military personnel to national cemeteries regardless of where they are buried. A number of legal matters still had to be dealt with despite the fact that the government technically owned the land on which the fort and cemetery stood. Archaeologists excavating the site were able to recover the remains of many soldiers, however the site had been looted of most artifacts, and it was discovered that many graves had been disturbed and their entire contents removed.
Hanson believes this a typical example of how a historical site can be ruined and history lost because of untrained hands in the field that may just be looking for souvenirs. He argues, quite effectively, for a greater amount of wariness in the archeological community and more stringent laws for the destruction of historical sites.
(James/DuraEuropos): Overhead of Tunnel under Tower 19 showing features at Dura-Europos. Sourced from works cited below.
A separate article written by Simon James on the pitfalls of early archeology and the excavation of sites led to wrong conclusions and even potential damage to historical sites. The example used for both of these subjects is a Graeco-Roman fort on the Syrian Euphrates River that was under attack sometime in the year 256 C.E. from the Partho-Sasanian (Persian) Empire. Around what is known as Tower 19, an excavation began in the late 1920’s by amateur archeologist Robert du Mesnil du Buisson. The Persians attempted to bring down the tower from underground and open a hole in the wall to bypass the Roman defenses. When excavated, du Buisson discovered 21 bodies in a preserved state within a tunnel that had been dug underneath the tower from outside and inside the fort. Twenty of the bodies were found to be Roman soldiers and servants wearing traditional armor, weapons, and many even had coins in their purses, while the remaining corpse apparently belonged to a single Persian soldier. Du Buisson correctly made the assumption that the Persians had attempted to tunnel under the tower from a nearby temple and that the Romans had discovered their efforts and carved a second tunnel from their side of the tower in order to meet the Persians head on and stop them.
Du Buisson believed that the Roman soldiers were trapped in a cave-in during the battle, but James re-interprets the site based on a re-examination of the tower, the tunnel, and the remains. Unfortunately, much of the data was lost over the years or not recorded, and some of the site was destroyed by du Buisson’s team. However, the re-examination found traces of the chemicals bitumen, or pitch, and sulphur in the tunnel around the bodies and noted the odd positions of the corpses. It seemed from the evidence that the Roman soldiers had fallen on top of each other in a weird pattern that could not be explained by simply concluding that a cave-in was the cause of death. Instead it became apparent that the corpses had been stacked into a crude wall around the Roman side of the tunnel. James believes the evidence indicates there was conflict when the Romans met the Persians. Du Buisson, decided the Romans likely retreated and attempted to collapse the tunnel in response to the Persians, sealing off the tunnel with a wall of Roman bodies. The absence of Persian bodies suggests they were removed from the tunnel and the Persians attempted to create an explosion that would bring down Tower 19. James’ believes the single Persian corpse was a soldier who either started the blast or failed to retreat in time before the explosion.
James uses this modern re-examination of evidence from the original evidence collected in 1920 as an example of the potential pitfalls facing early archaeologists, many of whom were untrained and ill-prepared for the complexities of a site like Tower 19. In the article, James goes further by pointing out where the original team went wrong, not just in their understanding of what happened, but in how they handled the evidence, much of which was destroyed in the haphazard excavation of the fort. Granted that much of the fort had been destroyed by numerous attacks both by man and by nature, but the treatment of the site and its artifacts was ill-managed to the point of nearly ruining it for other anthropologists who might come later to verify the findings.
(Karmon/Rome): Ruins in central Rome, old sketch. Sourced from works cited below.
While the problems anthropologists face with preserving sites and artifacts of importance in this modern age are significant, they pale in comparison to the problems of Renaissance Rome. Since Christianity came to Rome the Emperors, Popes, nobles, and even the common man have been blamed for the systematic destruction of artifacts, buildings, and significant locations. In his recently published article, anthropologist and historian David Karmon is attempting to combat the arguments and complaints of historians and other important persons decrying the destruction of Rome at the hands of its leaders and citizens for the last thousand years. In his arguments he draws comparisons between the historical protests and writings of past important figures with documentation supporting his claims that the leaders of Rome took many actions in an effort to preserve the ancient glory of the city.
Karmon draws attention to the practices from the early reign of the popes in Italy where it is known that countless temples, palaces, and monuments were scavenged for their marble and stone in order to build palaces and churches for the Catholic Church and Roman nobles. In some cases, so called pagan temples were destroyed outright in order to crush resistance against the Church, though some of these were rebuilt and converted into churches. However, the most egregious crime was the construction of the Vatican and St. Paul’s Basilica almost entirely from marble and stone taken from the Roman Coliseum and the Forum. Karmon does not deny these horrendous acts, but argues that very early on the citizens of Rome made known their disgruntled feelings over the ravaging of old Roman glory to the Popes and nobles. He points to documentation found among surviving documents that suggest the leaders of Rome were well aware of these complaints and took action to preserve as much of the ancient city as possible.
Archaeologists continue fighting the growing demands of human civilization and a lack of interest in preserving historical sites. More extensive laws might curb the tide of destruction, but at some point laws aimed at conservation can be detrimental to excavations with no certainty of preventing all crimes. It has become a struggle to balance the interests of conservation against human interests, though as Karmon demonstrates, there have long been parties interested in preserving history. In conclusion, hopefully, despite criminal behavior and human error always being present, society will strive to preserve as much of its history as possible.
HANSON, JEFFERY R.
2011 “LOOTING OF THE FORT CRAIG CEMETERY: DAMAGE DONE AND LESSONS LEARNED.” American Antiquity 76.3 (2011): 429-445. PRINT.
2011 “STRATAGEMS, COMBAT, AND ‘CHEMICAL WARFARE’ IN THE SIEGE MINES OF DURA-EUROPOS.” American Journal of Archaeology 115.1 (2011): 69-101. PRINT.
2011 “ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE ANXIETY OF LOSS: EFFACING PRESERVATION FROM THE HISTORY OF RENAISSANCE ROME.” American Journal of Archaeology
115. 2 (April 2011): 159-174. PRINT.