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The excavator: creator or destroyer?

Our special section on heritage in the June issue took the conventional current view that excavation is destruction. A more creative vision is offered. A generation ago Mortimer Wheeler articulated the basic principle that 'all excavation is destruction'. This has come to be accepted as a fundamental article of faith, and underpins the conservation philosophy expounded in the special section on Heritage in the June 1993 issue of ANTIQUITY (67 (1993): 400-445), which may be summarized in a syllogism: all excavation is destruction; destruction is wrong; therefore all excavation is wrong. I would like to respond with a contrary view that excavators do not destroy archaeological sites; they create them.

Although the impact of archaeologists is minimal when set against the multitude of direct or indirect impacts of modern society, the simple acceptance of the concept of destructive excavation can be seen in the prejudice against excavations held by many cultural heritage managers. In Australia, for example, the size of most excavations has rapidly shrunk from half the site, to 10%, to very small (50 cm x 50 cm) holes -- if excavation is allowed at all. There is little consideration given to different scales of excavation required by different research aims. Excavation is seen as exceptional, with an associated feeling that it is important to leave parts of sites untouched for future excavation, which can then 'test' the work of current researchers. While there is certainly some value in the ability to re-excavate sites, there are several problems with this argument. A policy of sampling small portions of sites rather than excavating on a larger scale has an implicit assumption of site homogeneity or uniformity; that one small part will be representative of the whole. While this may be true for the coarser scales of analysis common in much Australian hunter--gatherer archaeology, it involves a model of site formation and function which needs to be demonstrated rather than assumed. A belief in uniformity and homogeneity is also essential to the idea that future excavations can 'test' previous work by using the material from one part of a site to demonstrate that the collection of material from another part was 'wrong'. If our successors are able to excavate so much better than we can, they may never be able to relate the finer scale of their excavations to the coarser scale of ours. They will have black holes of uncertainty in the centre of their site-plans, and will curse us as much for digging small portions of sites and destroying spatial patterns as for digging the whole.

This discussion so far has presupposed that sites are identifiable and bounded entities. But, while individual as a place, a site is only one representative of a class. While some are so unusual that they must be treated as special cases, many sites conform to general patterns. There are many examples in Australia of absurd limitations where only partial excavation of one of many equivalent neighbouring sites is permitted, with the result that we have inadequate information on one site, with no data on its internal patterning of discard, and no possibility of deriving this information without digging another. It is surely better to treat the whole set of features as the sampling universe, and to dig at least one completely, or on a scale commensurate with the extent of the site.

Preserving sites for future study presumes that archaeological skill in the future will be better than the present (or how could future work test that of today?). Skills and techniques of field archaeology can only be improved by training, practice and experience; we need to excavate continually in order to assess critically the earlier field research. Knowing our skills to be limited, we must practise them in order to improve: even if this is at the expense of some of our sites.

That is not the only paradox. Much heritage and conservation philosophy is predicated on this responsibility of the Present to the Future. If we interpret this to mean we should not excavate sites because they must be preserved for future archaeologists to work on, and if our equally patient successors hold the same attitude, they will leave all sites for the more distant future, and so on ad infinitum.

One can, however, argue that the Present is as important as the Future: we owe it to people of today to obtain as good an understanding of past events and processes as possible. We have not only a responsibility to allow future people opportunities for primary research, but also one to supply them with a well-founded and clear basis for their programmes of study. Sites are not stable. They will not remain unaltered, even if we refrain from investigating them. Apart from immediate and direct human threats, there are less easily controlled forces at work -- water, wind, rabbits and other agents of destruction. Perhaps we have an obligation to excavate.

The arguments against excavation might be acceptable, if the heritage value of unexcavated deposits, of unknown age and composition -- or indeed presence -- could be assessed by any other means. These considerations, including the conflicting agendas of indigenous peoples, are beyond the scope of this discussion, but we should not forget that even the concept of a past, a long and complex past, has only come about through excavation.

Which brings me to a broader issue. The past as we perceive it is culturally determined. Our view of it, knowledge of it, or understanding of it is structured by the social and historical context we live in and the data available to us. The majority of people in Australia today accept the structures of the human past provided by archaeologists: the archaeologists' past(s) is founded on their constructs of excavated data. While material is buried in a soil matrix, invisible and unknown, it only has an untapped potential for providing information about the past. The extraction or mining of these sites releases different parts of this potential. Sites excavated by a small, deep test-pit will supply data for a basic chronology, while those excavated over a wider area will also provide data for synchronous behavioural explanations. Clearly, the style and nature of the excavation not only locates artefacts and ecofacts, but provides them with a defined context: not an absolute but a artificial one. The skill of an excavator is seen in an ability to identify original contexts and give them definition, or otherwise to create a viable, useful and coherent set of relationships for found objects. The nature of these constructs allows, limits or determines the possible interpretations placed upon them.

In short, archaeologists create archaeological data out of sites. The previous (unknown) physical structure of a site is changed -- irrevocably changed (or destroyed) -- and a new (formally defined) abstract structure is given to them. Some potential information will be lost in the process, but other data are extracted and given meaning and significance. The analogy is perhaps to the sculptor, who destroys a block of stone to find a statue within, who discards or loses some of the material to isolate and define one previously hidden model. So we should see the excavator extracting one of many possible structures of material, with coherence, with meaning and with value, from an otherwise relatively meaningless block of deposit.

In terms of the processes that make and change sites and knowledge, the excavator should be seen not simply as a destroyer, but as a particular agent of transformation, which creates our structured archaeological record.
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Author:Frankel, David
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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