By Brian Fagan
The devastation along the Nile a century ago was shocking. "It is sickening the rate at which everything is being destroyed, and the little regard paid to preservation," lamented Egyptologist Flinders Petrie in 1904 in Aims and Methods in Archaeology. Despite vastly improved excavation methods, sophisticated remote sensing techniques, and a battery of scientific approaches, the Nile destruction of Petrie's time is now global. The nonrenewable record of the human past is evaporating before our eyes in every corner of the world at a dizzying pace. The culprits are easily identified—unprecedented population growth, massive industrialization, urban expansion, strip mining, and deep plowing. Added to this is the damage wrought by looters and professional grave robbers feeding the insatiable international antiquities market. Yet much of the professional archaeological community still pays little more than lip service to conservation.
Petrie's conservation strategy was straightforward: excavation and yet more excavation, with careful attention to the smallest object, and, above all, prompt and full publication. Not that Petrie was a paragon of archaeological virtue. By today's standards, his excavation methods were, at best, rough. He recovered many objects by paying his workers for them, lest precious finds ended up in a dealer's hands.
In Petrie's day, antiquities legislation, such as there was, was laxly enforced. Today, virtually every nation has antiquities laws on the books, ranging from measures that protect all archaeological sites and artifacts to others that extend protection only to sites on public land. On paper there is a patchwork of legal protection for many of the world's sites. But enforcing these laws is another matter. Effective policing of sites is expensive and, for poorer countries, an investment with little perceptible return, unless there are economic benefits from mass tourism.
To their credit, many archaeologists have been proactive in fostering protective legislation and in educating the public about the importance of archaeology. Public archaeology—which seeks to inform the public about cultural heritage and investigation of the past—is a growth industry. As numerous observers have pointed out, an aware public and an archaeology engaged in society are key to preserving the archaeological record. Unfortunately, these all-important conservation activities do not rank high in the archaeological pantheon of valued activities, despite the passionate engagement of many eminent and influential archaeologists.
Conserving the Resource
Mention the word conservation to most archaeologists and they will regale you with their minor triumphs in the field—such as lifting a delicate infant burial or piecing together a clay pot. In archaeological circles, conservation means conservation of artifacts or of buildings, rock, art, or other tangible remains. This narrow definition stems from the often-specialized nature of conservation work and the complex science that is sometimes involved. Even today, most archaeologists are startlingly unaware that archaeology and conservation are closely intertwined. They tend to categorize archaeology into artificial subdivisions: purely academic research, salvaging and protecting the archaeological record, and conservation—the latter being an entirely different activity.
The stereotype of the conservator in archaeology is of someone who mends pots, stabilizes waterlogged artifacts, or achieves miracles of restoration. In fact, conservation encompasses a much broader field of endeavor than just the care of objects. Conservation professionals include individuals with backgrounds in fields ranging from geology and chemistry to architecture and engineering. These professionals can and should play an integral role in the preservation of archaeological sites. But for that to happen, archaeologists need a new perspective on archaeological conservation, one in which conservation is the top priority whenever fieldwork is planned.
In 1973 the respected southwestern archaeologist William Lipe wrote a now-classic paper in The Kiva entitled "A Conservation Model for American Archaeology." The article has become required reading for anyone concerned with archaeological conservation. Lipe pointed out that "we are now beginning to realize that all sites are rather immediately threatened, if one takes a time frame of more than a few years." He also distinguished between emergency and "leisurely" salvage, the latter being investigations at sites "when we do not yet know the date at which the site may be lost." Leisurely salvage was the purview of academic archaeologists but, he warned, "if our field is to last for more than a few decades, we need to shift to a resource conservation model as primary." Obviously, archaeologists have to excavate enough to research basic problems and to keep the field intellectually healthy, but their primary responsibility should be to ensure that the finite resource base of archaeological sites lasts as long as possible.
The Lipe paper appeared in the early days of concern about the destruction of sites, and grew out of his experiences with a field that had previously been called salvage archaeology and that was becoming known as cultural resource management (CRM). The new term suggested managing the archaeological record for future generations—a far broader mandate than just the rescue of sites and artifacts from the blade of a bulldozer. This management includes not only survey, excavation, and analysis but also recommendations for long-term management of the resource. CRM was a new type of archaeology, created not by academic questions but by a need to satisfy legal mandates for the management of sites. It has mushroomed since the 1970s and is now the dominant form of field and laboratory archaeology in North America. Under various guises, it dominates archaeology in many other parts of the world as well, among them Australia, Europe, and Japan.
If trends continue, archaeology—instead of being a purely academic discipline—will become almost entirely a profession focused on managing the past. Most employment opportunities are now in private companies working under tight deadlines and strict legal requirements. CRM projects have serious responsibilities for the past, often involving decisions as to which sites are to be excavated, which are to be destroyed, and which are to be saved in their entirety. Often, budgetary issues intervene that weigh archaeological sites against multimillion-dollar construction projects.
The long-term archaeological work in the Ballona wetlands—site of the massive Playa Vista development project in west Los Angeles—is an all-too-rare example of archaeology winning. Another instance is a historic Chumash village named Xonxon'ata in central California; there, a road was rerouted, limited excavations were carried out, and precious information on an important community was saved for posterity. Xonxon'ata is an example where legal requirements helped enable a successful preservation effort. Public opinion, when mobilized, is also a powerful voice for archaeology. The saving of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre under a high-rise office building on London's South Bank resulted from public outcry rather than from legislation.
In many ways, this aspect of CRM is a highly sophisticated extension of the Flinders Petrie philosophy: dig it up before someone else destroys it. It is an attempt to salvage as much information as possible with the time, money, and methods available. In some respects, it represents the successful implementation of part of Lipe's conservation model.
But there are downsides. An explosion of archaeological data has emerged from these many projects, most of it published in what is called "gray literature"—reports of limited circulation or in cyberspace, which, despite efforts to the contrary, are effectively inaccessible to most archaeologists. To their credit, many CRM archaeologists have made determined efforts to publish their work in academic settings and to produce books or monographs; many academic archaeologists have also completed valuable research as part of a CRM project. But while the sites may have been investigated and compliance reports written, the basic archaeological data from them remains unvetted.
CRM has brought many benefits to archaeology, especially in its bold use of remote sensing and other nonintrusive field methods. Unfortunately, much CRM activity, especially in the areas of legal compliance and project management, lies outside the conventional purview of academic archaeology. A growing chasm has opened between many CRM archaeologists and their academic colleagues, who are concerned not with compliance and mitigation but with the acquisition of original knowledge. This chasm results from the outdated values of archaeology and from serious lacunae in archaeological training. If conservation was a central value of all archaeological training and practice, this chasm would be substantially narrowed.
A Conservation Ethic
In his 1973 article, Lipe pointed out that all archaeological excavation, whether CRM-based or not, erodes the database; thus, careful research designs, which incorporate conservation as a basic strategy, are essential. All archaeologists are involved with preservation of the resource, either in the long- or short-term; this means that a conservation ethic must be integral to all archaeological research.
The problem is even more acute now than when Lipe wrote his paper. Today there are hundreds, if not thousands, of researchers who are mining sites to answer purely academic—and often very insignificant—questions. This ever-expanding activity (admittedly sometimes carried out as part of a CRM project) is as devastating to the future of archaeology as is industrial activity. Every summer dozens of fieldworkers excavate yet more sites, with little concern for the most pressing problem of all—will there be sites for their grandchildren to investigate? While no one advocates a complete moratorium on excavation, it must be the strategy of last resort, and it should never be total, unless a site is about to vanish forever.
In the academy, archaeology is a science of discovery: survey, excavation, laboratory work, and peer-reviewed publication. Beneath these are—in descending order of perceived desirability—CRM activities, teaching, curating, public archaeology, and administrative roles. Conservation does not figure in the hierarchy at all, except as a generally accepted and ill-defined basic ethic, which is taught in virtually no graduate programs. While both the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for American Archaeology have developed forthright ethical statements and policies to which their members are expected to adhere, few graduate seminars dwell on ethics in any depth.
Most archaeologists at research universities are on a treadmill of survey and excavation, publication, then more fieldwork and yet more publication. Much of this activity is driven by grants from private or public sources that, like university promotion committees, are most interested in new discoveries and their rapid publication. Almost no agencies that support archaeological research call for a conservation plan in their guidelines for proposal. Nor do they insist on full publication before considering a further application for new fieldwork. This model of quick paper publication is appropriate for a fast-moving discipline like theoretical physics or climatology, but not for archaeological publication where—as the great excavator Sir Mortimer Wheeler reminded us years ago—the primary responsibility is to record one's findings for posterity. Regrettably, the publish-or-perish system makes little allowance for the time it takes to complete a final report, nor are funds for such work readily available.
We archaeologists are also to blame. We would rather excavate and write stimulating provisional reports than undertake the laborious, time-consuming work of a final report. Even with all the danger signs around us, we often ignore a fundamental reality of archaeology: an unpublished site is destroyed as completely as one demolished by a bulldozer. The record can never be replaced.
Like all sciences, archaeology has become increasingly specialized, with an explosion in master's and doctoral programs. For years, only a handful of students entered such programs. Today hundreds of people enter such programs each year, all of them working under specialist researchers who act as their mentors. Only a few graduate programs, most of them recent, are training people for a world in which archaeology is now a profession as much as it is an academic discipline. We are long overdue for a massive reorientation of graduate training and serious population control in the number of newly minted academic specialists, many of whom end up in the CRM world and hate it. These are the last people who should be salvaging the past.
At no point in the careers of most archaeology graduate students do they receive comprehensive training in conservation. Most Ph.D. candidates have never heard of Lipe's groundbreaking paper, let alone have read it. When questioned about this lacuna, many hard-pressed faculty say that they do not have time to include conservation in the curriculum. To which the only response must be that they need to reorder their priorities, for the future of archaeology and for the benefit of their students' careers. It is also a matter of basic professional ethics.
Integrating Conservation and Archaeology
How, then, do we make conservation central to archaeological activity? We need major shifts in research priorities, drastic reductions in the number of doctorates in purely academic subjects, and a growth in meaningful graduate programs that meld archaeology and conservation into a seamless whole. We need to start a long-term debate about curriculum within both archaeological and conservation circles. Archaeology does not need more specialized fieldwork mindlessly culling a diminishing inventory of undisturbed sites. In fact, the basic challenges archaeology faces in the future are far more interesting and exciting.
These challenges are best addressed by integrating conservation into the very fabric of archaeological research, as part of the basic design of any project. We should never forget that even the most careful excavation destroys the archaeological record. It is all very well to develop a research proposal for the excavation of an early farming village in Syria or an Andean ceremonial center that promises fresh insights into the origins of agriculture. But in an era when the archaeological record is under threat everywhere, the first concern of any research project should be the maintenance of the site and the stakes of all those concerned with its conservation— be they archaeologists, local landowners, tourist officials, or indigenous peoples.
Some may question this priority, but to challenge it they must answer a simple question: what guarantee do we have that future generations of archaeologists will be able to build upon your field research? For example, we can never hope to check the validity of Leonard Woolley's reconstructions of the royal burials at Ur; his records are too incomplete. Nor can we answer many questions about the history and uses of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon—most of the rooms were emptied haphazardly in the early days of gung-ho archaeology. If we are to be responsible stewards of the past, we must make all research subordinate, at least in part, to preservation and conservation. At present, our protective infrastructure and professional training are woefully inadequate to the task.
How can we better integrate conservation into archaeological practice?
- First, intensify the present cautious interactions between archaeologists
and the conservation community with the objective of fostering
specific outcomes. Such outcomes should include a massive revamping
of basic archaeological training, which would make conservation
strategies central to research. Introduce archaeologists to such
issues as stewardship and stakeholders, to archaeological tourism
and the economics of heritage—as part of their basic academic
- Second, foster intensive research into—and development
of—nonintrusive archaeological methods to minimize excavation
in the future. Important progress has been made in this area but
much more needs to be done.
- Third, require that all doctoral dissertation proposals make
conservation the centerpiece of the proposed research. As a corollary,
encourage grant-giving agencies, whether government or private,
to insist on conservation plans as the first priority in all funding
- Fourth, require full publication of all fieldwork before future
excavation and surveys are funded. The term publication would
also include specific actions to preserve both the field records
and the finds from the excavations.
- Fifth, drastically reduce admissions to academic doctoral programs, but foster and support graduate curricula that make conservation the highest priority.
Last, decouple archaeology from the publish-or-perish culture, and reward conservation projects as equal partners. A strong case could be made for a series of highly prestigious prizes or awards that give prominence and prestige to archaeological conservation.
No one suggests that basic research should be abandoned or is unimportant. But we need to look far beyond the immediate gratification of a new discovery or of a peer-reviewed paper published in the pages of Science. At present, we are not even debating the ways in which we must integrate a conservation ethic into the core of archaeological research. The sooner we begin, the better.
As the current managers of the nonrenewable resource, we archaeologists bear a heavy ethical responsibility to conserve the past for the future, while maintaining a steady but carefully considered flow of basic research, which gives the discipline its vitality. At present, conservation stands at the margins of the archaeological world. Fortunately, notable examples of basic research and conservation working hand in hand are not uncommon. For instance, excavations at the Maya center of Xunantunich in Belize during the 1990s involved not only basic research but also the conservation of the site during the excavation process. Also in the 1990s, African specialist David Phillipson included limited conservation work in his investigations of the Axumite Empire's capital in highland Ethiopia, famous for its spectacular royal stelae. But such instances are the exception rather than the rule. As William Lipe said some years ago in these pages, "Archaeologists must be conservative in their own uses of the archaeological record, so that future research can build on current work" (see Conservation, vol. 15, no. 1).
We have moved a long way toward implementing parts of Lipe's visionary model, but we still have a long way to go. Even faced with crisis, a great deal of archaeology still proceeds with obscure theoretical debate and with academic specialization that satisfies the publish-or-perish cosmos. Until archaeological activity is grounded firmly in a conservation ethic, archaeology is doomed to long-term extinction.
Brian Fagan is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He spent his early career working in central Africa in museums and monuments administration. He is the author of many books on archaeology for a general audience.