By Neville Agnew

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Every year around the world, millions of people visit museums, historic cities, and ancient sites to make contact with the past. This vast interest in our cultural heritage reflects the desire of people everywhere to know about and understand human origins and achievements. Designation by UNESCO of more than 500 World Heritage Sites, endorsed by the nations that own the sites, underscores the notion of heritage as a universal human legacy.

Among all the types of heritage under threat, archaeological sites—and their wealth of information and artifacts—are in greatest jeopardy. Since time immemorial, archaeological sites have been exploited for knowledge and for treasure, looted for objects, destroyed out of idle curiosity, and plundered for material for new construction. So great are the remains of the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, China, and the Americas as to seem, like the resources of the oceans, inexhaustible. But even the oceans show evidence of severe depletion and pollution—and the atmosphere, our own gaseous "ocean," is stressed by carbon dioxide and pollutants. There are many other examples of apparently endless resources being exhausted.

Is the archaeological heritage any different?

"Husbandry of resources" is the catchphrase in the areas of environmental studies and ecology. The concepts and methods used in these fields should also be applied to the preservation of the heritage left to us. Lost sites, like extinct species, are lost forever. To prevent their loss, we need a holistic approach to site conservation.

A Holistic Approach to Preservation

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Conservation image

Preservation, to be effective, requires knowledge of the extent of the resource. We do not know how many and what kinds of archaeological sites are still to be discovered, and we can only estimate this by doing an inventory. Though expensive, this is a critical part of a holistic approach. Noninvasive geophysical techniques now exist for gathering information and should be used by preservationists to locate and record the extent of our archaeological wealth. Although computer databases (such as geographic information systems) are tools of immense power, even many technically advanced countries have not greatly utilized them in managing archaeological sites.

We also need to know more about how quickly or slowly sites are being damaged and/or lost. Conservation science and technology are sometimes seen as a panacea that will save for the future what we value, if only we can muster the resources needed to undertake the necessary conservation. The truth, sadly, is different. All cultural heritage deteriorates, no matter what we do. The most we can hope to do is to slow rates of loss through preventive measures, wise use, appropriate interventions and custodianship, and prioritization of our efforts.

Prioritization is particularly complicated because heritage that is important to one group may be of little or no value to another. Assessing the values of a site with the participation of interested parties is the important first step. Aesthetic, historic, scientific, religious, symbolic, educational, economic, and ecological values all need to be considered. At the same time, we need to recognize that values may not be immutable. All values, including economic ones, are diminished by the deterioration of a site. In addition, the relative importance of some values may shift over time as a society changes.

Often it is a site's economic value that receives the greatest attention. But when a government's tourism authority works independently of its antiquities conservation department, the revenue a site produces may not go toward its protection. In many instances, a site is enjoyed by visitors from places other than the country that owns it, is managed by an agency that is underfunded and inadequately staffed, and is of benefit to business interests with little understanding of its fragility and of the need for its conservation. Tourism and conservation should be natural partners rather than antagonists. Tourism can actually support conservation while still generating income, but quantitative economic analysis is needed for a convincing case to be made for this.

A holistic approach to the conservation of sites must also confront the fundamental conflict between excavation and preservation. That a buried resource exists today, having survived for perhaps millennia, should make it self-evident that the buried environment is a stable one. That excavation exposes the remains to deterioration should be equally self-evident. While archaeology has boomed in the latter half of the 20th century, the protection of sites has not kept pace. Conservation has never had the cachet of archaeological discovery. Often an unwanted handmaiden of archaeology, conservation began to demand its role in site protection just at the time when funding for archaeology became more competitive. It is the first expense in fieldwork to be cut, because it is the one least likely to provide the benefits that archaeologists seek—namely, discovery and publication.

From the standpoint of conservation, the argument is not against excavation (although more limited and less invasive excavation is desirable), but rather for practices that ensure that sites are conserved and protected. Cultural-resource authorities need to mandate, through legislation, a standard code of ethical practice to compel the conservation of archaeological finds and sites. For example, it should be required that sites that will not to be opened to visitors be either maintained or reburied. If there is no funding in a field archaeologist's budget for a comprehensive conservation plan—which should include the hiring of an experienced, on-site conservator—no excavation permit should be granted.

In the past, archaeologists have dug "blind" (and dug and dug) to uncover artifacts and structures. New tools that allow for more precise, controlled excavation will, hopefully, limit the extent of excavation. Among the new techniques are ground-penetrating radar, resistivity and magnetometry, seismic methods, and remote methods, such as multispectral scanning from aircraft. Minimally destructive methods, such as core sampling for chemical analysis and micro-artifacts, have been used to determine ancient settlement patterns. These techniques provide archaeologists with instruments of precision that should precede and guide the use of the spade and trowel, allowing more of a site to remain undisturbed.

Conducting an inventory of archaeological resources, expanding our knowledge of site deterioration, prioritizing values, and integrating conservation into archaeology are all important elements of site preservation. Equally important is imbuing the thinking behind site preservation with a holistic philosophy. To do so means refraining from viewing the problems of archaeological sites entirely through the prism of reductionism.


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Conservation image
Conservation image

Conservation sits astride the arts and sciences. In recent decades, the contributions of science to the preservation of cultural heritage have been significant, transforming conservation from skills- or crafts-based work into a discipline. Only slowly has the realization come that science cannot provide all the answers, nor can it ensure the ultimate survival of any but a small fraction of our heritage. Science is only a tool, and a technological one at that. In the service of conservation, it must be balanced by the arts and humanities.

The methodology of science has traditionally been reductionist. Reductionism—the idea that the whole can be understood by examining each of its parts—has helped unravel the workings of the world. Lately, though, it has come under attack for being incapable of giving insight into such mysterious processes as the workings of the human mind. Reductionism as a scientific methodology tends to result in categorization. Categorization, the compulsion to organize information, to "pigeonhole" for greater insight, has increased in modern scholarship under the relentless pressure of ever-increasing amounts of information. Previously, bits of information were categorized and stored so that how they functioned as a whole could be determined later on. The analogy of the mechanical clock is apt: disassembled and categorized as gears and springs, it is worthless for telling time. When whole disciplines are treated as isolated entities, impoverishment is the result.

Within the natural sciences, the traditional domains of physics, chemistry, geology, and biology have merged as a result of the recognition that their boundaries are artificial. The same may be happening in the social sciences and the arts. But between the arts and the sciences, there seems to have been little movement in the decades since C. P. Snow wrote The Two Cultures. Thinking is still polarized, and society relates to the arts and sciences as though the two were entirely disparate and unconnected. In fact, both are expressions of the creative impulse. Indeed, physicist Freeman Dyson has described science as being an art form, not a philosophical method. In this sense, reductionism and categorization have served us ill. As already pointed out, science is a tool in conservation. It can help us to preserve what we value, but it cannot usually tell us what we ought to value. That is the role of the humanities. We need both.

The consequences of narrow thinking are evident in the preservation of archaeological sites. It is not sufficiently appreciated that a site may fit within a cultural landscape that is also an ecological environment, and that the site is affected by weather, tourism, vandalism, and the surrounding biosphere. The archaeologist sees the archaeology, the biologist sees the ecology, the visitor perceives the ruin. We are not well trained to comprehend the totality or to seek relationships. Why, indeed, should we look for wider connections? Because a richer appreciation and a better understanding of humankind's place in the world flows from this approach. Holism is the antithesis of categorization. The holistic conservation of heritage reflects a vision of the world that embraces the interconnectedness of things.

Sociobiologist E. O. Wilson speculates that we are genetically predisposed to think only one or two generations into the future. Whether or not this is biologically true, by looking at the big picture we can transcend the limits of a short-term perspective and the narrowness that results from categorization. These two factors limit our spiritual and intellectual enrichment, as well as our capacity to preserve the past with the care that it requires if future generations are to learn and benefit from it. Conservation is for the future. Conservation works with the past to strive for an understanding of an object or site in the present, with the objective of saving it for the future. Looking forward is as important as looking back.


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Management of resources is a basic part of today's world. Implicit in the idea of management is a holistic perspective. Good management is holistic.

Underlying management, like science, is the reductionist process. This process is powerful because it allows us to understand how things work—just as it does in scientific investigation. As applied to site management, reductionist analysis enables us to determine the values of a site; examine the site's significance to various groups (including future generations); determine the causes and rates of deterioration, wherever possible, and derive a prognosis; develop a conservation strategy that may include development (for display or education) or reburial; consider the constraints, side effects, and threats of proposed interventions; communicate the written plan for evaluation to those who have a stake in the site and to those who are competent to critique the plan on a technical basis; and, finally, implement the program with appropriate documentation, management, monitoring, and maintenance.

While each of these elements requires particular expertise, the preservation of sites demands, in the end, a vision that is encompassing and holistic. (Various charters have sought to promote this, with the Burra Charter of Australia being one of the most effective.) The reductionist process is only the beginning of good management. To preserve the past, it must be followed by a holistic synthesis.

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Conservation image

Has heritage management become too formulaic and mechanistic? There does seem to be a trend in that direction, and if it continues the dangers are grave. The word "management" itself is unfelicitous: borrowed from the realm of commerce, it is ill suited to the values (other than economic) of heritage. The gospel of heritage resource management, unless tempered by a holistic philosophy, risks reducing "heritage" to just "resource." This way of thinking has resulted in a convenient shortsightedness in some developing countries where the need for economic growth is urgent and where archaeological and cultural sites are considered a ripe "resource." The fragility and the nonrenewability of heritage are overlooked or forgotten in the rush to develop.

For centuries, the archaeological wealth of the world has been exploited for information and for loot. Added to these today is the tourist dollar. There is, of course, a natural life span to all things produced by humankind. That is a reality. Everything has its life, and that life will come to an end, whether through catastrophe or through the inexorable processes of decay. Seeking to slow this loss, conservation is a futuristic activity—it is for the future and future generations, though it is of the past. Those of us in the field of conservation need to disseminate more widely a philosophy of holistic thinking, and to ally ourselves with the environmental and ecology movements to create a vision of preservation that connects the cultural and natural worlds. In this way we may one day succeed in preserving not just pieces of our heritage, but our heritage as a whole.

Neville Agnew is associate director for programs at the GCI.