JAIC 1997, Volume 36, Number 1, Article 4 (pp. 49 to 58)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1997, Volume 36, Number 1, Article 4 (pp. 49 to 58)




The predominant concern of archaeologists is the preservation and explanation of the archaeological record, of which artifacts form only a part. Excavation is not undertaken solely to recover objects but rather is dedicated to the reconstruction of the past. This process is achieved through the careful, systematic excavation of all the material remains from a site regardless of size, type, quality, and quantity, followed by the analysis, interpretation, and publication of this material.

With modern excavation techniques, painstaking excavation not only uncovers the artifacts themselves but also reveals their associations to each other and to the site. The recovery of much of the unique information embodied in an artifact depends on many associations, including the stratigraphic layers in which the artifact was found, its position in the ground, its relationship to other artifacts, and traces of material found with it. This information, meticulously recorded in field photographs and notebooks, is all-important as it provides the contextual record for the artifacts.

Since archaeological excavation is by nature a destructive process, documentation plays a crucial role in excavation. Like conservation work, all stages must be carefully and accurately documented with written records, drawings, and photographs. Once excavation has taken place, the context of an artifact is preserved only in these documents.

Context is extremely important to the archaeologist; it is, in fact, what the discipline of archaeology is based on. It gives artifacts their legal authenticity and archaeological significance (Ford 1977, 14). The more that is known about the material associated with artifacts, the more that can be concluded not only about their function within a past society, including how and why they were made and used, but about broader issues, such as ancient economy, trade, or religion.

When artifacts are pulled out of the ground without proper excavation and documentation, their context is irretrievably lost without ever being known. Unlike archaeologists, looters are not interested in the context of artifacts, nor are they concerned with all artifacts from a site. They are interested only in those few, such as intact vessels, sculptures, and textiles, for which a market exists or can be created. All other material is ruthlessly broken and tossed aside, and in the process the site itself may very well be destroyed.

Cannon-Brookes (1994, 350) refers to looted artifacts as being “cultural orphans, which, torn from their contexts, remain forever dumb and virtually useless for scholarly purposes.” Some archaeologists estimate that looted artifacts have lost 95% of their value to tell us what was going on in the past (Monastersky 1990, 393). Thus, the looting of sites means the complete loss of information, the loss of knowledge that can never be recovered, even if one has some or all of the artifacts from the site. One must realize that “mere appreciation of visual attractiveness, and the aesthetic pleasures to be derived from high-profile objects, must not be confused with knowledge or depth of understanding of them” (Cannon-Brookes 1994, 350). One needs to understand that, from an intellectual point of view, artifacts bought from a dealer's shop are not just as valuable as those retrieved through excavation. As Howard Carter, the excavator of King Tutankhamen's tomb in Egypt, stated:

Field-work is all-important, and it is a sure and certain fact that if every excavation had been properly, systematically, and conscientiously carried out, our knowledge of Egyptian archaeology would be at least 50 per cent greater than it is. There are numberless derelict objects in the storerooms of our museums which would give us valuable information could they but tell us whence they came (Carter and Mace 1923, 125).

Thus, artifacts are only of scientific value when their context is known. In the words of the noted American archaeologist W. W. Taylor (1948, 154), “It is not what you find, but how you find it” that is the guiding precept for archaeology.

It is no mere accident that archaeological sites are the targets of those involved in the illicit trafficking of artifacts. As many sites are located in remote areas, the risk of capture is relatively slight. More important, however, is the undeniable fact that artifacts that have not been documented, photographed, or cataloged are impossible to trace and can, therefore, be traded on the international market with impunity (Platthy 1993, 45).

Copyright 1997 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works