Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.03.12

Robin Skeates, Debating the Archaeological Heritage.   London:  Duckworth, 2000.  Pp. 160.  ISBN 0-7156-2956-5.  £9.99 (pb).  



Reviewed by David A. Traill, University of California, Davis
Word count: 1643 words

This book reminds us that archaeology is big business. Cocooned in the narrow world of academic archaeology, it is easy to forget that excavation can have enormous repercussions. A moment's reflection, however, on the competing claims of Germany, Russia and Turkey to "Priam's Treasure" or on the million tourists that annually walk through Knossos should be sufficient to remind us of the impact of archaeology on society. It is these and similar issues that Robin Skeates, who teaches Material Culture and Museum Studies at the University of East Anglia, addresses in this book. The primary audience he has in mind seems to be his former students and others similarly trained, who find themselves in positions of responsibility in museums or in a branch of government that concerns itself with the "archaeological heritage." Archaeologists, however, who are concerned with the broader ramifications of their activities will find much to interest them in this book. The scope is world archaeology. Examples tend to be taken primarily from the experience of the UK, the USA or other English-speaking countries, but the issues themselves are of universal concern.

S. opens with a helpful discussion of the changing views of the meaning of "heritage," as used in the phrase "archaeological heritage." More narrowly, of course, it refers to the finds, monuments and sites that we wish to preserve for posterity. However, it is increasingly used in a more comprehensive sense to include the nexus of cultural values and beliefs that are associated with these finds, monuments and sites. This broader definition has come to the fore particularly in connection with the debate over artifacts and skeletal remains of indigenous peoples, such as Native Americans and Australian Aborigines. S. points out the importance of the exact terms in which "archaeological (or cultural) heritage" is defined in national and international legal documents. He is critical of some of the more traditional definitions found in UNESCO documents, which "fossilise the political ideals and academic interests of UNESCO's advisers in the late 1960s and early 70s."

The core of the book deals with the complex socio-political problems that arise in connection with the archaeological heritage. These are discussed in five chapters entitled "Owning (Protecting, Managing, Interpreting, or Experiencing) the archaeological heritage." The arrangement within each chapter is sensible and convenient: S. gives an overview of the latest developments and trends in each of these areas with brief discussions of illustrative cases. Relevant books and articles are cited compendiously in the text throughout the discussion. The reader who wants further information on a given point can easily find the full references from the general bibliography.

There is, perhaps inevitably, more than a whiff of "political correctness" throughout the book but, though mildly irritating, this does not seem to lead to any serious distortions. For instance, on the question of ownership, S. rightly detects a shift of power away from intellectual elites towards ordinary people. He notes that "archaeologists and museum curators can no longer assume that the 'archaeological heritage' is their intellectual property, that they are its primary guardians, that other scientists are their sole audience, or that indigenous peoples should become part of their system." He selects as his illustrative cases Native American claims to skeletal remains and artifacts in American museums and the curation of the "Parthenon Marbles." His discussion of the latter is largely indebted to the third edition of W. St Clair, Lord Elgin and the Marbles (Oxford 1998) but also refers to six articles published in 1999.

With regard to protection, S. takes some comfort from the range of legislation, both national and international, that has been passed in recent decades. UNESCO's 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which has been signed by 81 countries (the UK, yielding to pressure from the "huge London art market," has declined to sign), is just one example. These new laws have enabled countries like Turkey and Greece to retrieve illicitly acquired antiquities. S. cites the case of the Metropolitan Museum's acquisition of the "Lydian Hoard" in the sixties. The Metropolitan long denied any wrongdoing. In 1993, however, when "the museum would have been obliged to reveal the minutes of its acquisition committee meetings, which noted that some of the museum's staff had originally known that the material had been illegally excavated and smuggled out of Turkey," it agreed to return the material. S. offers some interesting insights into the networks of looters, shady antiquities dealers, and auction houses. Amongst this gloom, there is still scope for humor. One Italian tomborolo (grave-robber) claimed he was doing a public service by excavating ancient works of art before the Soprintendenza in that he was saving them from languishing for centuries in the storerooms of overcrowded museums. Despite the new laws, S. points out, looting is still on the increase. S. suggests that ways need to be found to work with potential looters, indicating that in England "collaboration between archaeologists and metal detectorists has led to the reporting and accurate recording of large numbers of archaeological finds by the general public, including the 'Hoxne Hoard' of more than 14,000 late Roman coins." In Ecuador, "Colin McEwen has succeeded in transforming 'huaqueros' (looters) into enthusiastic archaeologists by incorporating them in his archaeological excavations and plans for a local museum." In the chapter on "Managing the Archaeological Heritage," a variety of topics are treated, including "rescue" archaeology, preservation, conservation and tourism. S. stresses repeatedly the need to involve the local community in decisions about the management of a given site or monument. He cites the example of "Seahenge," a Bronze Age enclosure, "formed by a circle of vertically-set timbers surrounding the inverted bole of an oak tree" and exposed by erosion of the Norfolk coast in 1998. When teams of scientists and archaeologists decided to excavate the site and "rescue" it from the sea, "the decision invoked an angry reaction from a New Age alliance of Druids, neo-pagans and eco-warriors," who were joined by local people, indignant "that their new-found local heritage [was] being taken away from them." Even more fascinating is the tragicomedy of ongoing efforts to cater for the enormous numbers of tourists that Stonehenge now draws. Here again the situation is complicated by the attraction the site also holds for Druids, New Agers and other subculture groups, not to mention the more familiar, but no less contentious, debate over how and where a highway should be rerouted.

Nowadays archaeologists have to look over their shoulders at a daunting array of other groups or individuals that may offer different interpretations of the evidence they have unearthed. These include indigenous peoples, feminists, Afrocentrists, not to mention eco-feminists, hyper-diffusionists, New Agers, and extra-terrestrialists. S. recommends that archaeologists should be less dismissive of "alternative" interpretations, arguing that those who denounce them "usually strengthen the other side's hand." Archaeologists, he believes, need to accept that they are fallible, since "there can never be any final and definitive account of the past."

In the final chapter S. reviews the ways people experience archaeology: through formal education (though excluded from most school curricula), site and museum visits, magazines, film, television and radio. Broadly speaking, he finds the results discouraging. S. places the blame squarely with archaeologists: "Archaeologists are still insufficiently aware of their audiences' cares and concerns. They may also listen too much to their own propaganda." He has a variety of suggestions for improvement, particularly with regard to how archaeologists can try to appeal to a wider audience. He recommends more interactive museum exhibits, citing an example at York, "where families are encouraged to sort through excavated artefacts, look down microscopes, add to computer databases, experiment with ancient technology and ask questions." He also commends Channel 4's archaeology program, Time Team, which "is headed by a well-known comedy actor, and includes a combination of professional archaeologists, guest experts and local enthusiasts, and the plot is to uncover the secrets of a particular archaeological site in just three days." The challenge for archaeologists, he concludes, is to go "beyond the debating chambers of academia and the glossy brochures of heritage management consultants" and find effective ways of communicating with larger audiences. "Otherwise, archaeologists will find themselves becoming increasingly marginal to the needs of society in the twenty-first century." While S.'s analysis is thoughtful and useful, I cannot help thinking that his pessimistic view is overstated. He considers shocking the fact that in 1999 a British poll indicated that 16% of the public claim to know "absolutely nothing about Stonehenge, not even what it looks like." To American educators, long accustomed to far more appalling statistics, that looks pretty good. On this side of the Atlantic there has been a recent proliferation of popular magazines devoted to archaeology, and National Geographic has just started its own cable channel, where a substantial part of the programming will be devoted to archaeology. Popular interest in archaeology seems to be alive and well and media people know it.

The bibliography, though fairly extensive (ca. 375 items) for such a slim volume, is limited to works in English. This suggests that S. (or his publisher) sees the book's market as largely restricted to the English-speaking world, though there can be little doubt that officials in any country would welcome a book of this kind. A conspicuous omission from the bibliography is Elizabeth Simpson's The Spoils of War (New York 1997), which includes not only a fair number of relevant articles but also the full text of many of the international laws that S. discusses. An index closes the book.

Despite S.'s sometimes heavy-handed treatment of archaeologists, this is a very useful book. It offers an intelligent discussion of a wide range of important public issues and tells us where we can find out more on particular topics. And it is blessedly short.

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