Monday, April 17, 2006

Antiquities Market Update Unearthed War Relics See Battle Again (via Althouse)
"You pull a Minie ball out of the ground, and the first thing that strikes you: The last hands that touched this were the hands of a Civil War soldier," dig participant Steve Silvia said of a Civil War-era bullet. "It's about as close as you can get to stepping back in time."

But to alarmed archaeologists, these "safari" digs -- though perfectly legal -- represent the wholesale destruction of the past. Stripping sites of their artifacts also strips the ability to learn what stories they could tell.

"These digs are like reading a book, ripping the pages out as you read and setting them on fire," said Kathleen Kilpatrick, director of the state's Department of Historic Resources. "It's an outrage."

The perspective of the article is definitely an anti-looting one. It does mostly touch on the core issues, but the basic point of the article will probably never go anywhere: That is, these people are digging on private property and therefore will never (in our lifetimes) be regulated. Private property is one of those sacrosanct aspects of American culture (and law). I can't see this changing anytime soon.

The article brings up two related aspects of this: The fact that archaeologists aren't digging any of this stuff up, and these things will be lost if not for the relic hunters. The first part is true enough; it's expensive and time consuming to properly excavate a site. Most archaeologists can spend most of their professional careers on only a handful of sites, and those aren't even generally fully excavated. The second part is debatable in many cases. Certainly there's a time dimension operating with certain types of artifacts. Various materials will decay at different rates depending on time and also sediment chemistry, mechanical disturbance, etc. Point being, it's not "lost forever" if it's left in the ground. In fact, any artifact that has survived more than a couple of hundred years is probably safer in the ground than anywhere else. We may not get to see it, but someone eventually will and they may be able to get more information from it than we can.

The upshot is, the archaeologists in question probably won't be able to take any legal action for material on private property, so the only way they can influence this behavior is by changing the culture, either through "shame" or by encouraging a sense of shared cultural responsibility.