Guest Commentary, Coin World, June 9, 2007
by Frank S. Robinson     (quoted here with permission)

How much archaeology do we need?

The recent Saslow/Hoge contretemps in Coin World concerns discovery of a shipwreck, apparently containing large numbers of coins several hundred years old, and the long-running controversy of archaeology versus collecting. I will stick my neck out and comment at the risk of infuriating some people.

Let me start off by saying that I love history, and I love archaeology, and have shelves of books to prove it. Understanding our past helps us to better understand—and appreciate—our present. Archaeology has performed an important function in our society; we need archaeology. But, the question is, how much of it do we need?

That issue is highlighted by the recent shipwreck discovery. Some have expressed dismay that the salvors are not trained archaeologists and are not excavating this wreck in the most meticulous, painstaking archaeological manner. In an ideal world, with unlimited resources, that would be done.

But of course that’s actually a fantasy world. In the real world, resources are all too limited, we have to make tough choices and prioritize what we do; and there are way more historical deposits than there are professional archaeologists to excavate them by the book. And that is not something we should try to rectify.

Important as archaeology may be, there are many things in human affairs that are more important. In a world of limited resources, human needs are still very great, and archaeology today does not come high on Mankind’s “to do” list.

Let me explain why I say this. A couple of centuries ago, much knowledge of previous history had been lost to us, and our understanding of the more distant past was quite poor. This was especially true concerning prehistory; we didn’t even possess hearsay evidence about early Man. Archaeology was very important in giving us this knowledge. In fact, so successful has archaeology been at this, that it has gone a long way toward rendering itself superfluous. The realm of our knowledge of the past has been hugely expanded, and the scope of our ignorance vastly reduced.

In short, archaeology has reached the point of diminishing returns. True, we don’t know everything; for instance, our understanding of how humans populated the Americas is still somewhat sketchy. But in the larger view, our knowledge of past history has really grown to be comprehensive, and we also have built up a very rich understanding of what life was like for people in past eras.

So the day is long past when practically any spade put into the earth would pull up information we didn’t know before. It is extremely rare nowadays for any archaeological project to reveal something new that is truly significant. An example was the excavation of Ebla, which did indeed tell us some major facts about history that were previously unknown. But, again, cases like that are very much the exception. The far more typical archaeological dig unearths—at best—perhaps some marginal, trivial new information. It may add a bit of detail to the picture we already know, but it isn’t likely to materially change that picture.

Surely this is true regarding “archaeology” of the more recent past. There have even been “archaeological” excavations of twentieth century sites, including some from World War II, and even later. This may be interesting, it may be fun to do, but come on—are we really going to learn anything meaningful that we didn’t already know?

This also applies to the recent shipwreck find. It is apparently unusual in regard to the numbers of coins found, and perhaps in their significance to collectors. Maybe there will even be some previously unknown coin varieties. But that, in the big picture of human knowledge, would have to be deemed trivial. In truth, there doesn’t seem to be anything about this particular shipwreck that is special or that promises to yield fresh and significant insights about our human past, when considered in the light of all the untold numbers of quite similar shipwrecks already studied.

Frankly, an awful lot of archaeology—way too much, really—falls into this category of excavating sites very much like innumerable other sites excavated before. Archaeology does not seem to exercise much discrimination concerning what’s worth excavating. Whenever anything old is stumbled upon, anywhere, the response of archaeology is that it should be excavated with all the painstaking attention to detail the discipline can muster. If a construction site turns up some artifacts, no matter how familiar and pedestrian, everything has to stop while the priests of archaeology are summoned to perform their full panoply of ritual. Never do we hear, “that site’s not likely to be important; not worth the expense of excavating.” It’s never, “been there, done that,” even if in fact archaeology has been there and done it a thousand times already.

This may provide a very nice pastime for archaeologists but it doesn’t make much contribution to the wider society. The resources society expends on a typical archaeological excavation are often greatly disproportionate to the societal value of the new knowledge thereby obtained which, if there is any at all, once more tends to be trivial. In this sense, too much of archaeology amounts to a self-indulgence on the part of its practitioners at the expense of the society that funds it.

At least collectors don’t ask to have their pastime subsidized by everyone else; at least they pay for the coins and artifacts they acquire. And I would submit that the societal value of such collected items, in terms of the human pleasure they provide to collectors, exceeds and should trump whatever value they have from an archaeological standpoint, which, once more, tends to be generally trivial.

Yes, we need museums too, so that the wider public can view and enjoy and learn from artifacts. But does private collecting cause an inability to fill museum cases? I hardly think so. Earlier people did not depart this earth taking everything with them, it’s actually incredible how much stuff they left behind, and it’s likewise incredible how much of it clever enterprising people, both professionals and amateurs (especially with the advent of modern technology), have been able to pull from the ground. It pours out in such enormous quantity as to surely overwhelm the capacity of the world’s museums and researchers to even glance at it, let alone study it or display it. The typical museum’s exhibits are the tip of an iceberg, with cabinets overflowing with more stuff in catacombs below.

We have unearthed so many buried artifacts that we are now buried in them, up to our keesters, and there are more than enough to satisfy any genuine needs of museums and researchers without taking anything away from collecting. Sure, unique items of cultural significance ought to remain in the public domain. I want to be able to go to the Cairo museum someday and meet Ramses II—his mummy, that is—without some collector spiriting it away. But that doesn’t mean every ushabti, similar to the gazillions of other ushabtis we’ve found, belongs in a museum. One of those, displayed with pride in a living room, giving its owner a tangible connection with the past, moving him to ponder upon the pageant of human life and history, provides far more societal value than if it were mouldering in some basement museum drawer along with a thousand others just like it.

Ignorance about the past is a very real problem for our society. But it’s the ignorance of individuals. As a society, we are not ignorant. It’s not that we haven’t done enough archaeology or otherwise gathered enough facts about the past. It’s that too many people know nothing about all that. This is where our efforts and resources should be directed—not at excavating yet another thoroughly routine shipwreck, but rather at educating people about the real significance of our human past and how it informs our present.