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Bad news for archaeology

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Suppose it’s eight thousand years ago. The climate is slightly warmer than nowadays and you’re living in the part of North West Europe that is later going to be called ‘the Netherlands’. Back in these days there aren’t many other career opportunities besides hunter-gatherer. In about a thousand years your descendants will invent farming and start working their heads off for food. As a hunter-gatherer you only need a few hours per day to feed yourself, so you’re a bit luckier than them, but of this you are pleasantly unaware. Sea levels are rising and as a result the area that you roam in is slowly getting marshier. That’s a blessing in disguise. Fruits, nuts and berries are growing everywhere, the waters are full of fish and the sky is crowded with birds, so you don’t need to worry about lack of protein. The marshes are riddled with small streams that can easily be travelled by canoe. And there’s more. Three thousand years ago there was an ice age, of which you are equally unaware. The cold winds back then took up tons of sand from the bare surface and blew it into big sand hills that dot the entire region. The sand hills tower high over the marshes, providing plenty of dry spots, ideal for erecting a campsite and offering a perfect view of tomorrow’s dinner. Once you have feasted on the fruits, fish and fowl around one sand hill, you take your family and paddle to the next one. Yourself, your children and your children’s children keep up this way of life right up to the times when they start farming and even then the sand hills provide them with arable patches that can add some extras to their diet. Over the centuries the remains of all your activities accumulate on and around these hills: fish scales, bird bones, broken pots. You sweep them aside, kick them into the marsh, bury them or simply leave them where they are when you move on. Whenever one of your companions dies in this malaria-infested paradise, you bury him where you camped.

Yet all good things come to an end. Sea levels keep rising and so does the marsh until, eight thousand years later in a time called ‘the 21st century’, your sand hill is completely covered in thick layers of peat and clay deposited by the ever rising marsh. Where you once fished for salmon is now six metres underground, and of this as well you are pleasantly unaware. But the people living where you once lived are not unaware of you. In this time there are more career opportunities than you could even dream of. In fact, they have turned the study of all the junk and debris (and your dearly departed) that you left at your campsite into a field of knowledge, the practitioners of which are called ‘archaeologists’. And there are laws in place to protect your former residence from the activities of yet other unimaginable professions: project developers and building engineers. And these laws are enforced and put into practice by the most unimaginable profession of all: the civil servant. These top-notch archaeologists will frustrate any building plan as long as it doesn’t keep a clear distance from your buried campsite. They have the laws, they have the power. Ordinary project developers tremble before their awesome might, but the smart ones think ahead. They hire archaeologists to find out where you once lived and when they know that, they make their plans and build around it. The really smart ones check with the civil servants first: ‘Hey, tell us all about how we should have this research done.’ This way the civil servants cannot claim afterwards that the research wasn’t done properly and that means they cannot frustrate the building plans any more. This is what happened to one of your campsites. You may remember it, it’s the sand hill with two tops. The one the blokes always made jokes about. You buried one of your friends on the smaller of the two tops. That one.

In eight thousand years there’s this project developer that wants to build a housing area exactly over your place. He’s one of the smart ones who thought ahead: first he contacts the Dutch State Service for Archaeology to ask for their set of guidelines. They tell him he should have the place augered to a depth of 5 m. That’s deep enough, so they say. If the coring is done by archaeologists, they’ll be able to see where you lived. So the augering goes ahead. About 200 corings are done and lo: they find your campsite! So the project developer has his houses planned around your site: a nice little park in the middle of a housing area. Already he’s thinking about his house-selling campaign: “People have lived here since the Stone Age!” That’s what your time is called: ‘The Stone Age’, because you made your knives and axes of flint.

But when he submits his plans to the Dutch State Service, the archaeologists are not amused.
‘You only augered to a depth of five metres!’ they tell him.
‘Sure I did, you told me to do so.’ he replies.
‘That should have been at least seven and a half!’
‘Then why did you say “five”?’
‘We didn’t, it was the research department who told you that. You should have asked us, the monuments department!’
‘Why didn’t anyone tell me that?’
On this the archaeologists remain very silent, but they insist the research wasn’t done properly. Augering should be done again, this time to a greater depth.

Now the project developer has a problem. Sand hills are basically cones: further down their area increases by a square. You don’t need an A in conical sections to see that. Any stone age hunter gatherer could have thought of this beforehand. But somehow the archaeologists failed to see that the area of any sand hill-site increases proportionately to the depth of the corings. They also failed to see that this should be taken into account when someone politely asks for guidelines. I mean, let’s face it: any civil servant knows there’s nothing that infuriates a well-meaning citizen more than telling him to do things again, but now different, especially if you could have thought about it from the beginning.

So our project developer again hires some archaeologists, tells them to put another 200 corings into the planning area and a little while later he has the site increased in size by a factor of 1.8 and his problems increased likewise. But he doesn’t lose courage. He rearranges the building plans around the enlarged site and resubmit his plans. To the monuments section of course.

Now something funny happens. Instead of trusting the results of their fellow archaeologists the civil serving archaeologists in the monuments section asks for the documentation of all corings ever done on the site and scrutinize very single one of them for signs of traces of remains of human activity.

This requires some explanation.

You guys camped on the same spot every year: on the lee side of the bigger top. Archaeologists can see that because in that place the soil is thick with charcoal, fragments of burnt bone, flint shards, fish scales and other debris. Now all that junk didn’t stay in the same place, you moved around on this sandhill and so did the debris. The amount of charcoal and burnt bone that the archaeologists find in their corings slowly peters out the further away they auger from the campsite. In places where they’ll still find stuff, you never camped. You remember kicking some walnut shells into the marsh with your three year old? You remember the morning after a heavy storm, when you noticed the marsh really was rising because you couldn’t walk from the big top to the small top without getting your feet muddy, so you shoveled some debris into the gap? Imagine your forebears and your offspring doing the same thing for a couple of thousand years. The whole area is full of debris and all of it got there because of some human activity, even that handful of potshards, thrown a bows shot away from the hill into the marsh.

Now an ‘archaeological site’ is anything where people lived, or did something that archaeologists consider worth studying. But you people didn’t stop your activities at the edge of your campsite. There’s activity everywhere and the traces of it can be found everywhere: at the campsite, near the campsite and away from the campsite. The finds are everywhere, they’re just more concentrated at places where you lived, but they’re not suddenly absent beyond the edge of a ‘site’. In fact: there is no edge. Your campsite didn’t have one and neither does the archaeology. What constitutes an ‘archaeological site’ is decided by archaeologists, who use rules of thumb to determine the line between ‘site’ and ‘not site’. Some say that a site is where corings have charcoal in them, combined with any other archaeological trace like bone fragments, flint or burnt clay. Some say finding sufficient quantities of charcoal is enough and for others even the flimsiest particle of charcoal constitutes a ‘site’. Some will disregard a bunch of ‘clean’ corings, as long as there are enough corings among them with archaeological traces. Others require an uninterrupted series of corings with traces in them to consider them a ‘site’. All these rules of thumb are arbitrary. From an archaeological point of view none makes more sense than another. It’s like from which sand hill you guys wanted to have a view on the marsh: it’s a choice that depends on what human activity is considered worth studying. A choice that a civil servant should consistently apply if he doesn’t want to turn ‘arbitrary’ into ‘random’.

That’s what doesn’t happen here: while scrutinizing all corings done so far, the acting civil servant redefines his understanding of ‘site’ and as a result it increases again in size by a factor of 1.8. By now our project developer has learned his lesson: ‘size of site’ is an exponential function of ‘rounds of talks with government archaeologists’. It has nothing to do with what you lot left behind in the ground: it’s not the archaeology that’s unpredictable, it’s the archaeologists.

That’s bad news for archaeology.

You see, the Netherlands in eight thousand years are a bit more crowded than in your days. Some even think it’s overpopulated. That doesn’t mean there’s not enough food, like in your time, but there aren’t enough houses. So more need to be built. So you need project developers with building plans, and you need reluctant civil servants to cooperate, even the ones that are archaeologists. That means that archaeologists have to learn to care not only for archaeology, but also for building projects. Archaeologists working in civil administration need to be able, capable and willing to present builders and project developers with clear guidelines so everyone knows what they are dealing with. The choices these civil servants make can be arbitrary, but certainly not random, and they need to be applied consistently, not erratically. Constantly changing these guidelines and rules in the process is irresponsible, towards society and towards archaeology.

© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2002
Revision: 2 January 2006
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