Preserving the Artifacts and History of Our Past for All

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Walden2
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Preserving the Artifacts and History of Our Past for All

Postby Walden2 » Thu Apr 19, 2007 8:17 am

Preserving the Artifacts and History of Our Past for Everyone

The original article can be found in the April 16, 2007 issue
of the Tompkins Weekly newspaper at http://www.tompkinsweekly.com


The history of early human civilization and the prehistory of our species were as rich and varied as our modern world. However, relatively few written records and images have survived from those eras to tell us about our ancestors.

Much of what we do know about those distant lives and times come from the physical remains of their societies. Archaeologists spend decades meticulously digging and sifting through the ruins of ancient buildings and villages, recording and analyzing everything about those places. They constantly search for the often rare and culturally invaluable pieces of the immense puzzle that is early humanity.

Our shared antiquity is also of great value to many types of collectors who search for any and all artifacts in these places, primarily for their monetary richness. In their quest for manufactured items of our past, these treasure hunters often damage and destroy sites that contain important physical information about the how and why of the artifacts they seek.

Dr. Malcolm Bell III, professor of Greek Art and Archaeology at the University of Virginia’s McIntire Department of Art, paid his first visit to Ithaca in late March to speak about “Modern Museums, Ancient Sites, and the Rights of Antiquities” at Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.

Bell was introduced to the audience of over one hundred people by his “old friend” Hunter R. Rawlings III, President Emeritus of Cornell and a professor in the departments of Classics and History.

Rawlings described Bell as someone who “confronted personally and professionally art theft and their reacquisition.” He also found Bell to be a person “as comfortable in the Nineteenth Century as in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries” in terms of his knowledge of the people, places, and objects of those times.

Bell, who teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Greek sculpture and painting, the Greek city, and the art and architecture of ancient Sicily, jumped right into one of the biggest problems being faced by the archaeological community.

“These issues are very difficult,” Bell said, referring to the plundering and selling of antiquities. “Artifacts are innocent. They have an aesthetic value within themselves. What are not always innocent are the issues surrounding their purchase and acquisition.”

Bell stated bluntly that antiquities found in the soil should be studied and preserved “by and for science, not money.” But many ancient artifacts have a monetary value that has lured nonscientists into conducting their own version of archaeology, one that is neither delicate nor considerate of the history surrounding antiquities.

Bell displayed a slide he took while working on the site of Apulia, an ancient coastal Italian city renowned for its painted vases. The photo showed treasure hunters using backhoes to dig into the ground searching for artifacts. The machine operators even waved at Bell, who could do nothing at the time to stop them from looting the site.

Such coarse searches for antiquities destroy the history of the sites, removing the few physical records that might tell a true archaeologist about the real story behind the artifacts and the people and culture that made them. Bell added that artifacts which are judged unmarketable are often broken and discarded, destroying their scientific value.

In the last few years, there has been hope for the preservation of what is left of humanity’s past, thanks in part to Bell’s direct actions. Some museums have begun to return artifacts to their countries of origin, especially those whose acquisitions were of a questionable nature.

Bell declared that museums and collectors should separate themselves from the market in antiquities. Not only do archaeological sites lose their scientific value when they are plundered, but the “local populations have educational and economic reasons for keeping antiquities at their places of origin.”

The professor from Virginia, who was inspired in his youth to study ancient history by his family pediatrician – who was also a serious archaeologist – proposed yet another way to defend antiquities for future scientific study.

“Imagine antiquities as individual living things with the same rights as living beings. Antiquities are infused with life from the people who made them. They are indeed living things that deserve to be protected.”

Bell’s talk was followed by a panel discussion of the issues raised that evening. The panel members included Bell and Rawlings, along with Johnson Museum Director Frank Robinson and Cornell anthropologist Magnus Fiskesjo.

Rawlings noted that one of the possible consequences of sending artifacts back to their places of origin could make it difficult for people to personally see art from a different country without having to actually travel there, a choice that would be impossible for many. Rawlings also wondered if these restrictions would halt the trade in all art except for very recent pieces. Bell responded that antiquities need to be seen in their entirety to know who made them and why.

Robinson described some of the Johnson Museum’s own experiences with art collections and their ownership, which included turning down an offer of 200 pieces of Nigerian art from the Nok culture by a Cornell alumnus. “I agree with the premises and conclusions made by Malcolm Bell,” Robinson declared. “I applaud him for sticking to his views on this matter.”

Fiskesjo said that while he was not certain if he agreed with Bell’s premise of treating ancient artifacts as living individual beings with rights, he was definitely intrigued by the concept.

Fiskesjo did support the idea of the sharing of antiquities between different nations both for preservation and to instill a sense of cooperation between countries all over the world, which he called a “joint pursuit of the past, one that belongs to humankind in common. Who would want their creations destroyed? They would much rather have them seen by posterity thousands of years into the future.”

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Postby Windwalker » Thu Apr 19, 2007 6:23 pm

Coming from a past-haunted culture, I have tons of thoughts on this issue. One question is what to do when you are on a land that is so filled with artifacts that you can't accommodate the living. A second is where to show them (in their own context, or a place where they can be optimally preserved?). A third is the use of artifacts for furthering agendas and grinding axes.

Touching all of the above is the hot-button issue of the analysis, preservation and exhibition of ancient human bodies -- from Ötzi the Iceman to the Egyptian pharaohs to the Ürumchi red-haired mummies (the Celtic-looking Tocharians, a major culture of the Silk Road) to Kennewick man (almost certainly Ainu) to the last Tasmanian.

I plan to enlarge on all these points soon!
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That has subsisted on defiance and visions.

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Postby bretonlass » Thu Apr 19, 2007 9:28 pm

There is also the fate of those cultures who have been "lost", like the Celts.

They knew of writing. After all, their neighbours were the Romans in the south, who had the habit of recording everything and nothing at once. They also had invented the oghamic alphabet, though it was one not very suited for lenghty texts.

Yet they chose not to write, for to write was to mystically appropriate the power of the object so named. All their traditions and beliefs were recorded orally, transmitted from generation to generation by the druids. Therefore, all that we have as written testimonies are indirect (such as the ones we find in Caesar's Commentaries) or so distorted by time we no longer know what's real (the Arthurian Cycle is a good example).

They were master craftsmen and craftswomen. The examples we have of their art are meticulous, beautifully executed. The torques, the fibulae, the helmets, the cauldrons... They tell of a complex, vibrant society, whose true place in European history has been eclipsed by the might of the Wolf and the weight of the Cross.

Here is the tie with this thread. How do we sift through misinformation to find the true portrait of a civilisation? How can we make sure that what we present is accurate? To what extend should we interpret (or re-interpret) certain archaeological data? How do we tell the difference between myth and history? For that matter, is there even a difference?

And, above all, how do we make sure we do not carelessly destroy some crucial piece of evidence by sheer ignorance of its significance?

Celts are only an example. Other great civilisations shared the same fate.

Lest we forget... A plant can only shoot to the sky if it's got strong roots. The same goes for human progress and history.

Eloise :)
"First, you see the world in black and white. After a while, you begin to see the shades of gray. And if you but have the courage to try, you then get to see all the colours of the rainbow." My philosophy of life

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Postby Windwalker » Fri Apr 20, 2007 2:55 pm

bretonlass wrote:There is also the fate of those cultures who have been "lost", like the Celts.
//
Here is the tie with this thread. How do we sift through misinformation to find the true portrait of a civilisation? How can we make sure that what we present is accurate? To what extend should we interpret (or re-interpret) certain archaeological data? How do we tell the difference between myth and history? For that matter, is there even a difference?

And, above all, how do we make sure we do not carelessly destroy some crucial piece of evidence by sheer ignorance of its significance?

Those are excellent points, Eloise, and your last question is also directly relevant to finding (and recognizing) extraterrestrial life. The list of silent civilizations is long -- even if they had writing, it needs to be deciphered first.

Regarding interpretation, all civilizations tend to see things through their own prism. As an example, Aristotle (and therefore most Greeks and medieval Europeans) thought that beehives were led by a "king" -- but then, they thought the same thing about elephant families despite rather glaring visual evidence to the contrary... Also, individuals always have a viewpoint and sometimes an agenda, as in your example of Caesar writing of the Gauls.

However, advancing technology helps. To give a partial list, radioactive carbon and potassium dating replaced the much less accurate dating by style; pollen and tree ring analysis can determine seasons and climates; mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA results can establish population movements and branchings. The latter, for example, cofirmed that the Roman cavalry in Britain contained Sarmatians.

Such relatively objective criteria help separate myth from history, subject to revision by new discoveries and more advanced methods of analysis. In general, it seems that myths always contain a kernel of truth to them -- but a priori it's hard to tell which part it is!
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Postby Windwalker » Sun Apr 22, 2007 2:15 pm

Note: Larry inadvertently put this in the wrong thread, so he asked me to move it here.

Walden2 wrote:The April 9, 2007 issue of The New Yorker magazine has a very interesting article about antiquities and archaeology, in terms of the cost of preserving our past knowledge and who has the rights to it.

While the main article is not online, they do have a slideshow of related images, most of which are only online. The site begins here:

http://www.newyorker.com/online/2007/04/09/slideshow_070409_met
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Postby Windwalker » Mon Apr 23, 2007 10:28 am

I recently read a brief but beautifully written novel which touches upon several of Eloise's points about the Celts, including the issue of written versus oral transmission of knowledge and lore. It takes place in Ireland around the time of transition to Christianity: Confessions of a Pagan Nun, by Kate Horsley. Its tone is matter-of-fact, yet it packs a tremendous wallop.
For I come from an ardent race
That has subsisted on defiance and visions.

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intrigued_scribe
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Postby intrigued_scribe » Thu Apr 26, 2007 4:31 pm

Excellent points, all, and this:

bretonlass wrote:

Lest we forget... A plant can only shoot to the sky if it's got strong roots. The same goes for human progress and history.


Wonderfully phrased, and so true. Also, the book recommendation here sounds quite interesting. :)

Heather


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