Monday, September 1, 2008

Archaeology: Shrinekeeping or Studying Evidence of the Past?

This entry is on archaeology and whether it advances the field to encourage well-designed investigations, or whether the field's professionals is in fact prefer preventing access to historic sites on grounds like nostalgia, religious concern for places where deaths might have occurred, and the like. In short, the article is about site management policy, which sounds dull as can be. However, some people get really worked up over site management policy -- especially when it comes to existing policies that might put them out of work because their skill sets are being obsoleted.

How do professionals in the archaeological field reach the point that their skills are threatened with obsolescence? These folks are trained professionals, right? Don't they keep up with developing trends?

Every innovation in execution involves both expertise (how does it work?) and resources (how do we pay for this new stuff?), either of which can put unfamiliar individuals out of a job that, for whatever reason, is best approached with new tools and techniques. More precise measurements, better 3-D reconstruction of sites, better tracking and handling of artifacts recovered from hard-to-reach sites ... all these are threats to people who don't spend much of their lives working with leading-edge technology underwater. Archaeologists with academic appointments may not be rewarded with tenure for field excellence, but may have been selected for their written work product, their record in peer-reviewed publications, or their reputation among other academics or their relationships with government officials and regulators. Also, there's a difference between getting data and analyzing data. Each is fraught with pitfalls and is to be avoided by the uninitiate, but excellence in one area is little assurance of competence in an area involving completely different skill sets.

Yet some folks, perhaps having watched too many Harrison Ford movies, think they need to be able not only to interpret the data but also to acquire it. Or, worse, they think that they're entitled to the job of acquiring it.

Um, did you say 'underwater'?

Ahh, yes. Underwater. While site management policy has no special reason to depend on whether sites are underwater or not, there is a special rabidity among people interested in underwater sites that defies explanation. Discovering Vesuvius was a huge deal, for example, and the fact that it wasn't underwater when it was destroyed or underwater when it was found does nothing to reduce its importance as a source of evidence about history. However -- whether because of the difference in difficulty between access to the surface and access to the sea-bed, or because of the extent of the expense involved in doing truly cutting-edge underwater work -- there is a movement among a certain class of person interested in underwater archaeological sites to make it generally illegal to investigate archaeological finds if they're at least periodically wet.

Don't ask me, I just see what I see.

Some Important Terms
I often interact with words. As it turns out, many of my closest friends have not developed sufficient psychic powers to interact in a realm of pure thought. Thus, it often happens that when complex things must be communicated, I find people talking past one another in the apparent belief that their words mean something different than their listeners understand. To cut this off at the pass, I'll try to set forth a few of the words that seem to trip people while discussing archaeological policy and site management.
history |ˈhist(ə)rē| noun (pl. -ries) 1: the study of past events, particularly in human affairs

archaeology |ˌärkēˈäləjē| (also archeology) noun: the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.

from the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Ed.
These definitions have been selected not because this author is an editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary (which is not the case), but because this dictionary was conveniently at hand. I expect the definitions are non-controversial and neutral. I have seen the definitions used in environments in which archaeological matters and site management policy were debated, and I have never seen the accuracy or utility of either definition impeached.

I think they're a fair place to begin discussing archaeological policy, and the difference between archaeological policy and the site management politics of archaeologists. At least, the politics of certain fairly vocal persons claiming to be archaeologists. I won't presume the power to proclaim particular individuals as being "real archaeologists" or not. I would tend to prefer to look back to the above definitions for an indication whether specific activities are archaeological in nature, or have some other (potentially contrary) character. Whether some person or another is "a real archaeologist" seems an invitation to ad hominem attack rather than an avenue for approaching truths about archaeological matters.

Archaeology Is About Studying Physical Evidence of History

From the given definitions, it's apparent that archaeology is intimately connected to history: archaeology is a field dedicated to acquiring and studying tangible evidence of past events. In the United Kingdom, which is so full of wrecked ships that a ship isn't considered archaeological unless it is well over a hundred years old, one might expect a different understanding of the meaning of "history" than in Australia, which has been navigated by Westerners a much shorter time and is much less peppered with old wrecks. A museum dedicated to the history of the Soviet Union might take a still different view on how old evidence must be to represent evidence of history.

However, we can be assured that even if the events in question are last week's events, an archaeological exhibit reflects some occurrence that's done. The still-living questions are what was done and how and by whom and so on. This is why archaeologists -- people who study the evidence of human history -- not only conduct excavations, but analysis. Without analysis, a collection of artifacts is just a pile of so much secondhand stuff.[1]

This is a key reason I think the above definition of archaeology has value: it addresses both the evidence, and its interpretation. Without both, you don't have facts backing a theory about history, you have a daydream. We have enough daydreams in history, and it's helpful to have evidence introduced from time to time to keep us on the right path.

However, one must have evidence to analyze if one takes seriously the hope of discovering the truth about the past. How one excavates will impact the quality and type of the evidence preserved. How one documents an ongoing excavation will determine what evidence is recorded, and the precision of recorded data. As Jim Sinclair identified observing the Titanic, the non-random scatter patterns of materials falling from a sinking ship offer some evidence of the association of the objects, and can inform observers about the places where the objects were located within the ship before they fell. Scooping the whole site to the surface in a dredge operations, to catalog only the (hopefully not mangled) items, would obliterate positional association data, for example, limiting the kinds of analysis possible to later conduct. The fact that poor technique also risks objects within the field is yet another concern.

Leaving the objects where they fell might not enable positional data to be collected, either -- or even allow objects to be studied. Shoe leather might (but given what we don't know about the sea bed, who knows?) survive indefinitely in the calcium-starved (a condition that causes bones to dissolve much as salt would) depths of the Atlantic Ocean, but metals observed there suffer serious degradation. The kind of threat faced at-risk substances -- including the steel being digested by the micro-organisms responsible for the rust-colored "stalactites" on the deck of the Titanic when visited by explorer Robert Ballard -- isn't fully appreciated by some who discuss the ship and how the site should be managed. Ballard himself suggested that to preserve the vessel for observation by future generations, it might be necessary to use remote operated vehicles to clean and repaint the Titanic against future corrosion. It's interesting how Robert Ballard considers the question how to develop a site management plan:

What’s your vision for long-term preservation of the ship?
What we want to do is go down and clean it. They’ve been building offshore oil platforms so big that once they’re launched they can never be put in dry dock; they have developed the technology to clean those structures underwater and paint them underwater, and that’s the kind of thing I’d like to see at Titanic. If you tell an older person that, they say you’re nuts, but if you tell a kid, they ask, “What color?”

You’re serious about trying this?
We already have a robot that could do the cleaning work, and we’re looking at how to apply the paint. I have a grad student researching it right now. I think it will be only natural to invest in that kind of preservation once the site becomes an electronic travel destination. Imagine if Titanic was a house, like Monticello. Do you let Monticello just rot? Of course not.

In your 1987 book The Discovery of the Titanic, you described a dive to the wreck when you “mused for a moment on what it would be like taking a steel brush to the hull and cleaning the ship to its former smoothness.” Your conclusion then was: “But I had made a promise to myself to leave the ship undisturbed.” What changed your mind?
What keeps going through my mind is: How can I preserve the Titanic without changing its present appearance? I ask children the question, What color should I paint the Titanic, its original black hull or a color that looks like the way it is today, just preserved? The vast majority wants the latter so that it doesn’t look out of place. Also, I didn’t realize at the time [in the 1980s] that the rusticles [the brown icicle-like growths that give the ship its dripping-metal appearance] were the action of organisms that are attacking the ship.

So when are you planning to go back to Titanic?
As soon as they’ll let me get started with the cleaning and painting.

Mark Schrope interview with Robert Ballard, via Popular Science
And there we have it: Robert Ballard, whose authority to speak on the Titanic must be respected (he is, after all, its discoverer), wants to sandblast and repaint the ship, and dress it up to appear to bear the degradation it displayed on the date he first discovered it. Is this better, or worse, than raising interesting things from the site and placing them in a touring museum exhibit? Which would reach more museum visitors? Are both possible? Is neither idea worthwhile? Those who view the site as a shrine to the dead may prefer to cut off all access to the site. Maybe we should fence it off as a historic site and allow it to be eaten by the ocean, but allow visitors to film it.

The fact that repainting the ship is likely to disturb all kinds of things about the vessel's hull, and will prevent a number of different analyses that might be of interest to some groups, shouldn't be the kiss of death for the plan, even if it does come off as a bit silly. After all, who ever said the only legitimate claim on old things in the sea is an archaeological claim? Don't we continue to inhabit and use old buildings? Windsor Castle is over a hundred years old, and it's been retrofitted with central heating, for example -- no doubt removing a certain amount of ancient original construction material in the process. Is this sacrilege, or sound management?

And who gets to choose?

And therein we find a classic tension in site management policy: do we want to study the site for its evidence of history -- which is to say, do we want to conduct an archaeological operation on the site -- or do we want to pursue a policy intended to prevent study of the site, but to preserve some aesthetic or spiritual value one attributes to the place the ship landed when it sank? Or is there some mutually exclusive third option? The different interests will advocate contrary policies not only because they project different futures for the site (the preservationists being among those who believe it is possible to preserve something like a metal wreck from the ravages of Nature while it remains beneath miles of ocean), but because they have entirely different objectives. A venerated war memorial might or might not be a suitable subject of an environmental remediation project (the U.S.S. Arizona still leaks fuel), and might or might not be appropriately dismantled for display before those interested in the vessel's history. Should all the scrap found from Arizona be re-attached, or should it be left to degrade, or should it be hauled up for presentation to the public? Reasonable minds differ.

Some folks will argue that the highly-documented nature of the Titanic -- blueprints show the location of every bolt, and the builder's model remains available in England -- makes it impossible to consider the site of the Titanic to represent a historical site at all. Others will argue that it's not merely a site of historic interest, but a site so deserving of veneration that we dare not even study it.

This last view is interesting, and has some parallel in land-based law in the United States.

Not For Study: A Brief History of NAGPRA
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) traces back to outrage over dissimilar treatment provided native and immigrant remains found during a construction project that uncovered both. When whites' remains were reburied, Running Moccasins (a Sioux also known as Mrs. Pierson) was outraged that Native American remains were boxed for shipment to a government archaeologist's office, which wasn't interested in parting with them. The result was the Iowa Reburial Law.[2] (A brief account from the viewpoint of an archaeologist who handled the Native American remains, can be found in Conflict in the Archaeology of Living Traditions, R. Layton, Ed.)

NAGPRA doesn't pretend to weigh interests. Studying the site for evidence of history isn't a priority recognized in NAGPRA, even if there is reason to believe the site contains evidence of historical facts that might be capable of rewriting the history of North America. Under the Clinton administration, the Secretary for the Interior recognized a coalition of several federally-recognized tribes and an unrecognized tribe as "the tribe" entitled to claim the remains of a human who died nine thousand years before his discovery in 1996. Although analysis of the skull found it displayed European features rather than the Asiatic features associated with Native American remains, the Secretary "found" that the remains were Native American -- presumably merely because their deposit predated fourteen-ninety-two, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. (You can find documents and links on this at

The big mystery of how a European might have reached America nine thousand years ago, whether there might have been multiple migrations into North America, and whether the continent might have been populated from more than one continent, was backseated by NAGPRA and the Secretary's decision that the statute required the remains to be turned over to a coalition of Native American claimants to be hidden or destroyed in a secret ceremony they declared was no concern of non-Indians. Mind you, the evidence at the time showed the deceased might have actually been white. (The claimants had apparently not been settled where the remains were found for more than a few thousand years, indicating that the deceased predated their own ancestors' arrival by approximately seven thousand years.)

This isn't the typical way events shake out when Native American remains are found, but it's an interesting view into how political appointees acting under statutes with ambiguous (or at least untested) terms can give the interested public seemingly bizarre outcomes when evidence of their history is at stake. We should hope for better than this.

The ideal case is explained by Steve Russell, long involved in Native American reburial conflicts:
What do you see as the best possible outcome from the repatriation movement?
The best possible outcomes would be that arches [archaeologists] recognize the right of [Native American] Indians to tell their own stories in their own ways, that Indian dead are treated with the same respect as [non-native] Invader dead, and Indians understand the necessity for and usefulness of the scientific method.
K. Krist Hirst, via
Steve Russell, as the quote's terms suggest, is a Native American unhappy with historic treatment of Native Americans and their remains. He's not a shill for archaeologists, but as the linked article indicates, he's spent time at odds with archaeologists. But he raises an excellent point: people with claims on things as sensitive as the remains of their ancestors should be accorded great respect in those claims; at the same time, those claimants should recognize the utility and value of respectful collection and study of evidence of the past. We all stand to benefit from quality data collection and the opportunity to have the data analyzed, forever onward, from whatever perspective anyone would want to bring to the data.

While it appears after years of appeals that the judgment of the Secretary of the Interior is likely not to stand, it's been a long fight just to study the evidence the remains might hold of human migrations and lifestyles so many millennia ago. There's been no explanation why an examination for historical evidence should not be allowed, or why it should be considered disrespectful to learn from one of our ancestors in this way, there's just been an opportunity -- created by broad law wielded by people with political rather than historic interests -- for outsiders with no hand in finding the remains and no discernible relationship to the deceased to interfere with a serious examination for no obvious reason than to enhance their personal feelings of empowerment or well-being. Since the authorities responsible for administering the law aren't subject to any discernible oversight, their application of the law can easily continue to be arbitrary and to ignore even those parts of the law that are clear.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization ("UNESCO") promulgated in 2001 a proposed treaty known as the Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage ("CPUCH"). The proposed treaty leaves some important terms completely undefined:
  • archaeological
  • commercial (or commercially)
  • cultural
  • disturb (or disturbance)
  • exploit (or exploitation)
  • historical
Those whose activities are "directed at" things that have been at least periodically submerged for at least a century and are "archaological" or "cultural" or "historical" cannot be "exploited" in a way that is "commercial" without offending the terms of the proposed treaty. Yet, a case can be made from the dictionary definition above that everything in the world is historical, even recent things. (An Elvis museum? The study of the Soviet Union?) An expansive reading of "cultural" would encompass every object or place where any human contact has ever been made. It's easy to read in the CPUCH language that anything with a nexus to human activity is regulated by the treaty if it's occasionally wet for a hundred years.

Is this good, or bad?

Let's say you want to sell tickets to the movie Titanic. The reason to sell movie tickets is commercial, whether the seller is a for-profit or a not-for-profit: you sell tickets to raise money. Besides, selling things is the very essence of commerce:
commerce |ˈkämərs| noun: 1 the activity of buying and selling, esp. on a large scale
from the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Ed.
Of course, selling for short periods of time is called rental, and that's what happens when you sell a ticket allowing someone to use a bit of space in a theater seat or an exhibit hall. Just because you're selling the space and the opportunity to enjoy the view for a little while doesn't mean the sale isn't commerce.

And selling is selling, whoever you are.

Whether you pay taxes on the net -- or whether you are exempt from taxes -- doesn't change the economics of the theater seats. The problem is that since the movie Titanic contains several minutes of film from the R.M.S. Titanic -- bought from a commercial for-profit production firm -- UNESCO/CPUCH will make this kind of commercial exploitation illegal in 2012 anywhere the treaty is then in effect.

Now, imagine you are a museum trying to build a collection for exhibition, and you actually want to get evidence from the site for study. You will be selling tickets, commercially exploiting the site, renting to ticket-holders access to the artifacts, and employing (that is, buying services from) numerous people to examine and study the site and its evidence, and build presentations based on it all. Even if the museum is a government entity and beyond enforcement or prosecution (assuming there is such immunity, which isn't obvious and doesn't actually appear in the treaty's text), the professionals are themselves certainly not tax-exempt non-profit government entities, and when they're paid to work in connection with the cultural heritage for personal profit they will surely violate the plain letter of UNESCO/CPUCH by exploiting the cultural heritage for their own commercial gain.

Like the discoverers of Kennewick Man, one need not intend ill or lack a genuine archaeological purpose to be cast into the Pit of Despair by some excitable bureaucrat's zealous but misdirected application of ambiguous (or clear but overbroad) law. What museum would fund an excavation in a UNESCO/CPUCH jurisdiction, knowing that the treaty's very clear language in Article 18 requires that every government adopting UNESCO/CPUCH provide for seizure of anything recovered in violation of the ambigous terms of the instrument? Knowing that Article 18 of the proposed treaty requires government to take action on seized property with consideration of "the need for reassembly of a dispersed collection", what museum would dare expend resources to add to its collections anything that might have been wet before it was found? On the clear language of the statute, it seems like the government would take the stuff associated with any site that had been at least periodically wet (and thus fell within the treaty's scope of regulation) for a century, and give it to whomever in the world held the most stuff from the site.

What do you think this will do to museum deaccessions policies? Dare museums acquire collections, facing the risk they must manage every piece of such collections in perpetuity, and can't deaccession things that exceed the museum's capacity to maintain -- or are so duplicative of objects already held by the museum that retaining them is a waste of resources? How should a museum manage thousands of cannon balls, all requiring conservation effort to prevent them from disintegrating to dust as absorbed salts try to crystallize? Dare any museum attempt recovery of any ancient vessel that was ever armed, knowing that (a) it can't leave "junk" items in the site because the treaty requires everything to be kept intact, but (b) it can't retrieve zillions of duplicative items like cannonballs, nails, coins, and the like because there's no way to deaccession them without violating the treaty and conserving and insuring them forever is likely -- eventually -- to break the museum unless the museum eventually halts all future collection activities.

UNESCO/CPUCH attempts to establish by political force specific site management priorities for which there is no provision for updating in light of developing site-management expertise. In other words, UNESCO/CPUCH seeks to accomplish with the force of law what in a scientific environment would be accomplished by demonstrating -- through research -- the superiority of a proposed technique. Under UNESCO/CPUCH, the only way to improve the standard of site management practice or collections management practice is by showing lawmakers that the practice should change -- any domestic research to demonstrate which will require committing a crime. Doesn't it make you want to become an archaeologist in a CPUCH jurisdiction?

A presumption that "underwater cultural heritage" ("UCH", a term for which the act creates a new definition) is best managed by leaving where it was found (it matters not that the site might be underwater, in a zone characterized by marked and rapid erosion, or in the anchorage of an active harbor, for example) is silly, but is a cornerstone of CPUCH.

Compare CPUCH to the UNESCO Convention on Doping in Sport. The difference between the convention on doping and CPUCH is that there is genuine international agreement that the convention on doping addresses a real problem and offers a plausible solution. As a result, the doping convention went into effect last year with over forty states members on its effective date. By contrast, CPUCH doesn't clearly define even what it regulates, much less marshal any evidence that there's a problem with the existing panoply of regulations that provide oversight of operations involving historic shipwreck.

The claim that there is some kind of "wild west" in which modern-day pirates loot historic treasures with impunity is simply false -- at least, in any jurisdiction in which I've been diving. The UK has an archaeological oversight mechanism, as does every United States state with any coastline -- and maybe every one with lakes, too, for all I know. Florida, for example, requires state-vetted archaeologists to file regular reports on all ongoing projects, and requires every project in a historic site to have direction and oversight by a qualified maritime archaeologist. Anyone unsatisfied with the regulation in some state is free to lobby for different oversight. However, a law that requires the government to seize all historic sites and to make it illegal to operate a museum that contains anything from a historic site addresses a mosquito bite with amputation: it's the wrong answer, does more harm than good, and will be hard to fix once completed.

Broad Attacks Hit Everyone
Since CPUCH is likely to face piecemeal interpretation in every jurisdiction in which it comes into force, one would hope for the sake of predictability if not consistency that one would be able to have good certainty in advance what CPUCH was likely to preclude. Unfortunately, like NAGPRA's interpretation by the United States Secretary of the Interior, there's little assurance that the bureaucrats assigned to processes requests or initiate enforcement under CPUCH will have either a neutral view of the various interests at stake on a site, or any inclination to apply either reason or even the governing statutory language to their decisions.

CPUCH offers little help in this regard. CPUCH doesn't even define the terms that trigger regulation. The terms it uses are extremely broad. For example, what limit is created by the use of the word "cultural" as one of the possible basis of material being subject to CPUCH?
cultural |ˈkəl ch ərəl| adj.: of or relating to the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a society
from the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Ed.
Is garbage evidence of consumer culture, so as to prevent environmental remediation of illegal maritime dump sites? What about Victorian garbage tips, huge piles of refuse in English lakes? There's a pub in the UK with a custom of throwing finished ale mugs from a window into the harbor. The pub's been there for centuries, and the mug pile is as old as the mug-tossing behavior. Are divers who collect new mugs from this pile in violation of CPUCH's precepts? (the "site" is old) What if they accidentally grab an old mug? What if the bar, for display, has someone retrieve a really old mug on purpose? Who's got the better claim on the mug, the bar that originated the tradition, or some government bureaucrat who declares wet junk to be property of the State?

There are additional problems, like the fact that no museum in a CPUCH jurisdiction will be able to mount an expedition to acquire a new maritime collection even if necessary to save the collection from destruction. Because of CPUCH liability, they won't dare:

Signatory countries are at liberty to designate an official to handle business that might be brought to the nation. There is no provision governing the neutrality or expertise of such officials. There is, thus, no reason to suspect that those with the authority will be either politically unbiased or especially knowledgeable about developing sciences in sub-fields related to site development technique, and thus will be in a poor position to offer credible evaluation of competing proposals by entities with different politics and objectives. Moreover, UNESCO/CPUCH vests title for UCH in the government, creating an immediate conflict of interest between the government and any claimant to access the site for a cultural, scientific, or other long-recognized purpose currently in wide acceptance. UNESCO/CPUCH and makes no provision to enable study of the sites, but rather fosters an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty through an obvious catch-22 situation:
  • Before "disturbing" a UCH site, claimants must prove (though the standard of proof isn't identified) to the official specified by the government (whose background and neutrality isn't knowable before countries identify the officials) that the disturbance is necessary to protect the site; however ...
  • to identify whether a site is being damaged by staying where it is, a disturbance to study the condition of its contents is necessary (else, you are arguing without evidence from the site).
With an unknown standard of proof, and an inability to collect evidence purposefully from a site (activity "directed at" the underwater cultural heritage) without proof the site must be disturbed to save it, which evidence requires site disturbance to collect, how will an organization dedicated to strict compliance with CPUCH begin to build a case for saving an imperiled site?

But let's say you find a wreck that is gorgeous, and you don't have any idea that disturbing it would provide a net benefit, but you think film of the site could be used to enhance the profile of underwater archaeological projects and to fund further research into the site in question -- keeping your team employed along the way, and maybe uncovering valuable tidbits of history suitable for a museum exibit (and ticket sales). You are in a jurisdiction that has adopted CPUCH-like law, so your compliance attorney shows you this:
Underwater cultural heritage shall not be commercially exploited.
CPUCH, Art. 2 §7
Selling film clips, or tickets to your film containing the clips of the wreck, is illegal. Exploiting CPUCH is much broader than disturbing CPUCH. Exploiting publicity rights, trade secrets (like how to find your slick wreck), and other intangible property entirely dependent on underwater cultural heritage is pretty clearly banned. Of course, you don't dare publish the trade secret of the wreck's location: unless it is really inaccessible it'd attract negligent curiosity-seekers and others likely to damage the site. Selling rides out to the site for viewing is, of course, just another flavor of commercial exploitation. Tourism is apparently illegal. What to do?

Did you see the movie Titanic? In 2012, when the ship will have been underwater a hundred years, selling tickets to that movie (which contains film of the wreck, and thus commercially exploits the site when tickets to view its images are sold) will be illegal in any country that in which CPUCH has the force of law. Why one hundred years? Well, that's the magic number CPUCH uses to determine whether old wet things are old enough to be valuable. Until 2012, CPUCH hasn't anything to say about the Titanic at all.

Should we allow statutes to require archaeologists to turn in their spades and become shrinekeepers to old things instead of careful analysts of evidence of the past? Without discussion of crazy regulatory proposals like UNESCO/CPUCH, it's likely that the unwitting will uncritically drink the Kool-Aid served by government-employed archaeologists like the ones who administer the Code of Ethics for the leading Australian maritime archaeological association, which requires every member to adhere to UNESCO/CPUCH even though it's not the law of Australia and won't be even if it comes into force, because Australia hasn't ratified it (and likely never will). Booting political enemies out of the professional society over the "ethical" breach caused by violating laws that aren't in force anywhere in the world is a curious idea, more curious still because the government museum that employs these archaeologists won't answer emails asking about the museum's deaccessions policy.

I strongly suspect the reason the museum won't describe its deaccessions policy is because the museum doesn't want to admit that its ordinary operations are really in line with the ICOM Code of Ethics and not UNESCO/CPUCH. The fact that the government maritime museum employing those archaeologists raises all its money by exploiting underwater cultural heritage, and has collections that represent mere fractions of whole assemblages and has made no effort to gather all the artifacts from one site all in one place to ensure they are not irretrievably dispersed, seems pretty good evidence that even in the most rabid strongholds of support for UNESCO/CPUCH, compliance is impossible.

It's also interesting that at least some peer-reviewed archaeological journals have begun rejecting submissions based not on criticism of their content, but criticism of the authors' employers' site management or collections management politics. Site management and collections management designed without serious effort to comply with the not-yet-in-force and crazily impossible terms of UNESCO/CPUCH is enough, in some places, to get research papers rejected prior to reaching journals' peer review stage. By excluding political opponents from peer-reviewed publication, promoters of UNESCO/CPUCH can claim that "all real archaeologists in the country believe that UNESCO/CPUCH should be adopted" and thereby argue, in effect, that since everyone knows ulcers are mostly caused by lifestyle that antibiotics intended to control Heliobacter pylori should be banned, and those who would write the prescriptions should be branded apostates.

The result of UNESCO/CPUCH coming into force will be arbitrary enforcement activity in favor of the political allies of whomever wins the battle to control government regulators' enforcement policy. Given the affiliations of high-profile UNESCO/CPUCH supporters, I suspect many CPUCH proponents expect to be enumerated among these allies, a fact they doubtless expect will advance their careers. Political affiliates already work hard to exclude their competitors from obtaining access to regulated sites -- regulation which suggests to this author that CPUCH isn't necessary. These political affiliates apparently hope to accomplish in the future what they currently find such a challenge: obtaining work at the expense of competitors with more relevant skill sets -- people who would win competitions to perform site development work on the merits, but for the political considerations engendered by UNESCO/CPUCH. With politics in the mix, what value does mere operational skill add to a proposed project's chances for approval?

If UNESCO/CPUCH were actually enforced as written, it would halt underwater archaeology anywhere it came into force. However, the arbitrary enforcement in favor of regulators' political allies ensures that the status quo will likely continue, wherever the law is adopted, with the exception of the exclusion of enforcement officials' political opponents. The problem is that the status quo is opposed to the kind of radical transformation that would reshape the field for the public's benefit, but work against the interests of those who would acquire authority under UNSECO/CPUCH. Existing ulcer-patient practitioners, who like the revenue of existing patients' regular visits, do not benefit from helicobacter treatment advancements.

UNESCO/CPUCH will offer to important archaeological sites the kind of uncertainty, expense, and delay that NAGPRA offered efforts like the study of Kennewick Man. Unlike anti-study advocates' plan to rebury Kennewick Man in a secret location, the apparent demand of CPUCH supporters is that their inability to fund proper evidence recovery projects be excused by a "duty" to leave everything where they found it. Yet, government and non-government museums continue to conduct partial excavations around the world: no-one seriously believes that non-collection is to the benefit of historical understanding or archaeological study, and there's a body of accepted archaeological site management theory that supports partial collection as a mechanism to ensure future capacity to revisit with superior tools. (This author doesn't have a great deal of respect for this theory, mind you, and isn't the only theory, but it's a theory that has support among respected government and academic archaeologists in Florida, to name one place with ongoing academic- and museum-funded partial excavation projects. Such partial-recovery disturbance studies, largely conducted with student and other volunteer labor, are utterly incompatible with the extreme requirements of and would grind to a halt under the authority of UNESCO/CPUCH.)

The requirements of UNESCO/CPUCH are deliberately impossible to satisfy. An offical with CPUCH enforcement power has ample excuse to keep political undesirables at arm's length from the sites that the propose treaty's advocates want to keep for themselves. That they want to keep the sites for themselves is evident from what CPUCH does to legal title to all the evidence of cultural heritage that tends to get wet occasionally. CPUCH is an underwater property grab without any basis in archaeology, or in site management policy. No-one wants to consign archaeologists to maintain an underwater shrine without excavating (disturbing) the site to observe and record data, so the support of supposed archaeologists for the treaty bears careful examination.

Do not expect jurisdictions with a long history of the rule of law, or a strong pride in the rule of law, to adopt CPUCH. Expect CPUCH adoption where there is no non-government archaeology to preserve -- or where a strong culture exists of political favor-trading to ensure supporting archaeologists that they will be able to work sites despite CPUCH if they keep the right company. Expect CPUCH to go into force within the next few years in the adopting jurisdictions, and expect to see its terms ignored except when someone proposes a project that would challenge the primacy of established authorities. Expect to see involvement -- and employment -- of authorities' allies as the universal price for all project approvals. Expect to see sites scooped from discoverers, for exploitation by political insiders who use site-permitting processes as a gatekeeping tool to divert the most attractive projects to close allies.

Don't expect to see the intact collections or in situ preservation funding that the treaty might suggest to naïve readers. Thoughtful operators and careful readers of the literature both know that genuine in situ preservation has a cost and has limits, and that the reason in situ preservation is advanced is merely to forestall arguments by competitors that sites should be examined while opportunity exists, when political insiders aren't part of that opportunity. Expect UNESCO/CPUCH to be wielded as an instrument of oppression of outsiders and discipline within the ranks of the anointed.

[1] Just because something is old or used doesn't mean some people don't regard it as immensely valuable, but this is not a matter for archaeological analysis so much as market analysis, which is a matter not taken up in this post. There are secondhand things that were used in movies, or were owned by Elvis, or are made of gold, for example.

[2] The Iowa Reburial Law is hard to find because it hasn't got a showy title and doesn't say anything at all about Native Americans. The law applies to all remains over 150 years old. The solution, to place certain responsibilities on the State Archaeologist in connection with such remains, was based on the idea of equal protection, not differential elevation of some sites above the importance of others. The law still exists.

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