All that Glitters is Not Gold: Archaeology Version

I was sharing pictures of our artifacts to a group of colleagues the other day from my new world of tech.  I had that familiar sense of pride looking at them, pride at our cataloging, research, and classification.  Someone then asked me what he probably thought was a completely innocent question.

“Are these worth money, then?” I was stunned, and glanced at the picture of a terracotta lamp.  “No,” was my immediate answer.  “Of course not.”  It’s broken and its provenance is unknown and of course we’re not even sure of how legally it arrived in North America.  So quite firmly, no, this lamp is not worth any money.

“Then why do this?”

This question has stuck with me.  It has never occurred to me, in the seven years that I have worked with Classics, that we would be protecting things because they had monetary value.  That’s what antique shops are for.  And even then, you’d be hard pressed to find anything Carthaginian in an antique shop.  Anything that would be considered ancient and valuable, at this point, is most likely either in a museum or an institution.

Most people can’t tell what this is, but we protect it and cherish it.

When I look at our artifacts, I don’t see the terracotta or the subtle designs.  I offhandedly observe that the person who made it had far more skill than I ever would (I won’t be producing and selling lamps any time soon).  My thoughts usually stray to who used the lamp, maybe why was it thrown out? Did they like this particular lamp? Or was it one that was used last for reasons I don’t fully understand? What discussions must it have witnessed.  Did its owner think himself a great man? Or did he consider himself ordinary and not worth anyone’s notice?  I embody this lamp with limitless possibilities and questions so that to me, its value is self-explanatory.  And saving it shouldn’t even be a question.

I know that this hasn’t always been the case.  In an anthropology class, I learned about how there was a man in the 19th century in the U.S. who started collecting and cataloguing arrowheads because he wondered if he could learn something about that particular Native American tribe’s evolution.  And he was considered daft.  Unfortunately, many in the 19th century believed that because North American cultures didn’t use precious metals, build great palaces or carve beautiful statues that their archaeological value was quite small.

A villa in Pompeii

That wasn’t isolated to the New World, either.  The earlier ‘excavations’ of sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum destroyed buildings, stratigraphy layers (not too sexy but I assure you, archaeologists are flinching when they read that) and anything else that got in their way to get to the beautiful marble sculptures and frescoes that they were looking for.  Even then, the respect wasn’t there even though they could sell these statues for a fortune.  They thoroughly washed the marble to eliminate any traces of paint so that they would be ‘clean’ and ‘white’ (so many layers to that statement, but I assure you that once again archaeologists are flinching thinking about all the thorough scrubbing).  Let’s not forget, either, how many layers of Troy the infamous Schliemann dug through to reach a layer that he deemed rich enough to belong to the Homeric city.

Unfortunately, destruction of archaeological sites is still happening today. I could list the countless sites that have been destroyed in Syria, Iraq, and other countries and the immeasurable loss to human history that means, but there are far better experts than I who have written on the topic (oh awesome, there’s even a Wikipedia page devoted to this).  But I can also think of the damage that tourism is doing.  How about two women who carved their initials 8 inches tall into the Colosseum? Or the damage to the Parthenon & acropolis in Athens? (Which is such a problem that when I was searching for articles about it, on the first page of results is an article from 1975 from the New York Times).

Tiny glass tesserae – by themselves, difficult to see the value. But the mosaic they would’ve been…

Veering away from the deep, deep rabbit hole I could go down ranting about the destruction of archaeological sites, I promise this all has a point.  Because life does move on and Greece is never going to ban tourists from the acropolis and people will continue to pocket little pieces of stone that will eventually lead to the hill-top becoming more damaged than it already is.  There could be another earthquake in Italy that knocks over the last of the Colosseum that others have left behind.  Which means that, really, it’s archaeology that is going to preserve this little bit of history.

Archaeologists have realized since the time of Schliemann et al. that it’s not the amazing monuments or the stunning art that really teaches you about a culture.  It’s the little, seemingly inconsequential, items that really help you piece together a society and the people who lived there.  Take the Great Pyramids of Egypt, for example.  There’s still this assumption today that it was built by tens of thousands of slaves but archaeological evidence has suggested that they were paid for their labour and that they may have even volunteered to be able to have the chance to work on them.  The Old Kingdom kings then become less tyrannical and fairer to their people.  After all, the workers were partly paid with beer and I know several people who would be ok with that exchange.

Can’t even say goodbye to the Colosseum without groping it

Don’t get me wrong, I love monuments.  I have been known to stare in awe at huge brick walls and perhaps to hug a column or two.  I’ve been mesmerized by Roman sculptures, memorizing every wrinkle and mark of these intimate portraits.  But ask anyone who has dug with me and they’ll tell you that the same look of awe is on my face when I find a pile of tesserae or half a lamp used as filling for a wall.  To me, anything that is ancient and has somehow survived history is precious and must be saved.

About Kat Solberg

Kat has her MA in Classical Archaeology from UBC, where she first became involved with the project. Its Media and Communications director, she is the voice of the project and all of its public dealings. When she's not glued to her computer, she can be found digging things up and obsessing over the Romans.

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