- An Issue of Ethics? Curation and the Obligations of Archaeology
I want to thank the authors for their reflective responses to the issue of archaeological storage. I was concerned that my intentionally provocative opening salvo in discussing “someone else’s problem” (implied by Green on p. 64) was going to reveal a wound that exists, yet remains predominantly under-examined and untreated. Surprisingly, many of the reactions were in agreement, particularly on at least one point—there is a global archaeological curation crisis. The problem of storage is exacerbated by a number of factors: a lack of institutional funding, the often unbridled desire to excavate, and what is referred to in legal circles as “willful ignorance,” that is, our ability as a discipline to turn a blind eye to the problem of what to do with all of the stuff we recover as part of our archaeological practices.
I was inspired by the knowledge, insightful comments, and suggestions of the authors, but I will not attempt to summarize each of the positions. Instead, I will take this opportunity to highlight some of the recurring themes shared by these reactions and the original essay. I will also clarify a few points that may have been unclear in my essay. I want to end this rejoinder with a recent case which I think encapsulates the curation crisis—the controversial sale of Egyptian antiquities by the St. Louis Society of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA).
In his stimulating essay, Kletter states: “Storage is basically a financial problem. It is not about technology, ethics, legal measures, or education” (p. 60). This comment describes a fundamental disciplinary problem. Many archaeologists do not see the proper care, handling, and long-term curation of artifacts as ethical obligations; but they are the responsibility of the discipline and its practitioners. In his response, Jamieson maintains that “archaeologists are ethically and professionally bound to make provisions for the preservation of their research” (p. 76), and while money does play a large role in our varying levels of commitment to curation, it is our ethical duty to care for the material we produce through excavation. Whether we dump it back at the site, sell it to the highest bidder, put it on display, or curate it in a museum or storage facility, something has to be done with the stuff we amass.
Although I like the distinction between rarer “oneof-a-kind” artifacts and bulk items that Kletter makes regarding archaeological material, I am uncomfortable with the term “goodies.” The term “goodie” trivializes and decontextualizes the artifact making it all the more appealing to buyers who then see these items as [End Page 77] objet d’art, prized for their uniqueness and museum qualities rather than the evidence they can provide about the past through their discovery in a specific context. This term also demeans the importance of bulk items when in fact we may be able to glean valuable information from the thousands of more prosaic items, creating new knowledge about function, economy, trade routes, and manufacturing techniques. The existing legal provision for partage in Jordanian law is not just about “goodies,” but about the ability of excavators to take the unwashed masses of sherds, animal bone, and flint for post-excavation analyses and for use as study collections in academic institutions across the globe. I acknowledge Kletter’s point that in endorsing partage we may be ameliorating a storage problem in one country (i.e., Jordan) while creating one in another country (i.e., Canada). In many ways, shuffling sherds from one country to another does not solve the problem of storage. I would, however, disagree with Kletter’s assertion that most of the curation crisis solutions I propose focus on “goodies”—there are, in fact, “somebodies” out there waiting for bulk items (see Kletter, p. 55). I recently returned from a visit to the Center for Near Eastern Archaeology at La Sierra University in Riverside, California, a new facility with numerous bulk items from Jordan currently under study and used in teaching. Kletter is right in declaring that “loan, lease, sale, and deaccession will not solve the problem of storage” (p. 57); we...