December 8, 2010

Finders Keepers – a story of archaeological looting

Posted at 2:00 pm in Similar cases

Another review of Craig Child’s book about the looting of Archaeological sites.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Finders Keepers – Craig Childs
(Review by Andrew Vasicek)

As it turns out, the author’s title is unbelievably appropriate as it describes the essence of the entirety of the book – a personal reaction to the discovery of artifacts.

Childs sets out to describe the history behind humanity’s need to understand its past. He artfully crafts a story based in part on his own personal, and very diverse, travels about the globe. He tells of grand discoveries as often as simple broken pots. Childs successfully creates a sense that each item has a tale to tell and is valuable for that alone, if nothing else. He also notes the vast disparity between people of all walks of life in terms of how they interact with, and understand, the past as embodied in ruins and artifacts. Archaeologists, collectors, looters, and families all make their appearances; all lending their views on the issues and all are given due consideration by Childs.

Perhaps comprising the central theme of the book, Childs effectively engenders an appreciation for the natural beauty of not only artifacts, but also of their settings. In this simple observation, he draws attention to perhaps the thorniest issue surrounding many of the artifacts of the world, whether in private collections, museums, or still in the ground: are artifacts art or information? Do they have value on their own or do they require provenance and detailed records of discovery? Who should properly care for them – individuals, museums, or the sands of time?

Childs wavers back and forth throughout the book, between his opinion that humanity’s need to possess items from its past is natural and his personal feeling that artifacts should remain where we find them, left to become one with the earth again in time. For him, the answer is personal and simple, our museums and collections are full to bursting already – we ought to let our discoveries lie in peace to be observed and appreciated in their “natural” state by the next passerby.

However, this is where one comes against at least two main problems with Childs’ conclusions. First, his premise is based on an entirely personal feeling. Such a feeling is obviously difficult to define, as Childs doesn’t fully succeed in convincing the reader that his position is the right one. As such, his position is not particularly helpful in defining how we ought to interact with our past, or how we ought to govern our behavior. Of course, if his goal was to start the discussion surrounding the treatment of cultural sites and artifacts on an entirely new path, Childs could be successful.

Second, the ultimate result of Childs’ “let it lie” mentality is often bound to be precisely the same result as if nothing had been found at all. For all intents and purposes the artifact — all its uniqueness, history, and information – will be lost to humanity. Perhaps this is preferable to the destruction of innumerable sites from the greed or nonchalance of looters and others, but perhaps not. What value has history if no one knows it? Childs tells of several finds he uncovered in his travels, only to leave them to chance thereafter. He argues that our museums and collections are overflowing with artifacts and that we cannot properly care for the ones we already have. Why continue to dig up new artifacts which might not even be seen in a museum, instead languishing away in a climate-controlled basement? One has to admit, Childs has a valid point.

Even so, is there not a value in facilitating the sharing of knowledge and engendering an appreciation for humanity’s past? Who is to say when a new discovery is more than just another pot, and is, in fact, new evidence never before seen? Provided we continue to legitimize the process surrounding digs and the acquisition of artifacts, it seems almost silly to argue that we’re better off leaving things in the dirt. Childs’s personal, almost spiritual, relationship with his process of hiking and discovery is just that – personal. It is not immediately translatable to anyone else.

While Childs himself does not truly reach a firm conclusion, he certainly generates the impression that if he had his way, all the world’s remaining undiscovered ruins and artifacts would remain as they are – unknown to anyone unwilling to backpack for days in the remaining wilderness areas of our world. At the same time, Childs does agree that the work of archeologists is preferable to that of looters, even though he often equates the two in many ways.

His final three examples demonstrating his ethic when making a new find illustrate all the above criticisms. He tells of returning to the site of a long ago discovered basket, an arrowhead on the side of the road, and a prayer stone in Tibet. He again wavers between his natural desire to possess each of these finds, to take them to show others. In the end, his conscience wins the day and he leaves each where he found them — in an important way, treating them as the bits of plant matter and rocks they will soon become.

Childs doesn’t seem to see the problem that strikes the reader in these actions. For example, he states that the basket was clearly purposefully placed where he found it. However, his discovery came on the heels of an arduous and dangerous trek to find a tiny crack where if he poked his head in he could just discern the shadowy form of the basket. Everything about his lengthy description speaks to the probability that the basket merely fell into the crack some hundreds or thousands of years ago.

The arrowhead he leaves behind instead of sharing with his son because he knows it will merely become a dusty member of his own cardboard box collection. Because of this, he opts instead to leave the artifact by the road for someone else to discover. Is it really better than teaching his son about the history that fragment represents? With his decision, this piece of history will likely remain nothing more than roadside gravel. Even though the sentiment is a noble one, perhaps it is too simplistic.

In final example of the prayer stone, the reader feels Childs’s ethic is the most appropriate. These stones were placed for a specific and important purpose. It is an inherently different idea to protect the placement of something placed for a firm purpose.

Of course, it is never that simple. Who is to say what a culture from the past (or even the present) holds sacred? Who gets to decide, particularly if the item is old enough that we don’t rightly know to whom it can be said to “belong?” Even though the questions are difficult, the reader almost feels as though Childs’s approach ignores them rather than answers them.

Even though he acknowledges that there are places where one can hardly walk without crunching artifacts underfoot, Childs also seems to ignore the reality that over time, we can expect humans to continue to grow across much of the land that is currently “undeveloped.” If the best policy were truly to simply leave things as they are, anything we might gain from undiscovered sites or artifacts will be lost to us as we cover the earth with our buildings. Childs seems to believe that this is simply the way it ought to be, that artifacts and ruins should just be reclaimed by the earth. The reader feels this attitude is too simplistic or perhaps simply oblivious.

All in all, Childs’s heart is in the right place and he tells an interesting story of a personal journey across the face of archaeology and collecting. However, in terms of the world at large, the reader feels we should focus on creating better incentives to properly study the artifacts we have, allowing for as much preservation of their context as possible. In many cases, this may mean leaving the items where they were found. But is it really wrong to say that if someone thinks the find is of interest, for knowledge and understanding or simply for aesthetics, that they should be barred from a thoughtful study of them?

Humanity as a whole should be allowed to care about its past, to want to touch it, to understand it – in fact, it should be encouraged to do so. Not all of us can make treks through the wilderness to find these relics from the past – but many of us can make a trip to a museum or follow a designated path to a protected site.

Artifacts are both a part of us and the earth’s history. The fact that each person has different ideas about how we ought to deal with them is what makes the topic so difficult and yet so compelling. Hopefully, opinions like those of Childs will continue to move that discussion along to fruitful outcomes.

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