Can I Be Professionally Saved and Shaken At The Same Time?

I recently finished reading one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Finders Keepers by Craig Childs is an essay about Childs’ views on archeology and how historical artifacts are altered as they change hands after they are dug up. It was extremely enlightening and well written. I could hardly put it down, and at times I was aghast at the atrocities that are being committed against histories that don’t belong to us.

Childs believes firmly that an object’s identity and historical significance is deeply rooted in its location. For example, he refers often to how many objects that are buried were intentionally buried as part of grave sites since many previous cultures buried their dead with things that would help them in the afterlife. Those graves still exist, and taking those objects is disturbing a grave and the memory of the human that lies there. The object loses a lot, if not all, of its meaning and context by taking it away from the location and into someone else’s possession. Even museums, which seek to tell a story of the past, are using the object out of context and change its meaning by saving it. For Childs, meaning is closely tied to worth. A pot or arrowhead or string of beads is most valuable when it is still in the ground where it was placed rather than preserved and cataloged for science and the historical record.

I am very torn by Child’s ideas. On one hand, I agree with him wholeheartedly. What value is there in scientifically determining the mineral composition of 500 year old pottery? What does it matter the migration patterns of ancient peoples? Yes, it is interesting to know, but I don’t necessarily see how that knowledge will take us forward as a civilization. We aren’t going to figure out how the Greeks smelted their swords a thousand years ago and gain some vital piece of knowledge that will improve our current metallurgy methods. Is that arguably trivial knowledge worth disturbing people who were lovingly laid to rest?

On the other hand, I’m a student of history and I want to work in the historical field in museums researching and telling the stories of cultures long gone. I do believe that learning about the past can teach us much about the future. Child’s book makes me doubt if I can do that on good conscience however. He does eventually concede that if things must be removed from the earth, that museums are the best place to keep them. Well, obviously. It’s hard to argue against that. These things will be taken by looters for personal collections whether museums are involved or not. It is best to at least attempt to preserve some items in a climate-controlled environment. It’s how the stories behind the items are told that we can control.

In the end, I learned a lot from Child’s book and I think I will go forward into history (what an odd concept) with a more cautious attitude. Museums are often likened to icebergs. Only a very small percentage of their collections ever make it out for the public to see. Museums are fighting for space to store the abundance of items and fighting even harder for money to take care of it. This job would be much easier if they saved only a few examples and left the rest to remain untouched.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. JG
    Feb 08, 2011 @ 23:18:05

    Hmm…I think I need to read the book to really understand his perspective. I’m curious enough that I can’t really wrap my mind around the value of leaving things underground that could let us know about our ancestors. Maybe because I feel like, by learning about these things, it connects us to them on a personal level. But I’ve never heard anyone give this viewpoint, and I’d like to really understand it. Thanks for sharing.


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