Aug 21, 2007

Pre-Emptive Archaeology

Elisabetta Povoledo of the NY Times had an interesting article last week on Odysseus, a kind of amateur archaeology group which legally excavates at-risk sites. Here's an excerpt:

The Etruscan tomb was hidden in such a remote corner of Tuscany that Andrea Marcocci, the archaeology student who found and identified it about a decade ago, was not very worried that anyone else would stumble upon it.

Then, this year, woodsmen began to clear brush in the area, and Mr. Marcocci — who had believed the tomb would be safe as long as it was concealed in a forest — realized he had to act.

“I became worried that what’s supposed to be the patrimony of mankind would become the patrimony of an individual,” he said.

Armed with a permit from the archaeological authorities (in Italy, anything found underground belongs to the state), he and a handful of volunteers began to dig.

What they found last week was a complete surprise: a tomb dating back more than 2,000 years with a cache of almost perfectly preserved ceramic and bronze funerary objects, including cremation urns for more than two dozen people.

“It was an incredible moment,” said another archaeology student, Giacomo Ghini, who was the first to spot the tops of the urns buried in dirt in the burial chamber. “We weren’t sure there would be anything there.”

This is a really interesting and exciting effort I think. Under the present system, the only sure way to insure a site will yield its historical information is to properly excavate it first. Italy has a wealth of undiscovered antiquities, but when tombaroli (meaning tomb-robbers) excavate them, the contextual information is forever lost. This group is semi-professional composed of archaeology students. Its activities were completely legal, as they had been granted a proper permit as well. These objects were also turned in to the state.

This site was not major, and thus would probably not have been excavated by anyone other than this kind of volunteer group. Even in Italy, where cultural policy is a major political issue, it is still not possible to police every archaeological site. There are simply too many.

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