Pro/Con: Archaeology

Archaeology essential to understand past

By Kelly Running

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                The other day I ran across an article in the Huffington Post in May discussing grave robbing and archaeology, is it the same or different and why? This made me begin thinking and I thought it was an interesting discussion.

                Grave robbing is where someone digs up a site where a body is and takes any valuables to sell for personal profit.

                Archaeology is defined as the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.

                The issue develops as there is no law dictating when an artifact becomes historically significant; but, there are laws surrounding applications of permits and permission from governments to conduct research.

                The purpose of archaeology is to learn about people’s histories. They excavate sites to piece together the past, what were people like in Ancient Greece or in Ancient Egypt. These questions of what were people like, how did people live, and more are answered through excavations. Finding an Egyptian tomb would have been an amazing thing and to learn about the person who was buried there, about the process of mummification, about their religious practices is something that we can look at today only because of archaeology.

                If you therefore find human remains dating back at least 200 years then because often objects were placed with them it is possible to learn more.

                “To know one’s history is to know oneself.” ~ John Henrik Clarke.

                “Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.” ~ Edmund Burke.

                It’s this type of thinking that makes it pertinent for us to understand the past.

                The difference therefore is that grave robbers are intent on selling artifacts in order to profit, they steal to become wealthy by selling items on the black market. They are concerned with profiting and are not impacted by the historical implications of the artifact.

                Additionally sites are only excavated if it is of great importance to understanding or figuring out something. Permits are only given if there is evidence that it must be done to further knowledge.

                Granted it would be difficult to be approached by someone asking to excavate your grandmother’s grave for archaeological purposes, but does this emotional and family connection apply to someone who is your great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother? At this many people would even feel proud to have the items she was buried with on display in a museum, being able to say “Look at that, it had once belonged to my family.”

                So, it’s this emphasis on historical significance and whether or not a permit has been obtained in order to conduct the work they’re doing. One is benefitting humanity through their work that is done only if essential, while the others are simply robbing the graves to benefit themselves.



Time, proximity and the question of archaeology

By Lynne Bell

            Archaeology is defined as “the study of man's past by scientific analysis of the material remains of his cultures.”

            When I think of archaeology (which admittedly, isn't often), the first thing that comes to mind are ancient artifacts dug up from a distant past, displayed in a museum. And if I think of human remains in a museum (placed there for our education and edification, of course)-an Egyptian mummy, thousands of years removed from our modern-day reality might come to mind.

            However, a tricky question is emerging from many of the world's museums and it has to do with      the moral versus scientific arguments regarding what should or shouldn't be displayed-or even stored- in or near museums.

            One of the most recent and heartrending examples of this argument emerged in earnest a little over a year ago, when 8,000 unidentified human remains of the victims of 9/11 were moved from the New York medical examiner's office to the newly-constructed memorial and museum on the Twin Towers site.

            The remains will still be tested in the hopes that they will someday be positively identified and they are stored away from public view, separate from the public space of the 9/11 Memorial Museum. The repository for the victims' remains is at “bedrock level,” and is an official New York City facility, operated by the Office of Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, and is only accessible by OCME staff. A private room for family members (the Reflection Room) is located next to the repository. Neither space is accessible to the general public, and although the general public pays the $24 admission fee to visit the museum, family members do not, nor do they pay an admission fee to visit the Reflection Room.

            However, in a message to family members. New York's Chief Medical Examiner stated that family members were advised to schedule in advance “in order to ensure you have adequate private time in the Reflection Room at the repository.” In addition, the 9/11 Memorial released a statement, saying: “The repository provides a dignified and reverential setting for the remains to repose-temporarily or in perpetuity-as identifications continue to be made. The OCME is committed to the ongoing work to identify the remains of 9/11 victims, but no DNA testing will be performed on site at the repository.”

            Putting aside the mixed messages regarding continued testing and whether this site will indeed be the permanent home for the remains of those still missing, the question is whether this location is an appropriate place for some of the victims' remains.

            With 3,000 affected families involved, opinions vary. However, it's safe to say that the majority view is anger and outrage.

             Diane and Kurt Horning lost their son Matt in the attacks and told ABC News that they are “appalled at the greed and commercialism.” Others who have lost loved ones in the attacks have echoed their sentiments.

            The museum has stated that the facility receives no government funding and “relies on private fundraising, gracious donations and revenue from ticketing and carefully selected keepsake items for retail.”

            It may seem illogical and even a little hypocritical, but my view is that these remains should be stored elsewhere (a memorial garden, perhaps?) and nowhere near a gift shop. They should be removed from the museum complex and in future, museums should consider time and proximity when deciding on what-or who- to exhibit or store on their premises. 

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