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Who Owns Archaeology

Updated on January 10, 2019
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Dr. David Thiessen is an educator, writer, pastor, and speaker. He has authored several books on a variety of topics including Archaeology

This is a good question

Any answer must also address a follow up question, Can anyone actually own the past? In some people’s minds, mostly professional archaeologists and some biblical scholars the answer is yes. The past and archaeology should be owned by the professionals who have the education, the experience and the know how to discern the evidence left behind by former civilizations.

Eric Cline wrote an article for the Boston Globe titled “The Raiders of the Faux Ark”. In this article he makes his case for the ownership of archaeology, and indirectly the past, by stating that “it is time we took back our field”.

Dr. Cline is of the mind that there are and have been too many amateurs plaguing the field of archaeology and making a mess of theories, discoveries and other ancient pieces of evidence.

Needless to say we disagree with Dr.Cline and those who agree with him. The limited ownership of archaeology would cause more problems than any amateur could hope to create

The Problems of Limited Ownership

#1. Limited interpretation of the past

If ownership of archaeology was turned over to the professionals there are several problems that would arise quite quickly. The first is the bottleneck of information. The number of people who make up the field of professional archaeology is quite small.

This small number means that the theories and information about the past would be limited and very difficult to challenge. The past would be as the few would construct it leaving little room for others to get a hold of the information ad counteract those misleading theories.

The truth could easily be hidden.

#2. Information would not reach the public

As has been witnessed, professional archaeologists are not quick to supply their conclusions or final reports. Some archaeologists, like the Meyers, wait decades before releasing their final reports.

Or the scholars die before publishing key discoveries. As the founder of the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review, Hershel Shanks, discovered, scholars tend to hoard their documents and take their time publishing their opinions. Some even will their manuscripts to aides who take even longer before publishing the information. The Dead Sea Scrolls are an example of this issue.

This withholding of information is irresponsible and hinders the work of all archaeologists whether they be amateurs or professionals.

#3. Access to artifacts, etc., would be limited

This is an important part of archaeology. With limited access to artifacts, inscriptions, excavation sites, the professional archaeologist can say whatever they want about the past.

People cannot double check their work to see if they got the translation correct, their interpretation accurate and so on. This failure to oversee an hold accountable professional archaeologists would turn the field of archaeology into a cult-like profession where what the owners says goes.

#4. Methodology would be restricted

For those who like science, this may not be a bad thing. As Dr. Cline mentioned in the same article, he would like to see every excavation, every archaeological venture, and every bit of research would have to be conducted in the scientific way.

The difficulty with that strategy is that the majority of major archaeological discoveries have not come through the scientific method. In fact, the scientific method often leads to mis-identification of certain sites or the ignoring of large ancient societies. The Hittites and the Northern location for Sodom serve as prime examples of this.

Unfortunately for Dr.Cline and many professional archaeologists, the majority of top archaeological discoveries have come via amateurs who used amateur techniques to make their finds. Some were even accidental as is the case for the Nag Hammadi Library and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The scientific method is not the best method to use when investigating the past. Another example is the Wheeler-Kenyon excavation method which divides a site into squares, then the archaeologist in charge decides which squares to dig and which to leave for future generations.

This is not a good strategy as information is left buried. The lack of recovering this information leads to the mis-identification of sites and people, as well as the ignoring of key archaeological history.

Amateurs Abound

This goes without saying. I will admit that there are quite a few amateurs who do not do archaeology in a proper manner and they tend to make a mess of the field. Some of these amateurs go under a variety of names and have a variety of purposes motivating their archaeological involvement.

Yet,these amateurs often go into areas where professionals have not gone and do not have the manpower to excavate those areas. While some only make a nuisance of themselves, others make important discoveries that are worth investigating further.

One such amateur is Graham Hancock, who has travelled the world and uncovered a lot of of ancient information that is key to archaeological discussions. His theories are as valid as a professional because they promote the discussion not hinder it.

Sadly, many professional theories are on an amateur level and should not see the light of day. Having professionals create a theory does not guarantee the quality or realistic value of those theories.

These professional theories often distort the past and have the professional creating a scenario that he or she wants instead of what actually took place.

Who Owns the Past

The past belongs to everyone because everyone has come from the past. The idea that archaeology and the past belong only to the professional archaeologist or scholar is absurd.

In fact, the idea reminds me of the medieval Roman Catholic priests who told their congregations that only they could interpret the Bible. I know of Bible scholars today who feel the same way. Only Bible scholars can interpret the Bible.

This bottle neck does not provide the public with the complete information to allow individuals to make up their own minds about what took place in history. All the people would get would be the personal views of the professional archaeologist.

The public would be deprived of the truth and the reality of what happened in ancient times. That is not right nor is it fair. Archaeology and the past needs to remain in the public realm and we just have to live with and learn how to handle those amateurs who muddy the archaeological waters.

© 2019 David Thiessen


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