Tardy zealots told to shed weight

The Problem of Unpublished Excavations
June 29, 2001

No archaeological excavation is complete until it is published, and an excavation can be published properly only by the archaeologist who directed it in the field. Not surprisingly, there is a growing backlog of unpublished excavations. This was the problem addressed in Nicosia in 1999 by a distinguished panel from some of the principal archaeological countries of the eastern Mediterranean. This volume contains papers and comments by delegates from the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Hebrew University; the Cyprus Department of Antiquities, the Leventis Foundation and the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute; the Greek Ministry of Culture, the Archaeological Society and the American, British and French Schools at Athens; the Italian National Research Council; and Unesco.

The reasons why excavations remain unpublished are as varied as the excavators themselves. These fascinating deliberations confirm my impression that traditional human weakness is allied, in the host countries no less than in those of their guests, with what we might call "institu-tional weakness". This affects a Cypriot functionary charged with year-round guardianship and administration just as much as a British lecturer with a heavy teaching load between October and June. The first will often be responsible for an endless series of major and minor rescue operations, the second for a research excavation (and probably for raising the necessary funds). To publish their results appropriately, both need more resources - especially time - than they are allowed by employers.

But what is appropriate publication? Uzi Dahari asks if it is necessary to publish every rescue-excavated winepress, "as if this winepress is the first ever to be excavated". But, as deputy director of Israel's Antiquities Authority, he is aware that routine rescue digs in advance of a new motorway or hospital can add dots to distribution maps of particular types of site, and hence to patterns of ancient settlement and land-use that may become significant in the future, even if they do not amount to much yet. It follows that the material from run-of-the-mill contexts should be preserved more accessibly than it often is and that a brief account should be compiled primarily to inform a visit to the relevant storeroom - perhaps for the purposes of a PhD on viticulture in the Roman province of Judaea, for example.

It is sometimes forgotten that, for specialists, the publication of material is ideally no more than a first step towards autopsy: seeing, and if possible handling, the finds themselves. Well-appointed storerooms should be not only essential adjuncts to museum displays of goodies but also essential elements in the appropriate publication of any excavation. Roland Etienne (French School at Athens) points out that historians "cite their documents, but they do not publish them", whereas archaeologists doggedly insist on publishing all their evidence, down to the last potsherd, carefully described (and probably drawn and photographed as well). Etienne suggests that excavation reports "should be relieved of their documentation, which can now be stored and made available by remote transmission to those wishing to interrogate the data files". As the co-author of a report of the old-fashioned kind (it weighs 7kg and went on sale at about £800), I welcome this proposal. My only reservation is that techniques of "remote transmission" tend to be vulnerable to the degree of obsolescence that afflicts the microfilm publication of the British excavations at Mycenae, of which David Blackman (British School at Athens) bravely admits: "This format was an attempt to be ahead of its time, but now it is probably behind the times."

Diplomatic niceties notwithstanding, these and other sore points were aired at Nicosia with welcome frankness. Fewer stones were left unturned than I would have thought possible; names were named; and formal procedures such as international stigmatisation and the official re-allocation of material for study were contemplated. Ominously for delinquents, the latter possibility reached the crisp resolution on the last page. It urges national authorities to issue permits only to archaeologists "who are supported by a learned institution which will ensure publication", to agree a timetable for the preparation of preliminary and final reports, and not to issue permits for further excavations and surveys to archaeologists who have not submitted their final reports on earlier projects (in the same country or elsewhere).

It will not be easy to put any of this into practice. On the pages preceding the resolution, there are too many references for comfort to "personalities", a factor that should not affect the decisions of any publicly funded body; and in any case, the details of antiquities legislation vary from country to country, as does the status (public, private or mixed) at home of the foreign schools. Whatever happens, another meeting to report on progress in five years' time would be extremely interesting. By then, with luck, it will be impossible to ignore a related problem: how to persuade historians and other consumers to make better use of excavation reports.

Meanwhile, many will recall that Vassos Karageorghis, the senior editor of these proceedings, was remarkably successful as director of the Cyprus Department of Antiquities (1963-89) in causing heads of foreign missions to publish the results of their excavations promptly. Although his methods were never fully described, it seemed to me at the time that obedience was largely inspired by his own magnificent example. And good practice on the part of the host country is still, I believe, the most powerful stimulus there could possibly be to good practice on the part of its guests.

But more archaeologists, and more storerooms, are needed everywhere. Given the massive returns on archaeological investment - tourist income in the East, research students in the West, increased knowledge for us all - is this too much to ask?

David Ridgway is reader in classics, University of Edinburgh.

The Problem of Unpublished Excavations

Editor - Sophocles Hadjisavvas and Vassos Karageorghis
ISBN - 9963 36 432 2
Publisher - Anastasios G. Leventis Foundation
Price - £8.00
Pages - 109

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