We received so many excellent entries for Competition 1.2: The role of the historian! It has been an absolute delight reading through the entries; many of these essays raise very important issues and it was quite a challenge to choose just two winning entries. You can read the top ten entries below.
Competition 1.2: The role of the historian
Do you think that we should carry on excavating sites like Pompeii to see what else we can discover, or should we focus on preserving what has already been found? In answering this question, it may be useful to consider the pros and cons of each choice.
1st place: James B.
Perhaps the crux of the ‘exploration vs preservation’ argument is which method is most beneficial to the human race when judged over a range of social, environmental and economic factors. In a quasi-crude cost-benefit analysis, one would assume that exploration and hence discovery is of most value to the current generation; however, it is once future generations are accounted for that one begins to question whether such a practice is truly sustainable.
A very clear incentive for continued excavation stems from a historical slant, for as Dr Kevin Greene puts it, excavation ‘still delivers an unmatched quality of evidence’ – reflecting upon the fact that it is logical that the more evidence acquired, the greater the research that can be conducted. However simply compiling archives of artefacts is ineffective if samples are not analysed, in this case, historians will have arguably failed in their goal to discover the secrets of yesterday’s societies. The example of Pompeii is a compelling case study because it is representative of a period of time spanning from the first settlements in the region founded by descendants of the Neolithic inhabitants of Campania in the eighth century all the way through to the Romans, who saw the cities demise in 79AD. This is undoubtedly an important era due to the advances in agriculture, philosophy and infrastructure the Romans brought forth – this consideration recognises the importance of obtaining evidence and thus implies that we should see what else we can discover at historical sites such as those found in the Roman Empire.
However, whilst such sentimental theorizing is the muse of a philosopher, pragmatic objections tarnish the social romance. Modern-day excavation projects cost tens of millions of pounds to conduct over a period of time spanning decades, often proceeding with slow progress due to legal issues and ethical concerns (such as religion in Japan leading to access restrictions of imperial tombs). Therefore, the industry must consider whether a price can indeed be put on history, and if so, how much is too much? Privately funded schemes may indeed be an economically sound alternative, however, these can result in a historical monopoly whereby accountability is vague and capital intensive, cost-cutting excavation techniques exacerbate the illicit relic market and negate any historical gain from archaeology. Furthermore, excessive excavation often results in the very evidence attempting to be uncovered being destroyed as sites are no longer protected by natural barriers (for example ash from Mount Vesuvius). Environmental concerns constitute a significant counter-argument to carrying on excavating historical sites, for modern equipment is energy-intensive, and so expensive and polluting. If archaeology is harming the environment in this way, eventually there will be no time left to practice it.
To conclude, whilst further excavation will provide us with more items to investigate, preservation will open the door to in depth analysis and enable more to be discovered via existing relics, thus leading to new historical revelations without the social, environmental and economic drawbacks.
2nd place: Jack M.
The existence of modern day archaeological techniques and technological advancements minimises the trade-off between excavating the site of Pompeii and preserving its lifespan. This essay will argue that the potential scientific and historical significance of new discoveries, combined with the inevitable natural processes which will erode the site over time mean that the opportunity cost of delaying excavation is too great.
The potential scope for undiscovered knowledge to be lying dormant under the buried section of Pompeii is vast, given that one third of Pompeii is still buried. Therefore, efforts should be made to strive for the excavation of this site because we will not be able to physically protect the site of Pompeii forever, due to the inevitable intervention of natural processes. Due to technological advances, we are able to excavate the site in a sustainable way, including until several remote sensing techniques to find the optimal excavation area, taking panoramas of every room with the highest quality of camera and collecting pH samples of different regions in the site.
On the other hand, there is the possibility that we could be naïve to the damage we are causing. The potential detrimental impacts of carrying on excavating sites like Pompeii may be impossible to predict ex-ante, drawing parallels to the 18th century archaeologists who due to their reckless excavation, fooled the world into thinking a man had been crushed by a block when in fact this was not the reality. In addition, we encounter the moral dilemma of displaying human tragedy following a natural disaster. Many people disagree with excavating a site and no doubt eventually putting it on display where the general public have access to view people who died a horrible death being buried under the ash. Some might say that it is not in the archaeologist’s remit to provide a solution to this dilemma, however, the momentous historical and scientific importance of the event to further the study of Pompeii and volcanic eruptions justify excavation.
To conclude, I believe that we should carry on excavating sites like Pompeii due to the importance of expanding our knowledge of different time periods, while we still can. The fact remains that we simply do not know what gems of hidden knowledge are buried within the tomb of ash. In my opinion, cutting edge technology gives us an edge over the 18th century archaeologists; we are also able to detect what has changed about the site due to human intervention. Finally, it is imperative to excavate the final section of Pompeii whilst the previous two thirds are still intact, allowing us a clear view of the whole site. The right time to carry on excavating is now.
Look out for the winning entries to Competition 1.3 coming soon! And don’t forget–the next competition deadline is 5pm on Monday 24 February.