Touching Archaeology

I have mixed feelings about ecotourism:

1) I think it’s great that countries with environmentally-sensitive areas are aware of these sensitivities and want to protect them.

2) I understand the importance of tourism. I broadens the mind of the tourist and brings in much needed dollars to the local economy.

It’s reconciling these two points to provide a balance between the environment and the economy that is causing me issue. Then again, where in the world isn’t this an issue?

Many people don’t realize or appreciate that historic resources are non-renewable, much like oil and gas. Once destroyed or altered, you can’t get it back. Archaeologists walk that fine line of balance everyday — through studying the historic resource, often it is destroyed. Destruction of the historic resource can come from many different directions, including:

– exposing the resource to the public and the environment. This can lead to erosion and vandalism, among other things.

– in Alberta, digging up Precontact sites means negatively impacting the site to find it, and then destroying it to collect as much information about it as possible.

This is why an Historic Resource Impact Assessment will always state that the best way to preserve an historic resource is to avoid it. However…..

Next time you walk through a museum, what’s the one thing you want to do? What’s the one thing that you see EVERYONE doing? Heck, you don’t even have to go to a museum. Go to the mall.

Everyone wants to, and in fact does, touch everything.

We need that tactile connection; we need it as human beings — between each other and between us and our environment. One of the most startling studies I learned about in undergrad was that of the deprivation of touch in infant monkeys. You can read about it in Deborah Blum’s book “Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection.”

As primates, we need to touch and be touched. It’s fundamental. I’m sure there are other studies (clinical and otherwise), stories, and anecdotes that further illustrate our need to be in contact with our environment. (The stories of children in Romanian orphanages comes to mind…..)

Often in museums the wise curators will have set aside artifacts that they’ve allowed the public to touch. You’ll see these artifacts shine with the oil from the fingertips of those who’ve touched them. This also happens at archaeological sites. Stone walls can be smooth and almost mirrored from the touch of thousands upon thousands of people. And if there is, or was, something to feel or touch under that sheen of human contact, it is now obscured. Perhaps even destroyed. Our very act of fully appreciating our environment can destroy it.

So how do we sustain ourselves while sustaining our environment?

This is one of the few areas in which I applaud technology. Virtual reality can breathe life into archaeological sites. Take a peak:  http://www.phimai.ca/

The caveat? What’s the first thing this archaeologist thought when she saw this beautiful temple?

I want to go there!

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One response to “Touching Archaeology

  1. Pingback: The Usefulness of Used Bookstores | The Reluctant Archaeologist·

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