saving the past for the future

To develop an awareness of the need for preservation of archaeological resources.
Students should be able to:
  • discuss the given ethical dilemma
  • create possible solutions to the dilemma
  • evaluate their own beliefs about the preservation of archaeological resources
Key Words:
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The well-preserved monumental remains of the Incan city now known as Machu Picchu in the Andes Mountains is Peru's most famous archaeological site.
Cultural resources - a prehistoric or historic artifact or site that is important to a culture or community for scientific, traditional, religious, or other reasons.

Preservation - to keep safe or protect something from injury of from an alteration in its condition.

Stewardship - active interest in the preservation or protection of cultural resources.

Vandalism - the purposeful destruction or defacement of public or private property.

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The upper half of this prehistoric trash pit was vandalized by pothunters. Later, archaeologists carefully excavated the remaining half.
Archaeological sites are non-renewable resources of scientific and cultural information; once they are excavated, they can never be replaced exactly as they were. Artifacts are also non-renewable resources of scientific and cultural information; once they are removed from their original context, their meaning can be easily lost. Archaeologists are trained to know when and how to properly excavate a site; the study and care of artifacts; and how to share their findings with the public. When untrained people try to "dig for treasure" they unknowingly destroy the irreplaceable archaeological record, and we all lose part of our cultural heritage, our shared history.

The Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) of 1979 provides for the prosecution of those who participate in unauthorized digging and collecting of artifacts on public lands. The sale or purchase of illegally acquired artifacts is also prohibited. The 1906 Alabama Antiquities Act reserves the right of excavation and preservation of antiquities for the state.

When an object is left behind by the person who used or made it, that artifact becomes part of a much larger story. The careful, scientific excavation of an archaeological site helps us reveal and interpret this story. Haphazard digging or collection of artifacts is like ripping individual pages from the book, leaving it incomplete and dishonored.

An Archaeological Dilemma
Read the following dilemma to the students. Before discussing possible choices, have each student write a short paragraph about what the would do in such a situation. You might collect their papers and write a sample of the answers on the board for discussion. Discuss the given choices and suggest answers. Remind the students that there can be many perspectives on an issue, but try to have the class come to a consensus on the best course of action.

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Pyramid of the Magician at the Mayan
site of Uxmal, Campeche, Mexico.
You are on a class field trip to Blakeley State Park in Blakeley, Alabama. At school you learned that it was the site of prehistoric Native American occupation, an early American town, and an important Civil War battle. There are signs in the park that say that the unauthorized digging and removal of artifacts is prohibited. When you and a friend are exploring the park during lunch, you discover pieces of prehistoric pottery scattered around the roots of a big, overturned tree. Your friend says to grab all you can because broken artifacts don't count, and besides, it was the tree that brought them to the surface, not you. What are you going to do?
  • Take home one piece of pottery as a souvenir. The removal of artifacts destroys the context of the site; the artifact is now detached from its place in history. Each piece of pottery is a part of the story of the lives of the people who made or left it behind. If everyone who found the site took home just one piece of pottery, there would eventually be none left, and a complete picture of the past would be gone.
  • Tell your friend that taking home artifacts is wrong and then leave.
  • Tell a park ranger. If you find artifacts, you should always tell a park ranger, the local museum, or other authorities. Archaeologists probably will not excavate unless the site is threatened with destruction, but they will want to record its location for future study. If you ever see unauthorized collection of artifacts or vandalism of a site, report it to a park ranger - don't try to stop the diggers. Illegal artifact collectors are sometimes armed and should not be approached.
  • Decide that this one time can't hurt and start filling your pockets.
  • Don't do anything, because you didn't take anything and were not breaking the law.
  • Other.

Copyright © 2013 by The University of South Alabama
Last Updated:
Thursday, July 23, 2015 8:58 AM