Monday, 2 February 2015

Beyond the "Fringe Archaeology" — part thirteen: decontamination

HAZMAT training
Science has no problems with hazardous materials. You can get suited up first and then hosed down afterward and feel safe that no unwelcome substance is going to attack your cells. Avoiding mental contamination is not so easy, though, and you just cannot buy yourself any gear that will prevent such disease. Infection might come from a currently fashionable theory which is being touted as fact; It might come from a half-forgotten legend about King Arthur's or Charlemagne's troops waiting in their tombs for their country to need them again; It could be that the reference on which you rely has been debunked by later research that did not appear in the usual places when you were gathering background material. Perhaps you are even psychologically unprepared for what the evidence is trying to tell you.

About the safest environment is among the primary excavated material. The only contamination is likely to be errors of identification. When I was being trained as a museum cataloguer, the phrase most driven home in my brain was "what appears to be...". When the curator read one of my catalogue worksheets of a Black Watch badge, he noticed that I had described the badge as being made of bronze. He then asked me: "So you have had it tested, then?". I should have known better: when I was working in the jewelry business, it was policy to describe any metal as "white" or "yellow" when taking in a piece to be repaired as describing an object as gold when it was just gold plated could become a big problem if the customer was dishonest and saw an opportunity to profit from the mistake.

When I helped a friend set up a jewellery store, we had a customer arrive to have his wife's gold watch repaired. I described it properly as having a yellow bracelet and being set with white stones. later that day, we got a panicked phone call from our clockmaker. He said that the watch was a fake: it was not the brand it purported to be; It was gold plated and the "diamonds" were synthetic stones. He did not work on the watch. We were more than worried about calling the customer because he had struck as a being a member of the Mafia from things he said when he came to the shop. When he returned to retrieve the fake watch, I asked him where he had bought it and he told me that it was at a shop in Toronto. I suggested that he call his lawyer about how to proceed and that we would provide him with an appraisal at no cost. He smiled and said "We like to do things a little differently — I might even end up with a jewellery store!" I thought it best not to respond to that comment.

A lot of problems in interpreting archaeological remains comes from following a deductive line of reasoning where objects are placed within a theoretical framework of interpretation. It is always best to take such theories as provisional and look at everything with fresh eyes as much as is practical. Think in an inductive way, building a new theory (if needed) from the evidence that is presented.

One of the main tenets of postmodernism is that it is just as important to understand the person who makes a statement as it is to understand what the statement means, and that we do not fully appreciate the latter without knowing the former. In all matters of interpretation, subjectivity is the default setting. If an interpretation happens to support the politics or the psychology of the person who is making it, we might wonder about its accuracy. Remember, too, that one of the main functions of archaeology is to support various nationalisms. Caveat emptor!

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