Catch-and-Release Archaeology

[Image: Archaeologists work at Gobero, "the largest graveyard discovered to date in the Sahara." Photo by Mike Hettwer, courtesy of National Geographic, otherwise unrelated to this post].

Archaeologist Sara Gonzalez, we read, courtesy of an older post on Middle Savagery, "practices what she calls 'catch and release' archaeology." This means Gonzalez "plots all of the artifacts as they are excavated and then reburies the artifacts after analysis."

While you can apparently read more about her method in this paper, I'm intrigued by the more general idea of systematically reburying things for their later, contrived rediscovery. This sort of behavior seems all but guaranteed to upset the existing stratigraphy of a site—and thus, in fact, be archaeologically usless—but it also sets up an interesting relationship with subterranean artifacts. That is, objects inside the earth enter into a kind of regulated hide-and-seek with surface dwellers.

Anthropologically speaking, I would love to learn more about cultures that have practiced this strangely squirrel-like behavior: burying perhaps quite large-scale things, in a loop bordering on repetition-compulsion, so that someone can unearth them later, thus deliberately leaving traces that future humans might not even know how to look for.

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Blogger timquinn said...

This raises the possibility that the ultimate result of returning things to the country of origin, a new and significant change in collecting antiquities, might be the demand that these items be reburied where they were found. The museums of the world would empty out and history would be forgotten. Perhaps eventually even contemporary objects would be buried in an attempt to engender respect for them. "I have 14 paintings at The National Burial Grounds of Culture." may appear on future CVs.

June 01, 2010 10:12 AM  
Blogger Fritz Bogott said...

Just about everyone buries aluminum, steel, glass and hydrocarbons for future generations to mine. (See the Wikipedia entry for "Fresh Kills Gold Rush.")

June 01, 2010 11:23 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Reading this, I was immediately reminded of the Olmec figures from La Venta. A number of figurines were deliberately buried in upright positions about 3000 years ago. At some point after the burial (perhaps hundreds of years later) someone dug a hole down to the figures, partially uncovered them, and then filled in the hole. The conventional explanation is that people knew ritual objects should be buried there and dug down just to reassure themselves everything was still in place, but I've always liked to think it was ancient archaeologists having a poke around.

I'm also reminded of the famous statue of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, which was uncovered by Spanish priests in the 18th century, who found it disturbing for various reasons, and who then reburied it. It was probably one of many such objects that ended up re-covered, unusual only in that a German explorer heard the story and had it excavated a second time and removed from its location.

I like to think the artifacts wouldn't be forgotten, but instead remembered via oblique documentation that would render them even more intriguing and mysterious by their absences. I actually know of a few artists who have created work with the intent of entombing or otherwise hiding the art to take advantage of this effect.

June 01, 2010 2:25 PM  
Anonymous Anne said...

It's long been standard practice in archaeology to leave parts of sites unexcavated simply because excavation is a destructive practice, and archaeologists want to leave things for future investigation (by different archaeologists, new methods, etc.) The reburial of human remains is also increasingly considered best practice around the world, in part because of cultural property and repatriation laws. In these cases, I don't believe it would be considered appropriate to re-excavate in the future. In some ways, mortuary archaeology is a salvage operation - as much information as possible is gleaned before final reburial.

As for cultures burying things for rediscovery or reuse by their own people, I'm reminded of the Chinchorro mummies found in the Atacama desert. The world's earliest examples of artificial mummification, many of the mummies demonstrate evidence that they were repaired over time. Certainly, venerating the dead is a common cultural practice and there would be a need or desire to keep the bodies in good shape. But it's not clear if they were repaired before or after burial. I also think of the caches of artefacts that are commonly found in Mesoamerican and Andean archaeological sites, but it's not clear when they were meant to be rediscovered or if they were meant to be reused for either ritual or 'practical' purposes.

June 01, 2010 7:53 PM  
Blogger humblefool said...

What about the intentional "release" end of the equation? Time capsules are a deeply-ingrained cultural form of artificial archeology.

June 02, 2010 12:14 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Anne, I've long thought that leaving sites partially unexcavated is one of the more interesting—and optimistic!—aspects of archaeological research.

Tautei, thanks for the "incavation" link—I had never seen that before.

And, Tim, reburying artifacts where they had originally been found in their country of origin sounds like an amazing premise for a short story. Teams of UN-sponsored reclamation workers lost in an archaeological delirium, trying to find the exact strata at which certain urns were once discovered long ago.

June 02, 2010 8:46 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Sorry—Tautai. Misspelled your name!

June 02, 2010 8:47 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

"Cultures that have practiced this strangely squirrel-like behavior:"

June 04, 2010 9:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See also: the write-up in today's Telegraph UK about Daniel Spoerri's "Déjeuner sous l'herbe" project.

June 06, 2010 7:19 PM  
Anonymous Kaleberg said...

She might be doing more harm than good. There is evidence that ancient Greeks would collect and rebury fossilized mammoth bones, often in appropriate coffins, believing them to be the skeletons of ancient Titans fallen in combat. Later generations would find the careful reburials and consider them as proof of the Titans' existence. I'll reference the book, The First Fossil Hunters for this.

June 27, 2010 12:26 AM  
Anonymous Andy said...

I have a fake Aztec clay wall hanging currently buried, so when I unearth it, it will look more authentic. Another trick: bury a bottle of wine or champagne at a picnic site a year or so in advance - you will amaze your friends when you theatrically announce that you just "have a feeling" that something is buried below a tree or shrub and must be unearthed!

July 29, 2010 5:11 PM  

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