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June-March 2001


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Relic Hunter

Dirty business
Few are called, even fewer are chosen

What's the first thing in your mind when you hear the word Archaeology? The typical idea of people concerning archaeology is that it's an exciting fast-paced, on-the-edge of your seat job, and that archaeologists are whip cracking, Nazi foiling heroes.

The truth is that archaeology is a serious, and sometimes, mundane profession, but there are some cases in which archaeologists may make exciting discoveries, such as a tomb filled with treasure or the ruins of a magnificent temple in the midst of a jungle. However, the discovery of a few stone tools, grains, and even garbage may reveal even more about early people.

Archaeology is the study of the remains of past human cultures and civilizations. Archaeologists investigate the lives of early people by studying the objects those people left behind. Such objects include buildings, artwork, tools, bones, and pottery.

Archaeology can be either placed under anthropology, the study of human culture, such as in the Philippines and in the Americas, or be more related to history, as the case is in Europe. This difference is due to the fact that in some countries, there is a lack of written documents in which to base history on. In these places, archaeologists are force to recreate the past by studying the present condition of peoples and their surviving cults.

The main objective of present archaeologists has been to develop general theories to explain the changes in human societies revealed by archaeological findings. For example, archaeologists today look for reasons behind the rise and fall of civilizations, and the development of trade and commerce between ancient peoples.

Dirty business

A major concern in the archaeological community today involves the preservation and proper study of archaeological sites. Many such sites are threatened by construction projects, agricultural expansion, and illegal artifact trade. Another major concern of archeologists from all over the globe is repatriation. Repatriation is the returning of artifacts to where it was originally found. On an international scale, archaeologists, in cooperation with UNESCO, seek to stop the illegal sale of archaeological artifacts. They urge nations to enact and enforce laws to prohibit the import of ancient objects unless an export certificate has been obtained from the country of origin.

The construction of the Aswan Dam in Egypt is an example of how economic development and archaeological interest conflicts with one another. In the 1960's, Egypt, with its need for a regular supply of water, reliable irrigation and cheap electricity, planned to build a dam that will control the floodwaters of the Nile. With its completion it will form lake Nasser which will occupy an area of 4,014 square kilometers and will completely engulf the 3000 year old Temples of Abu Simbel, built by the pharaoh Ramses II . Immediately, the world archaeological community responded by cutting the temples from the mountain side into huge blocks and moving it to higher ground. With the help of fifty countries and the archaeological community, the temples were saved for posterity.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the great losses that will come at the completion of yet another ambitious project, the Three Gorges Dam, the second object on earth visible from space. At its completion somewhere in the next three to four years, the dam will stop the Yantze's destructive floods, provide hydroelectric power for the country, and create an artificial lake which will extend for hundreds of miles. This lake will cover entire cities, both modern and ancient. When completed, we would have lost a 2500 year old village, a magnificent wooden pagoda, historical temples, various important archaeological sites, an ancient way of life, and scenes of the three gorges that have inspired a thousand Chinese poets and artists millennia before Christ.

The sorry state of Ankor Wat today is once again blamed on economic problems. The country of Cambodia is one of the poorest in Southeast Asia and its government cannot provide the funds to properly preserve let alone restore the once grand and now dilapidated pride of the Cambodians. Due to lack of money and government support, the ruins are left to the mercy of illegal artifact traffickers who desecrate and steal pieces of their countries heritage and sell them rich collectors from other countries.

Few are called, even fewer are chosen

The discipline of Archaeology in the Philippines is still in its infancy and the practice is mostly confined to the personnel of the National Museum of the Philippines. The National Museum is the only government agency authorized to grant permits to individuals and institutions to conduct archaeological expeditions and excavations. Aside from this function, it also dispatches teams to the field to do the same. However, the office of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) grants permits to individuals and institutions to hunt for treasure in the country. This is in contrast with the objective of the National Museum to preserve cultural material through scientific excavation as opposed to indiscriminate diggings for materials with high monetary value.

Another serious problem in the field of archaeology in the Philippines is the lack of people who are willing and able to be archaeologists. Currently there are only two. Due to the fact that archaeology is not very lucrative, many are hesitant in entering the field, also, it takes up to at least six to ten years to complete.

Despite the many setbacks, the University of the Philippines in Diliman, in cooperation with the National Museum, has established a Archaeological Studies Program, designed to provide the country with much needed archaeologists. The program was established on August 24, 1995, and manages Diploma and Master of Science/Master of Arts (MS/MA) programs in cooperation with the different colleges of UPD. For the MS/MA degree programs, one can either specialize in Prehistory, Historic Archaeology, or Resource Management. By Lenard Stuart

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