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“Regarding the issue of unprovenanced antiquities: surely even without substantiated provenance, there is still some factual knowledge to be derived– the approximate age of the item, for instance, and its general geographic origin? As a layperson in this area, I understand the additional value of confirmed provenance, but should that also mean that an item lacking provenance has no value at all?”

This was a great question in response to my last post, discussing a magazine editorial on scholarship, ethics, and artefacts lacking in proper archaeological provenance. (An unprovenanced artefact is one with an incomplete or unscientific record of its origin). The one-sentence answer is yes, there is always something to be gained from any existing piece. The more complete, complex answer has to do with the importance of knowledge and the nature of scientific inquiry. In archaeology, consider provenance another word for context. The moment something is pulled out of the ground, 90 percent of its meaning is lost.

Scientifically pursued archaeology captures this meaning by keeping exhaustive records of context through every step of an excavation. In fact, when a major or potentially important artefact is exposed, the pace usually slows down, so as much data as possible can be collected. Contrast this with treasure hunting, where an artefact would be gleefully ripped from the ground on first sighting. The difference between real archaeology and unscientific excavation is in this focus on capturing information: both will end up with the object itself, but only a scholarly approach will preserve the knowledge as well. The goal of scientific excavation is to produce records so complete that future learners will be able to recreate what was found where, in what context, and what it means, without ever seeing the site or the dig. If all the objects, even the site itself, were ever lost, the knowledge would still be there as a resource. By comparison, treasure hunting gives us an object, at the price of destroying information. The object can be preserved, but that information cannot be retrieved.

But isn’t partial information better than none?

It would be, if it weren’t for the collateral damage. Seeds, stratified layers of soil, broken or rusted bits of stuff, can be enormously informative to archaeologists, but are worthless to looters, and are tossed aside or destroyed while digging. And in archaeology, general information isn’t very useful, even if it’s true. “This came from the city of Whatnot in Iraq” probably wouldn’t tell an expert anything they couldn’t already tell from looking at its form and workmanship.

What about scientific testing? Modern methods can provide huge amounts of data.

Laboratory analysis in archaeology is complementary, not comprehensive. Most scientific tests tell us things we couldn’t know any other way; they cannot replace other forms of analysis, like contextual. Basically, lab tests on artefacts can tell us about the artefact itself — what it is made of, where the material came from, etc — but can rarely tell us how it was made, or used, and can never tell us what it meant to the people who created it. Even the brilliant age-testing technologies available are usually only usable on once-living things like trees or bones. We could test how old a rock is, but that wouldn’t provide any clue about when it was carved into a statue. Added complications are expense and invasiveness: many tests require a piece of the material itself.

Strip away the 90 percent that is meaning in an artefact, and the remaining 10 percent is mostly, brutally, market value.