On various forums, for the past year or so, I have been asking what the point of knowing what happened in the past was. Until recently, it seemed that nobody had an answer. This played no small part in the reasoning for re-organising this blog last month.
However, Chris Johnson came up with something that challenged my point of view:
Jon, you asked this challenging question about what is the point of researching Stonehenge a few weeks ago and it got me thinking.
I do believe that this type of research is very important these days when our society is asked to make huge decisions on the basis of insufficient factual information and with limited resources. It is important because of what we can discover about process and methods and motives, the weighing of evidence and the construction of a plausible narrative that can be acted upon.
To give some examples, think of global warming, genetic modification of crops, the situation in Ukraine, the rise of IS, etc. On a lower level, In my professional life the question of making substantial investments without the luxury of "objective truth" is a regular necessity. The archaeologists should have much of importance to teach us all.
This seems an especially good argument. Although there may be a limited benefit in keeping the structures, there is perhaps a greater benefit in knowing why certain types of structure were built: In particular if the narrative of the past does help our understanding of how our societies react to threats and opportunities.
But whilst this seems a very good argument for the social benefit of knowing what monuments were for, it doesn't make a case for keeping monuments in a pristine condition.
Normally if something special is found it is almost always preserved; so the risk of it being lost decreases. But sometimes special things get broken up just because they are thought to be worth more that way. This often happens when the 'establishment' is not capable of reacting quickly enough to threats.
So an open question: If the choice presented itself, which of the following choices has more benefit?
- Being certain you know what a structure was for, but significantly increase the risk of losing it and/or its archaeological trace as a result.
- Being certain that a structure will be preserved but significantly increasing the risk that people will never know what made it special to the people of the past.
If anyone thinks that the risk of losing what exists (to future archaeological investigation) outweighs the potential benefit of knowing what happened at that place, I would be really interested to know why. If there are any contributors who have read the book, this really is quite an important question.