One of the main functions of archaeology, beyond locating and studying our past, is in preserving that past for future study and appreciation. And that’s not always an easy job. There’s a never-ending onslaught of abuse aimed at the places of our past; weather, natural erosion, and natural disaster are ever-present enemies of the archeologist and preservationist. It’s a wonder anything has survived the eons on this environmental cage-match we call a planet.
Of course, those natural problems pale in comparison to the man-made threats to these important elements of the past. From pollution and the effects of climate change, to war – which often includes direct and deliberate threats to historical monuments and artefacts, such as we saw recently in the middle-east at the hands of ISIL militants – to looting and theft, vandalism, commercial development, and just plain stupidity. Even just the general wear of the constant waves of tourists who’ve travelled far to marvel at the beauty and mystery, but whose very presence is a threat to the survival of those wonders. Just last year, preservationists in southern France completed a painstaking reproduction of Chauvet Cave, which is where some of the oldest known cave art adorns the stone walls, so that tourists could experience the cave without disturbing it – intentionally or otherwise. The same has been done with the caves at Lascaux, and Altamira in Madrid, Spain.
These replicas, which have faithfully reproduced not only the artwork in the caves but in some cases the general shape and layout of the caves themselves in museum spaces, were actually created for two reasons: foremost for the preservation of the caves and art, but also for the safety of tourists. In years past, many of these sites were mishandled; Lascaux even had air conditioning installed back in the 1980’s. These measures, which catered to the people rather than the artefacts, drastically changed the atmosphere inside the caves. This resulted in the growth of massive mold colonies that released dangerous pathogens in the air, which in turn caused officials to close the real site to the public permanently. Just breathing on such artefacts causes damage, as anyone who’s visited the Louvre Museum in Paris knows well.
That’s not the only way these ancient sites and artefacts are threatened though. When you go on vacation to a tropical locale, have you ever taken a stone from the beach as a souvenir? That’s a somewhat common practise, and in most cases is harmless, but that’s not true of every holiday destination.
If you were travelling the English countryside and happened upon an old stone circle, perhaps Casterligg or the Rollrite Stones. – places the general public knows little about, and thus the flow of visitors is quite low – would you think twice about pocketing a small stone from the ground? It might seem a perfectly innocent way to remember the experience, right? How would you know if that particular stone had any significance to the site? What if you’d just stolen a piece of an historical monument?
This happens more than you might think. And in fact people have been known to try and break pieces off of such monuments for souvenirs. It’s unthinkable, but it’s common. This is one of the (many) reasons Stonehenge is so closely guarded these days. But where the site in question isn’t internationally famous and doesn’t generate huge tourism revenue, it’s unlikely to be protected so well.
One such site is in southwestern Saskatchewan’s Moose Mountain National Park (not to be confused with Moose Mountain, Alberta, which is a mountain peak where parts of the movie Brokeback Mountain were filmed). It’s an ancient First Nations medicine wheel mound, called the Moose Mountain Medicine Wheel. It’s actually part of a group of structures at the site, some are burial mounds and others possibly the foundation of ancient temples of some kind. Moose Mountain, like many of its kind all over North America, is over 2000 years old and is part of the Northern Plains Indian culture that has existed here for thousands of years, but we actually have no idea who built it. Whatever its original purpose, Moose Mountain Medicine Wheel is slowly disappearing, and not because of weather.
When it was discovered in about 1895, the central cairn of the mound was approximately fourteen feet high. Today it’s no higher than a foot and a half, and that’s because visitors to the site are keen to take a rock from the pile as a keepsake, without giving a thought to the damage they’re doing in the process.
Authorities from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum are currently working with local First Nations bands to find a solution that will both protect the site and maintain its spiritual and aesthetic appeal. But, at least in the case of Moose Mountain, the damage has been done. Those pieces of history won’t magically find their way back home, to make this site whole again.
Here’s the question; how far should we, as a society, go to protect these irreplaceable characters from our past? In the case of ISIL threatening the destruction of the Great Pyramids in Egypt, some have suggested military action to prevent it, though there are some who strongly oppose this solution. In the field of archaeology, the wholeness or completeness of an artefact is of little importance. After all, a broken clay pot can tell you just as much as an intact clay pot, but the academic side of archaeology isn’t the only consideration here.
Do not these sites have historical value that is diminished when vandalised or destroyed? Certainly they do, but how far are we willing, or should we be willing, to go in their protection?