Archaeology and Capitalism – from ethics to politics, by Hamilakis, Y and Duke, P.
(eds.) One World Archaeology 54. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
Springing from a session at the remarkable Fifth World Archaeological
Congress (WAC) in Washington DC in 2003, this book is a resolutely political
collection of essays. While some chapters explore the commercialisation of past
human life, looking at the ethics of such practices, these generally avoid discussion
of the ethics of commercialised archaeological practice. Other authors are quite
simply angry at the financial exploitation of the past in their study area, making this
less a book about capitalism, more a book on archaeology and protest. Throughout,
there is remembrance of the heroic days when struggles were clear (and protest was
popular), with the touchstone that several authors return to being the sacred text of
archaeological protest – Peter Ucko’s 1987 Academic Freedom and Apartheid.
Hamilakis’ thoroughly considered Introduction explores the politico-historical
nature of archaeology, arguing against the dominant discourse and working from the
assumption that archaeologists are and have been (unwitting?) tools of our ‘patrons’.
He sets out a explicitly anti-capitalist agenda, and writes that ‘… the extreme
commodification of archaeology that we have experienced in the last 25 years … is
thoroughly analysed and critiqued by a number of authors in this book’ (18).
However, this reviewer has to disagree – I don’t find the chapters that examine
commercialised archaeological practice thorough in either analysis or critique. Everill
and Shepherd come closest to engaging with archaeology in the marketplace, but
the volume overall does not tackle archaeology’s business practices or business
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Throughout, the authors see archaeological activity through a fundamentally
non-commercial lens; only in Nicholas Shepherd’s stand-out chapter are references
made to the results of commercially funded archaeological practice. Shepherd
explores the politically charged developer-funded excavation of an early colonial
(17th-18th centuries) cemetery at Prestwich Street in central Cape Town. The ensuing
tension over whether this was ‘scientific’ exhumation or disrespectful graverobbing,
‘a conflict between the forces of memory and the forces of modernisation’ (107) and
South Africa’s ‘recent past of apartheid and forced removals, as well as a deep past
of slavery and colonialism’ (110) means that this paper forms a remarkable case-
study in the social accountability of archaeology and its role in the creation and
maintenance of identity.
Other chapters of note include Mourad’s history of archaeology in south-west
Asia as an adjunct or accomplice to western imperial military adventures, and the
two papers linked by their confrontations of the legacy of European 20th century
fascism and the search for historical justice (Bernbeck and Pollack, and Ballbè et al).
These are politically excellent, but they don’t engage with economics. The three
chapters by Silberman, Silverman and Kehoe do examine the commercialisation of
the past, with Kehoe angrily and vigorously protesting against this process, but focus
is on third parties, rather than archaeologists, being the profiteers.
The great weakness of the volume is the narrow range of contributors’
experiences; this may seem like unfair comment, given that the authors are from
nine countries and use case studies from six continents – but a swift review of their
biographical notes reveals that 22 of the 25 contributors are university-based
academics. This is an external, non-engaged critique – it hasn’t been written by
people who are directly involved in commercial archaeology.
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None of the chapters have the power to inform or display the level of
understanding shown by Thomas Patterson’s brilliant analysis of the historical
contingency of archaeology within a capitalist society (The political economy of
archaeology in the United States), and none of the authors even refer to that article.
The book as a whole would have further benefited from considering the subtlety of
how the business of archaeology functions within the framework of environmental
economics, rather than the cruder assessment of its position within the neo-liberal
Harman (2009, 25) writes that environmental economics ‘...has largely
concerned itself with determining what value to place upon natural assets when we
are considering the case or the costs for their protection: you can look for the right
way of according something its economic value and then decide if it can be traded
for some other good, or you can treat it as essentially of infinite value and protect it
literally at all costs’. This leads to ‘… one of the most obvious features of
environmental economics; the limited tradeability of ecological assets’ (ibid). Reading
‘archaeological’ for ‘ecological’, if archaeological assets cannot be traded, using
unfettered supply and demand to minimize the impact of the human economy on this
resource cannot be the ideal solution.
The market does not have all the answers – it fails to perfectly protect
archaeological resources because they cannot be perfectly valued. And so a level of
intervention is necessary. However, those who argue for state archaeological
services funded from general taxation are arguing against the most core principle of
sustainable development – that the polluter should pay. They would transfer financial
responsibility from the damager of resources to the general public. Even arguing for
a ‘developer tax’, as Paul Everill does in his chapter in this book, where all would-be
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developers pay into a collective pot from which archaeological work is funded,
breaks the link between the polluter’s actions and their obligations. A direct polluter-
pays, developer-funded system is the best way to manage and minimise the impact
of the capitalist system upon archaeology, and that is not appreciated in this volume.
Professional commercial archaeologists work to manage and balance the
demands of the market upon of the historic environment. This is what a book about
archaeology, capitalism and ethics should be discussing. It should be about how
archaeological practitioners can best accommodate the demands that the capitalist
system makes upon the shared resource that is the past.
We all listen to and value the opinions of those whose views we share, and it
is dangerous to automatically disregard conflicting voices, but unfortunately this book
will only really be appreciated by the authors’ political and intellectual fellow
Harman, J. 2009. The Green Crunch: why we need a new economics for Britain’s
environmental challenges. Fabian Ideas 625. London: Fabian Society.
Patterson, T.C. 1999. “The political economy of archaeology in the United States”,
Annual Review of Anthropology 28:155-174.
Ucko, P. 1987. Academic Freedom and Apartheid: the story of the World
Archaeological Congress. London: Duckworth.
Kenneth Aitchison is Head of Projects and Professional Development at the Institute
for Archaeologists. He writes here in a personal capacity.
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