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Narrative Nonfiction Book Club - November’s discussion

This month the FPL Narrative Nonfiction Book Club read Finder’s Keepers:  a tale of archaeological plunder and obsession by Craig Childs. The author, a professional writer with a deep respect for nature and the preservation of earlier cultures, sought to expose the dark underbelly of archaeology ...  the dirty stories, the felonies and the ethical issues that surround the handling of artifacts and antiquities. 

When asked what kind of reaction he received from the archaeological and collecting communities with the publication of his book, Craig Childs responded thus:

“This book kicked a hornet’s nest, which is what I intended.  Before I wrote it, I’d talked to archaeologists, private dealers, and museum technicians who took me aside and said someone needs to break the ice that we’re locked in the same old fights and stalemates, and somebody needs to tell the bigger picture of antiquities, that looks beyond one-sided reactions.  So I did.  Now, I hear some in the scientific community are angry or frustrated that I considered opposing points of view at all.  They wished I had simply cast stones at people engaged in dubious activity.  Well, if you read this book, then you know what I was trying to do: level the playing field and look each character in the eye, not holding any above the other, as they all seem wont to do.  I set out to give every perspective, even if some made me uneasy.”

The discussion group focused on the ethical issues involved with discovering an artifact.  What is the right thing to do when you find something in the ground?  Should you leave it in situ out of respect for the culture that created it and for the natural passing of all things?  If so, it may be looted by someone less scrupulous or damaged by the elements.  Is removing it from the site the better choice?  Removal can destroy important context for the item and forever alter the significance of the site, as well as possibly placing the item in more physical danger from handling, finger oils, and light, temperature and humidity fluctuations.  What about making the artifact accessible to the public?  Is that best done by leaving it in situ where the context is best?  This will preclude most people from being able to see it, but those who do will have a superior experience.  Sending the item to a museum will afford the greatest access, if it is not confined to a storage room where the majority of artifacts reside, but there is often something special lost in translation when the item is removed from its natural surroundings. 

We went on to discuss the variety of people who are interested in artifacts and antiquities, from looters trying to support a drug habit to museum curators, and all those falling in between. We also discussed why archaeologists will have nothing to do with private collectors, dealers and auction houses.  Throughout the conversation several members shared personal experiences they had visiting archaeological sites around the world and their views on ethics in general. 

Finder’s Keepers provided a variety of viewpoints on archaeology that gave us all pause.  We agreed that we would view artifacts differently next time we visit a museum or find something interesting in the ground. 

We expect to have another lively and thought provoking discussion next month when we share our thoughts on Maya Angelous’s memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  If you would like to join us, pick up a copy of the book at the reference desk and come to the meeting on Friday, December 6 at 10 AM here at the library.  Hope to see you there!

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