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3. Archaeology: a maturing scientific discipline

In the previous section, legal provisions were discussed, giving a vision of French archaeology. On one point, those legal documents correspond to the start of a scientific dimension to archaeology whether in France or anywhere else: human history must be able to be seen to exist.

Although archaeology appeared well before the 18th century, as a term it was sporadically used. Cyriaque d'Ancône or Ciriaco de' Pizzicolli (1391-1455) is sometimes called the father of archaeology because he was the first 'scholar' to rediscover the prestigious antique Greek sites such as Delphi and Actia Nicopolis. Du Voisin de La Popelinière (1541-1608) explicitly mentions the terms 'archaeology' in his work of 1599 (vol. I, 211). But these examples do not demonstrate a development of the discipline. Only with the excavations of Herculaneum in 1738 are the beginnings of archaeology marked, but even then on macroscopic scale. Columns, squared-off blocks, and so forth, enabled the identification of buildings, together with complete pieces of pottery and other artefacts. These last items would fill museums and display cabinets all through the 18th and 19th centuries, amazing the public and leading to the rediscovery of Antiquity (Greece and Rome) and former societies of the Mediterranean Basin (Egypt, the Celts). Archaeology would also serve another objective: to provide the physical evidence relating to ancient texts. 'Biblical' archaeology is a schoolbook example of this, which even today retains its pertinence. The connection between archaeology and what is visible can again be seen, here supporting an ideological viewpoint.

However, archaeology as it is known today in France originated in the second half of the 20th century. The scientific community, from the late 19th century onwards, had already recognised the importance of context and not just the recovery of fine objects but generally specaking, excavation methodology only really advanced with the work of Sir Mortimer Wheeler and the publication of his Archaeology from the Earth in 1954. The practice of archaeology in France was relatively untouched by the revolutions of the 1960s brought about by Lewis Binford's New Archaeology and André Leroi-Gourhan's work. Those archaeologists working on prehistory were an exception to this rule, since they had the advantage of not being blinded by texts.

This is important for the issue in question, since it shows that the discipline is perceived as being intimately related to excavations. A few rare exceptions exist. The Centre for General Archaeology defines archaeology as being the discipline that studies objects made by human beings. Founded by Philippe Bruneau and Pierre-Yves Balut (1997), this laboratory of the University Paris IV—Sorbonne has developed its work using the theory of mediation developed by Jean Gagnepain (French anthropologist and linguist). In this approach, archaeology comes under human ergology (technical ability) and the understanding of human beings using a more global approach (for the evolution of this approach, see Centre d'Archéologie Générale). Similarly, some archaeologists are interested in buildings archaeology (e.g. Reveyron 2002), which began to gain recognition towards the end of the 1990s. These exceptions have succeeded in bringing archaeology out of the soil and archaeology now encompasses artefacts from above and below the ground. In this way, architectural heritage is not only related to art history, but also to archaeology, just as in the 1970s industrial archaeology managed to create a link between contemporary artefacts and older ones. However, despite these exceptions, the idea that there is no more to archaeology than excavations still persists!

Added to the scientific community's division over the definition of archaeology, verbal inflation has taken hold. Egyptian archaeology, prehistoric archaeology, field archaeology and geo-archaeology gleefully mix aspects of the object under study with aspects of the speciality, praxis and multidisciplinarity. As Philippe Jockey points out very well, '… today we have the incorrect impression of dealing with archaeologies, rather than with simply archaeology, which although united in their aims otherwise concentrate on their object or their methods' (Jockey 2008, 5).

And yet voluntary archaeologists have contributed to the evolution of an archaeology focused on fine objects, through antique dealers and associations, leading to an archaeology of different specialities, brought together to make anthropic remains speak, whether they were created two and a half million years ago or today. Moreover, with regard to the history of the discipline, it is difficult to reproach voluntary archaeologists or ordinary citizens for their desire to dig the ground to discover a treasure when it is precisely through this that archaeology was born. Although it is true that things are changing, this psychological dimension (still firmly maintained by many professional archaeologists who often have their own private collection) must not be ignored. One of the issues is therefore to effect a transformation from an interest in possessing something old into an understanding of it. This process implies not only a continuation of links with voluntary archaeologists and the involvement of ordinary citizens, but also gets rid of old ideas and bad practices within our professional community. However, before suggesting a solution, the impact of UMDs in France, and other known dangers to archaeology or risks in general, will be discussed.


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