What this otherwise interesting and enjoyable documentary on the early Mayans whined about — even more than Third World agricultural techniques — was the fact that descendants of these ancient people were venturing out in the thulies without government approval or, more importantly, academic sanction, finding pyramids and other structures abandoned by their ancestors before tenured treasure-hunters could, burrowing into them and laying claim to their inheritance, which they then used to supplement the crappy income that comes of subsistence farming.
These people were constantly referred to as “looters” by the documentary’s writers and the featured academics, who, unbelievably, begrudge them — and their hungry children — what Indiana Jones’ girlfriend Marian Ravenwood accurately called “little bits of junk”, a phrase that I firmly believe should be tattooed across every academic archaeologist’s torso simply to remind him of the proper priorities in life.
Backwards, so he can see it in the bathroom mirror.
Or upside-down, across his stomach.
Robert Bakker of hotblooded dinosaur fame has criticized proposed laws that make amateur paleontology a crime, pointing out that most good finds begin with non-professionals stumbling across interesting new materials. Unfortunately, many such laws are already in place for archaeology, with government, in effect, preclaiming everything under the topsoil before it’s discovered, a clear-cut case of underground Marxism.
You often hear supporters of such laws snort, “That ought to be in a museum!” when they spot some desirable something on a collector’s mantlepiece. But isn’t it infinitely better off there, than hidden in a museum basement where most “nationalized” artifacts and fossils end up? And given the miserable track record socialism has earned in every other field of human endeavor, isn’t it socialists who belong in a museum?
Believe me when I attest that archaeology is important to me for many reasons and has been since I was about five years old. Much like paleontology, it tells us where we are by showing us where we’ve been. Sometimes it explains how we got this way and warns us of mistakes we shouldn’t make again. And it’s just plain splendiferously mysterious and interesting — like an old adventure radio serial. My very lovely and talented wife is preparing herself even now for a second career in archaeology. She’d like to be curator of a private museum in the Southwest.
What fun we’re going to have!
But not only is there nothing under the ground worth depriving some poor farmer’s family of a meal, of arresting, jailing, possibly killing him over, there is yet another extremely important ethical consideration.
What, precisely, is the moral distinction between a pot-hunting farmer, on the one hand, digging into a hill and extracting something for profit that will improve his life and the lives of his kids, and a college professor, on the other hand, from some faraway country, doing exactly the same thing for profit in the form of tenure and scientific prestige?