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American Culture Studies

The Plundered Past: Archaeology's Challenges in the Modern World

American Culture Studies 4243 - Spring 2020

The public imagination thrills at the fantastic adventures of Indiana Jones and Laura Croft, Tomb Raider; but the reality of modern archaeology is more complex, ethically challenging and interesting than a simple treasure hunt. In the U.S. and Canada, our science museums and museums of anthropology still display artifacts that are regarded as sacred and culturally definitive by Indian nations, although such holdings are now subject to negotiation and repatriation. Art museums in Europe and the U.S. are still stocked with looted ancient masterpieces that are revered as vital heritage by the nations from which they were stolen. We display looted art alongside a much smaller number of legitimately excavated artifacts of masterpiece quality, so it is no surprise that our popular images of archaeologists as avid and undiscerning collectors raise little concern. But modern archaeologists are not extractors of art or even of scientific information, from places as passive and inert as the museums' objects ultimately occupy. Archaeologists work with living people inhabiting societies and states that care deeply about their pasts and the relics of it. They are active agents engaged with many other people in the production of knowledge about the past. In our rapidly shrinking world, educated sensitivity to the many ancient cultural legacies that shape the values of modern global society is more than a moral imperative; it is a basic form of collaboration in the common project of survival. Archaeologists are ethically charged to advance that project through education about the complex contemporary arena of artifacts, sites, and information they occupy.

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The Plundered Past: Archaeology's Challenges in the Modern World
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