Thanks to H. for submitting today’s Reader Question:
Is it possible for an artefact to hold any value if its story has been lost?
Take pennies for example. Quite a few features on a penny can help indicate its age, but for this instance, I’ll simplify our only understanding to what the date tells us. The date on a penny is its story. If you had a penny from 1820 but the date was scraped off, then the penny’s value would be nothing more than an average penny, but if the date was not scraped off and the date – 1820 – is clearly visible, then this penny would be worth far more. Without the story/date the penny would have no significant value other than its assumed ordinary status.
This is an interesting question, and it needs two answers: one for ‘date’, and one for ‘story’.
If an artefact has a date stamped onto it, fantastic. It makes the job of archaeologists and historians much easier. But as you say, there are more ways to figure out the age of an artefact than simply reading the engraved year. Features on a penny can tell us where/when the coin was minted. Failing that, we can look at context. If it was found in, say, a box in the attic, perhaps it was found with other artefacts that we can date. If it was excavated, we might be able to date the stratigraphical layer in which is was found.
Once we have a date for the penny, all it really tells us is the age of that artefact. Taken out of context, whether that be the context within a collection of artefacts excavated from a trench, or a historical or chronological context, the date itself doesn’t really give it value.
What gives an artefact value is provenance, or the ‘story’.
Provenance (the ‘story’ or context associated with an artefact) can add huge value to an artefact. Perhaps, after close examination, we conclude that the penny was minted in 1820, and we discover that pennies from this year are very common, so we might conclude that our penny doesn’t hold much historical or monetary value.
However, let’s say the date was rubbed off because the penny was kept for good luck, and the person who carried this penny around in their pocket for years just happened to be King William IV of Great Britain. The date is worn off because the King ran his fingers across the surface so often. As long as we can prove that this penny lived in King William IV’s pocket for nearly two decades, our 1820 penny of little worth transforms into a central museum piece. The fact that it has or hasn’t got a date stamp becomes irrelevant. In fact, the process of it losing its date becomes an important part of its history and, therefore, value.
Date + Provenance = information goldmine
In terms of historical or archaeological value, provenance is important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. You can learn a lot from a single artefact, but as soon as it becomes part of a collection, the amount of information you can glean increases exponentially.
Take Indigenous artefacts, for example. A single stone tool may not tell you much, but if it is one item in a collection of thousands, you can analyse the collection to learn when people were using these tools, how they hunted, what they hunted, whether they hunted large or small game, what sort of food they gathered, how they gathered it, whether they ate more vegetables or meat, how far they had to travel to find the raw material to make their tools…and so much more. A single artefact can’t tell you all that.
Provenance in context
Many Indigenous peoples in Australia believe that an artefact loses its meaning once it is removed from the place in which it was found. The Western idea that artefacts belong in a museum (thanks, Indiana) is not a universal perspective. After archaeologists excavate an Indigenous site, the artefacts must be returned to the Traditional Owners, who may wish to rebury them. This is true of stone artefacts as well as human remains.
One of the most heated heritage debates in Australia is fuelled by differing ideologies. Mining companies wanting to preserve Indigenous heritage believe that relocating the artefacts to a museum is the right and proper thing to do. Many Indigenous peoples believe that removing the artefacts devalues their cultural significance; the artefacts must remain in situ to retain their full value.
Ideology clash…or not?
In 1998, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music came under fire when, during building works, a lost convict road and drainage system was uncovered. Developers proposed to remove the structures, brick by brick, and rebuild them in a museum space exactly as they were found.
To my way of thinking, they may as well reconstruct them anywhere . . . what is being proposed is reconstruction, not conservation. (Justin McCarthy, Managing Director of Austral Archaeology)
After much debate, and a heated public backlash, it was decided that the road and drain must remain in situ and the extension must be built around them.
How effective is it to encase the road remains in a building like this? How does that help us understand or interpret the past? (Stephen Davies, National Trust’s Head of Conservation)
An interesting question from Mr Davies, and one that can perhaps be applied to just about any archaeological site.
Read more about the Conservatorium of Music’s approach to archaeology here.