Thursday, March 1, 2012

Dig Ventures' outside-the-box method to archaeology could revolutionize the economics of excavation

Dig Ventures, a British organization that provides "seed capital for archaeology projects worldwide", just launched a whole new kind of funding initiative that promises to change the way we think about funding archaeology and I can succinctly describe as "kick ass". In order to excavate Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire, England, a Bronze Age site that is being threatened by extensive drainage and climate change, Dig Ventures is using Sponsume, the European equivalent of Kickstarter, to reach out to the public for funding. The thing is, they're providing everyone with the incentive to back the project with the opportunity to be involved in the actual dig. £10 gets you "exclusive backstage access to daily content on our website in the 'Site Hut', a PDF of the final report, plus an invitation to our end of site party!" while contributing up to £1,300 or more gets you master classes and evening lectures.

The BBC just published an article today about the venture, in which Lisa Westcott Wilkins, the managing director of Dig Ventures, was quoted:
"Most of the archaeology outside of universities happens in advance of infrastructure or building, so when the market for that slows down, we don't get to dig very much," explained Mrs. Wilkins. "We've been thinking for a long time that things need to change, that there's not the kind of outreach that we feel really could be happening. There are lots of good people who are held back by the traditional way of doing things."
This crowd-sourced, crowd-funded approach to excavating important sites and engaging/educating the public in the process is, frankly, so brilliant that I think we all just want to shout, "DUH." This is an amazingly hands-on approach to a problem that all of us here in the States have been bitching about ever since we discovered that Spike TV and the National Geographic sold their souls for shows like "American Diggers" and "Diggers". Television programs like this are obviously very frustrating for archaeologists and individuals who love responsible archaeology. However, I think that on a quieter level, they have also sparked the realization that the archaeological community has not made the kind of aggressive motions they need to make in fixing a widespread misunderstanding of the ethical differences between responsible archaeology and treasure hunting. Pop culture and reality TV shows with "digger" in the title are just inflating this misunderstanding, and encouraging people to volunteer at professional digs is not proving to be enough incentive for the general public to support responsible archaeology. I see Dig Ventures project as a very clever way of addressing two big issues: first, it's a brilliant way of engaging and education people in archaeology. Second, it's a very creative way of getting funding in an economic environment that generally has little to no funding for archaeology. But I think there is a third, hidden advantage to this kind of initiative: it is a brilliant way of communicating the economic value of keeping heritage intact.

When people outside the archaeological community can see the cost of what it takes to excavate and preserve historical sites (versus what they might spend on a single artifact that was commercially exploited and illegally obtained), it might very effectively drive home the fact that it is cheaper, safer, and more productive to support archaeology and preservation than it is to engage in the illicit art market. The numbers of archaeology are not nearly so scary as the numbers behind the illegal sale of cultural property. £25,000 ($39,837.50) to excavate an entire Bronze Age site versus the $1 million paid by the Met for the Euphronius Krater? Not to mention all the jobs, training, and educational opportunities provided by a mere £25,000 excavation versus the asymmetrical distribution of money and incomplete information provided by a cool $1 mil for a single object without a reliable provenance? Bitch, please. These are the kinds of numbers that could mobilize people on the ground, not just in academia.

Good luck to Dig Ventures in achieving all they've set out to accomplish!

1 comment:

  1. Aww poor Flag Fen! It is sort of the little archaeological site with a lot of heart but with a lot working against it. Every archaeologist in a 100 mile radius lists it as the best ever. We tell our friends to go there. The visitor center is modern. Great day out for the kids. Yet nothing changes the fact that Flag Fen is in Peterborough and tourists just don't go to Peterborough. Locals don't either. I lived 30 miles away for 5 years and I've only been to Peterborough twice: once to change trains and once to go to Flag Fen. Why would you bother to go up to Peterborough rather than stay in Cambridge another day?

    Even though Peterborough is in Cambridgeshire, the Historic Environment Records and all other archaeology related things (except the Portable Antiquities Scheme) that fall into the "Peterborough Unitary Authority" are administered separately from the rest of the county. I, at least, started thinking about it as a totally separate entity which is silly.

    Actually, come to think about it, I just planned a trip to the UK for my parents and I didn't even think about stopping in at Flag Fen even though we will be driving by it. Poor Flag Fen!

    I think that the biggest thing this scheme could do is actually get some people emotionally invested in Flag Fen. Convince them to deal with Peterborough long enough to at least give Flag Fen a visit. I'm guessing that is the big-picture goal that the Flag Fen folks are after. The fact that this is even needed shows what the funding realities are for a totally awesome site that is in a non-desirable location.