Home > Archaeology, Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project > Archaeology and the Tragedy of the Commons

Archaeology and the Tragedy of the Commons

One of the more intriguing conversations this summer has been regarding the role that the state, non-state institutions (foreign archaeological schools, national archaeological associations, et c.), and even funding agencies play in shaping the nature, extent, and character of archaeological fieldwork.  The delays in receiving permission to work on the British base (which, to be clear, has nothing to do with archaeological matters), has tried the patience of the team and forced us to adjust our fieldwork plans on an almost daily basis.

The question that I’ve been considering is what would happen if archaeologists were simply allowed dig or survey wherever they wanted.  If all constraints were removed, would we experience the archaeological equivalent of the tragedy of the commons?  In other words, how deep are our commitments to responsible archaeology outside of the structures of the community?

My experience on archaeological projects, including PKAP, suggests that there is a tendency for every individual and project to view their research as the most important.  This “selfish” tendency drives projects and individuals to prioritize their work over the work of others.  Most scholars understand their approaches, methods, research questions, and conclusions to be of great significance.  One result of this understanding is, in part, to prioritize fieldwork that will contribute to their work.

The tendency to privilege one’s own research over others had tended to drive research projects to work up to any limits established by outside authorities.  In the Mediterranean, this generally involves the local state archaeological authorities and any international archaeological institutions involved in managing the work of foreign expeditions. In fact, these institutions largely grew up to control the archaeological work in an area.  On a micocosmic level, we constantly debate at PKAP the priorities of the project and the strategies of these largely friendly interactions involve project staff moving their research interests at the top of the list. 

The tendency to privilege one’s own research interests on both the micro level (e.g. within a project) and at the macro level (among other projects) might well create conditions where the overall health of the field and the protection of the archaeological remains for future generations might not be a primary concern.  In a tragedy of the common scenario, the drive of individuals to survive or prosper leads to the destruction of community resources.  There is no reason to imagine that this would not occur in an archaeological context if forces did not exert influence.

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