The Value of Archaeology
Why should sites be preserved? Sites are finite (there are only so many of them) because the people who made them during their everyday activities only created a limited number, and man and nature constantly degrade what is left. All human societies change, and in changing, leave behind a record of that change. Thus, sites of the past are not under the same economic, technological and social systems as site made today. The past cannot be recreated. It is the only record left for non-writing groups.
Sites are fragile, in that any disturbance in the position of the artifacts or features or trash destroys the patterns that are their primary scientific value. Their internal patterns and soil features can be disturbed by natural processes such as freeze/thaw cycles, plant growth, erosion, and earthquakes.
As noted above, sites are non-renewable because the cultures and life ways that made them change over time and past patterns become "extinct". Once a social and cultural system is gone, it is gone forever. The only traces left are the limited number of archaeological sites that are in a constant state of slow decay.
Sites are systemic in that they are a record of a specific set of events at a specific place at a specific point in time, distinct from all other events at all other times and places. Sites reflect human behavior and choices representative of the cultural and social milieu, and as such, they are unique. For "prehistoric" societies, archaeological sites are the only record that the culture left behind. They can tell the story of the past people who lived here. They can be used to reconstruct how human groups adapted to changing conditions, past life ways, past economies, past technologies, past trade and political processes. Archaeological sites give the past a "voice". They show how people made choices in their interaction with the physical environment (the earth and its resources), the biotic environment (plants and animals), and the cultural environment (cooperating and non-cooperating other human beings).
Disturbance or destruction of a site is like tearing the pages out of, or burning, the last copy of a book. Once gone, it is gone forever. When our ancestors came to this continent, they brought Old World diseases that devastated the Indian populations. For some groups, the process brought extinction. The destruction of the archaeological record is almost an act of ultimate genocide, the wiping out of the very traces of their past existence.
Archaeological sites provide a long record of human exploitation of the environment. Since the environment consists of three parts: the physical, the biotic and the cultural ... archaeology furnishes humanity with evidence that societies have destroyed their environmental support systems through physical over exploitation, destruction of natural habitat, and collapse of socio-economic and political systems.
Archaeologist study soils and geomorphology. They record erosion and deposition sequences. They look for clues in the remains of the plants and animals to determine where and how they were exploited. Other disciplines used to understand archaeological data include history, hydrology, geology, pedology, meteorology, zoology, forensics, ecology and chemistry. Archaeological sites have scientific significance to many disciplines as they help reconstruct the who, what, when, where, how and why of culture process, evolution and ecology. Sites also have public values for interpretation, education, recreational tourism and a sense of our common human past. Archaeology "debunks" popular mythology and acts as a check and balance on historical interpretation. Sites have ethnic significance to specific groups. In many cases, their lineal descendants still exist. Sites may have traditional social or religious values to a living community, and may be important to those communities in maintaining their identity as a community. Without archaeology, almost 99% of human "history" would be unknown.
Why Preserve So Many?
You must think in the long term to understand the philosophy behind the need to preserve archaeological sites.
Not every archaeological site contains sufficient data to study the basic who, what, when, where, how and why questions. Often only a small part of the full archaeological record is present in any one site. People did many different things in different places and changed over time. Some site are specialized sub-parts of an overall socio-economic system. Luckily, people repeat actions at many locations so there is redundancy.
Many sites must be studied at many locations that were occupied at roughly the same time to build up the data needed to reconstruct average patterns. Keep in mind that Indians occupied Oregon for the last 13,000 years. Even one site a year for the entire state would total 13,000 sites. Since Oregon is located at the junction of the NW Coast, Plateau, Inter-Mountain, Great Basin and California-chaparral continental ecozones, one site per year per ecozone would be 650,000 sites. Since cultures tend to stay relatively static until pushed into change from changing conditions, blocks of time much larger than a "year" can be used as a model for preservation. In Oregon, the Periods (like Late Archaic) are units at multi-thousands of years. But since different activities happened in different places throughout ecozones, numerous sites within the zones need to be studied to gather the data that is necessary and sufficient to understand human prehistory and adaptation.
Slowly, through planned research, models are created and tested to explain the data. In all cases, intact archaeological sites are the key to unlock the puzzle of the past. A way of looking at archaeology is to use the jigsaw puzzle as a model. Visualize a jigsaw puzzle with billions of pieces and covering an area the size of a football field. Within this larger puzzle are nested sub-puzzles and within those sub-puzzles are smaller still sub-puzzles ... and so on. Perhaps one square foot contains a puzzle that can be reconstructed into a picture that has meaning ... but some or many of the pieces are missing. Luckily, this same picture more or less repeats elsewhere (in limited numbers) in the overall design ... but these similar images are not exactly alike (they contain variations). Because of vandalism and effect of things like the wind blowing pieces away, and because parts are scattered around, it is very hard to solve even the smallest of the sub-parts. Your job is to do that, also solve the larger patterns up to and including the football sized puzzle as a whole. That is the archaeologists nightmare and challenge. Actually, it is a lot of hard work wrapped up in fun.
This is why archaeologist take the default assumption that a site should be protected unless it is proven to be worthless for research by professional evaluation (and for Indian sites, with written evaluation from the appropriate Indian tribal government). That is why archaeologist , and tribes, work together to enact laws to protect sites from destruction and damage. Not all sites are important under current values. Not all sites merit protection or preservation. But the values of sites change as methods, techniques, and theories change. In general, archaeologist are looking for ways to find information that is important. Data, and information, are important to the archaeologist if it advances, alters, confirms or refutes current theories, hypothesis, empirical observations or methodologies. Archaeological evaluations of significance are made in these terms. Tribes may have different values, and as sovereign governments, their evaluations are made in terms defined by each government.
Current Oregon state law can be found in Oregon Revised Statute 97.740 (Indian Graves and Protected Objects), 358.905 (Archaeological Objects and Sites), and 390.235 (Archaeological Sites and Historical Materials: permits). Oregon Administrative Rule 736-51-000 covers archaeological permits under ORS 390.235.
What We Would Not Know If We Did Not Have Archaeology
We would be limited to information about cultures that had a written language or were written about by people who had a written language. We would have only those records that had survived. There would be a small body of oral history, but no way to check on its validity. We would be limited to the last 3000 years of the human past, and many of the languages we now know would be unknown and untranslated. We would have some evidence these groups existed, but we would know almost nothing about them without the science of archaeology.
We would know almost nothing about human evolution and lose over three million years of human activity, development and growth. All early hominid research would not exist. There would be no australopithicines, no Homo Erectus, no Homo Habilis, no Homo Neanderthalensis, no early Homo Sapiens. The entire Paleolithic would be gone, we would loose the stone age... Mousterian burials... Auchelean handaxes and the development of stone technology... Lascaux and the rest of the cave painting, and the Venus figurines. There would be no Leakey family at Olduvai Gorge nor Donald Johanson's three million year old “Lucy” found while a Beatles song was blasting out across Ethiopia's Afar Depression.
Also missing would be the Neolithic agricultural and herding revolution and the emergence of settled village, town and city life in the Near East, Orient and Americas, the Copper and Bronze ages and the early agricultural communities in Europe, East Asia and India. We would loose everything we know about the beginnings of plant gathering, the changes in plants leading to domestication, and the start of irrigation and large scale farming. The early development of the Old World would be limited to a few mentions of names in rare books, like the Bible.
We would know nothing about early Sumerian city states like Lagash, Ur and Uruk. The Akkadian dynasty would become dust and the armies of Sargon would vanish into time. The Elamite state in the highlands of Iran would be no more, the Hittites, the Hurrians and the Mitannians would vanish from view. Also gone would be the Amorites, the Babylonians, and the Kassites... we would have no Law Code of Hammurabi. We would loose the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations as well as the Etruscans, forerunners of Rome. There would be no decipherment of Old Babylonina by Grotefend using texts recovered at Persepolis. No decipherment by Rawlinson of Babylonian cuneiform.... no Botta at Ninevah and the discovery of the palace of Sargon II... no Wolley at Ubaid and Ur... no Petra... no Evans at Knossos in Crete discovering the Palace of Minos and the bull dancers... no Schlieman at Troy... no Wheeler discovering Harrappa and Mohenjo Daro in India... no translation of Egyptian heiroglyphs by Champillion.
There would be no Carter and the Tomb of Tutankahmun... no Petrie in Egypt finding pre-dynastic cultures, Tell El Amarna and Abydos... no Childe revealing the Neolithic revolution and developing urbanism...no Willey in the Viru Valley of Peru... no Braidwood in Iraqi Kurdistan looking for neolithic beginnings... no Clark at Star Carr in England... no Stevens at Uxmal, Copan, Palenque and Chichén Itzá in Mesoamerica... no Uhle in Peru, nothing on the early American cultures except the conquest documents and explorers journals... no Inca culture, no Moche... no tomb of the Lords of Sipan.
We would have some surviving records form Greece and Rome, but much of what we now know comes from archaeology. Without the recovery of textual materials, most of Egyptian history would be unknown. Chinese empires after writing would be known, but the early end would be gone... gone would be the pottery armies, the rise on nomadic empires would be gone... and much we know about the civilizations of the Asian tropical forests. We would have limited information on the Parthian and Sasanian Iranian empires... Byzantium and the Arab rise, barbarian Europe and its urbanization. Little would be known of the northern forest cultures... the Arctic fringe peoples... the Vikings ... Australia... and the Bantu expansion in Iron Age Africa as well as early African states. The New World would be a total blank except for historic exploration and journals of explorers: The Paleoindians... agricultural societies such as the Mound Builders, the Fremont, the Anasazi and Hohokam... no Middle Missouri cultures, Central plains cultures, Caddoan, Mississippian, Fort Ancient, Appalachian, Monongehela, Iroquois or Huron cultures...no NW Coast cultures... no Olmec, Teotihuacan, Maya, Toltec or Aztec (except in conquest records). There would be no translation of ancient Maya, bringing their cultures into the world of written histories.
The world would be a poorer place and humanity would have no context for understanding our common past, or present and where we will be going in our future.