The construction of new buildings, roads, utilities and farming ventures – development – undoubtedly brings the greatest destruction to archaeological remains. Not only does development destroy what may still be left in the ground, it also alters the landscape, so that the context of archaeological sites gets lost. But despite that, archaeologists have a somewhat ambiguous relationship with developments. For it is through developments that many of the great finds are made. The construction of a building may be the reason that we go under the surface. Secondly, most archaeological work in the world today is carried out by commercial archaeologists, or what is often called salvage archaeology. Archaeologists are paid to find and record sites as part of a new development. This archaeological study is paid for by the developer. Since it is so difficult to finance archaeological investigation, salvage archaeology at least gives us one avenue to study the past through archaeology. Thirdly, development may be seen as just another chapter of human history. Are not many of the buildings archaeologists study just the traces of past development?
Unlike treasure hunting, development is regulated. That means that archaeological remains can be recorded methodically. They are not just yanked out of context. And the finds are later published. Responsible development can add to our understanding of the past, while also adding to current society. Of course, archaeology is often just an after-thought, a box-ticking exercise to get the job done.
This picture shows commercial excavations in Jaffa. The main purpose of the development is clearly to build this new hotel in a prime location. But because it is built where it is, Israeli law requires archaeological excavations to be conducted before the new construction can begin. One of the main problems with commercial excavations is often the huge pressure archaeologists are under to complete the work quickly and cheaply. That is not conducive to a thorough study of the site. Another problem is that only a small fraction of an archaeological site is often investigated, just wherever the new building will be built or the new road will go through. The context is therefore often lost. Often the study of such sites is very piece-meal and apart from a report to the Antiquities Authority little gets done with the findings. Few academics study the many commercial report to draw something out of them for our understanding of history. Still, the information is there, is available. We can learn from it.
Another concern is the extent of development. In Israel among all nations, you would think they have plenty of land to spare the way they build their roads and cities. The waste of space is astounding. There seems to be little regard to mitigating the impact of new developments. Why does the road have to be quite that straight, why the curve quite that sweeping? Why do we have to build huge shopping complexes outside the city and let the shops in the centre stand empty? Why does the new settlement have to go part of an archaeological site, when it could just as easily be built over the sloping land to the East?
Still, in comparison with other places, archaeology stands in high regard in Israel, and some planning goes into town design. The extent of development and its chaotic nature is far more severe in the West Bank administered by the Palestinian Authority. The status of archaeology is far lower among this population. Together with a sharp population increase and greater affluency and material expectations, the destruction of heritage in the West Bank is notable. This new settlement near Bethlehem is well ordered, but shows the extent to which the landscape has changed in recent years.
I believe that the extent of new development is unprecedented. With it also goes an unprecedented destruction of our heritage. I hope we come to find a better balance.