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Defending Archeologists

April 20, 1986

Luis Monreal, director of the Getty Conservation Institute, paints an absurd and insulting caricature of modern archeology ("The Getty Conservators Dig In," by Suzanne Muchnic, April 5).

The only archeologist "digging for buried treasure" these days is Indiana Jones. Archeologists are skilled, careful scientists trying to reconstruct the past from quantities of broken and nondescript pottery, stone, and bone, not callous grave-robbers with a "tradition of destruction."

It is ridiculous to "assume" that Greek marble statues would still have their polychrome paint if only they were "properly excavated." Citing an example of poor conservation practice from a 16th-Century text is hardly relevant to modern archeology.

And I suspect that more than a few archeologists might differ with the suggestion that the 50 years since Sir Mortimer Wheeler "have brought few changes" to archeological methods.

Of course archeologists have a lot to learn about conservation, but most are aware of this need and many archeological projects work closely with trained conservators both in the field and in the lab.

Furthermore, conservators have no corner on ethics when it comes to handling excavated objects. At least as much damage has been done to the archeological record by conservators who overzealously clean, reconstruct, and "preserve" objects as by archeologists who neglect proper conservation techniques.

Finally, let's get our facts right. While the Templo Mayor excavations in Mexico City may be an excellent example of cooperation between archeologists and conservators, they most certainly did not produce any sculpture of the Mochica period, which refers to a culture on the north coast of Peru, some 2,000 miles south of Mexico City.

Luis Monreal and the Getty Conservation Institute are doing a real service in helping to improve conservation practices in archeology. It is neither helpful nor correct to portray trained, professional archeologists as ignorant treasure hunters in the process.


Anthropology Dept.


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