Daycare Looters

Not far from my home, in the woods down by the tracks, are the foundations of an abandoned railroad man’s homestead. Its name, Vinterbrinken (“Winter Slope”), survives in a nearby street name, though few know that anymore.

The house was built by the railroad company in the 1890s and was torn down, along with its barn, in the 1950s. The municipal archives have photographs of the buildings and the people who lived there, and they are all known by name.

Lately, the staff at a nearby daycare centre has been taking the kids down to the site and had them excavate parts of it, collecting hundreds of objects from the middens and demolition debris. They have now put on an exhibition at Fisksätra public library, displaying selected finds along with drawings by the kids with their own comments and interpretations, and offering some literature about the area (including a paper of mine.) In the display case are for instance parts of two pocket watches and a uniform button with the old Swedish Rail logotype.

These excavations are illegal. I don’t think they should be, but they are. When the librarians told me about what was happening at Vinterbrinken and slightly guardedly asked me what I thought about it, that’s what I replied. Swedish law offers blanket protection for all remains of human activity “in the past” provided that they are permanently abandoned. But that’s not how the law is applied in practice. We rarely bother to dig anything later than the 18th century. In fact, I believe the National Heritage Board sees this disparity between heritage protection de jure and de facto as quite a problem. Could we phrase the law in such a manner that we get good protection but only for important stuff? The issue is clouded by the fact that not everyone agrees on what is important, and that ideas change over time even among heritage managers themselves. The tendency over the decades has been for more and more categories of site, later and later ones, and less and less impressive ones, to receive protection in practice.

As mentioned here recently, I certainly don’t want our museums to spend their meagre resources collecting modern trash. And I am personally not interested in any of the archaeological questions the Vinterbrinken site might be able to answer if the daycare kids quit looting it. What do I care about the everyday minutiae of life in an early-20th century rail man’s homestead?

But I have a suspicion that there may be quite a few people who are interested in that sort of thing. Not least the members of Föreningen Motorvagnen, the Saltsjöbanan railroad’s old-boys association, who spend loads of time and effort restoring old carriages and organising rides. But then again, the old boys probably aren’t aware of the amount of information a competent excavation team could coax out of the site. Perhaps they’re quite happy just to see the finds in the display case.

Comments

  1. #1 Larry Ayers
    April 2, 2009

    Interesting dilemma! Perhaps the law could have a proviso allowing teachers and their students legal access to modern ruins which aren’t of much interest to archaeologists?

    Here in mid-continental North America we don’t have such stringent laws, but then we also don’t have such a long history of post-aboriginal artifact-producing societies as you Europeans do.

  2. #2 Martin R
    April 2, 2009

    On the contrary, judging from paleogenetics we have no post-aboriginal societies at all. (-;

  3. #3 Pierce R. Butler
    April 2, 2009

    We rarely bother to dig anything later than the 18th century.

    So an artifact has to be older than the United States to be of any value or interest? Yet you Europeans still wonder why the Sole Superpower™ has such an insecurity complex…

  4. #4 Martin R
    April 2, 2009

    Haha, yeah, we always find it amusing when Americans look upon a building from, say, the 1920s with great veneration. (-;

  5. #5 Art
    April 2, 2009

    You might phrase the law so that digging is done under the auspices of some legal authority, department of antiquities or some such. Possibly under advisement of university archeology departments and recognized international authorities. Groups or individuals seeking to dig a site would apply to that authority. Sites could be considered in terms of cultural or historical importance and some estimation made any danger of destroying artifacts.

    The schools could apply as untrained amateur archeologists to dig the sites and, seeing as that they really aren’t historically important and there is little chance the archeological record will be compromised by their activities, they would be granted permission as a matter of course.

    Permits could be issued for limited periods of time and might contain provisions that limit the methods used and require a halt to the digging if anything sensitive, like human remains, or archeologically important is found so surprise finds can be brought to the attention of archeologists before any serious damage is done.

    In theory such a law might be quite simple and the process could be managed with a minimum of bureaucracy and cost.

  6. #6 Martin R
    April 2, 2009

    Yeah, but trouble is, how do you define “site”?

  7. #7 dreikin
    April 2, 2009

    Phrasing it broadly, perhaps something like not being able to take significant amounts of material off a land area without the owner’s permission (which is probably already in effect in normal property law), and if the site has been abandoned in use for x+ years, it requires something like Art mentioned.

  8. #8 Art
    April 2, 2009

    As I understand it pretty much the entire Western world legally divided into lots, section, district and county. Typically used to determine ownership and taxation I don’t see any reason why approval couldn’t be granted by the same mapping system.

    Even more convenient because property rights and permissions will, of course, have to be obtained. Also such property ownership records might be at the county seat. Which might suggest that any architectural approval system might be coordinated with the county land or property appraisal office as they would have the maps, survey data and experience in these matters.

    Using the existing property surveys might also be a basis for a rating system which ranked lots and/or regions in terms of architectural interest and importance. Digging approval for low ranked sites should be quick and would require only a minimum number of standard boilerplate provisions and requirements.

    ie: If you find human remains all digging will cease and the office issuing the permit informed.

  9. #9 Martin R
    April 3, 2009

    Dreikin, the system needs to protect sites against the landowner as well.

    Art, how can we rate the sites when there is no agreement between groups, or over time, about what constitutes a valuable site?

    We’re way past the stage where human remains might not get protected. We’re on a level where we discuss whether it’s worth digging piles of field clearance stones amassed by a farmer in 1799.

  10. #10 David Harmon
    April 4, 2009

    How about if they took the trouble to teach the children proper etiquette for exploring a potential “dig”? Yeah, daycare is probably too young to learn much of that, but given the general attitude in your country, I have to wonder about those teachers’ judgment!

    On the other hand, if that particular site were officially deemed “expendable”, it could be used by slightly older kids and their teachers, for hands-on teaching of older kids about the real practices of archeology… instead of teaching little kids that it’s OK grab anything that looks interesting!

  11. #11 Martin R
    April 4, 2009

    Yeah… Only, to teach kids archaeology you need to actually know some.

  12. #12 JuliaL
    April 4, 2009

    What do I care about the everyday minutiae of life in an early-20th century rail man’s homestead?

    No more than someone who lived three thousand years ago cared about the everyday minutiae of life less than a century earlier, I suppose. But I’m not getting why you think that should affect preservation laws.

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, but you appear to be making your own personal lifespan the standard for what is historically interesting and what isn’t. Surely the point is not whether you care now, but whether someone in the future will care?

    A thousand years from now, no one is likely to care much what you did or did not care about preserving, but they will certainly care about what actually is preserved.

  13. #13 Martin R
    April 5, 2009

    The problem with that argument is that it wouldn’t allow us to ever demolish a building or bulldoze a construction site. If there is no cutoff date for when a site is old enough for preservation, then we will soon run out of non-site space. Should the garden shed my dad built in 1979 be preserved in perpetuity?

  14. #14 JuliaL
    April 5, 2009

    The problem with that argument is that it wouldn’t allow us to ever demolish a building or bulldoze a construction site.

    I simply don’t believe that laws in Sweden have to be of the all or none variety.

    Am I to believe that in Sweden there are absolutely no zoning laws? That is, no laws that take in account the location, uniqueness of the land, value to the community of certain structures, etc? That seems unlikely. Surely there are laws about where, for example, one may locate a pig farm, a daycare center for small children, or a 20-story apartment building, in addition to laws about relative quality of safety of construction, noise and air pollution, etc. Surely Sweden has figured out how to write such laws without making it impossible to have any pig farms or daycare centers or apartment buildings and without requiring that every structure in the country be a pig farm or a daycare center or an apartment building.

    If Sweden can write nuanced laws for zoning, then other laws can be written that take various historical factors into account. It simply isn’t true that the choice is between preserving every structure and site presently in existence and preserving none of them. Yes, it is possible to take into account preservation for the future as one factor to be considered, and it is certainly possible to create carefully crafted laws to do so.

    Could we phrase the law in such a manner that we get good protection but only for important stuff?

    Of course you can. Will there be disagreement? Of course there will be. You, for example, disagree with the present law. Can laws be changed to reflect new insights? Of course they can. Does any of that make it impossible to write useful laws? Of course it doesn’t.

    My U. S. city, for example, has laws preserving, to varying degrees, certain particularly rich sites and structures from the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, as well as from earlier periods, without making it impossible to tear others down or to build anew. I would think Sweden is capable of doing the same.

    All modern countries need to take some account of the future value of their present built and natural environments.

  15. #15 Martin R
    April 5, 2009

    Sorry to be repeating myself, but it’s a real problem to formulate such rules when there is little agreement at any one time about what they should and should not protect, and even less if you look over a time span of decades. It’s a little easier if you hand the whole issue over to a small coterie of educated experts, but that’s no longer a non-controversial way to do it, and even the experts don’t have static ideas about these things.

  16. #16 Greg Laden
    April 9, 2009

    The latest Four Stone Hearth Blog Carnival, which includes this post, is HERE. Please check it out.

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