In March of 2011, the Swedish government launched a state commission under County Governor Eva Eriksson to evaluate our legislation and national goals regarding the cultural environment. Yesterday the commission delivered its report, in which a number of interesting suggestions are made for changes to the body of law that governs Swedish archaeology.
The current law contains a definition of the protected archaeological site that has never been enforced to the letter. First it says that any remains that bear witness to how people lived in the past and are permanently abandoned enjoy protection. Then it redundantly lists a bunch of categories of such remains. According to the letter of this law, if I abandon my car it immediately becomes a protected archaeological site. Of course, this is not how the law has been used. There has been a wide temporal grey zone between abandoned cars, which everybody agrees should not enjoy this protection (though there is that one famous 60s junk yard in the Småland woods…) and Medieval ruins, which everybody agrees should be protected. Whether for instance a given 19th century crofter’s holding site has been bulldozed or painstakingly excavated at the expense of the land developer has been a matter of local negotiation. Shipwrecks though have been protected from the day they turned 100 years old, which has led to a flurry of salvage diving every time one got to about age 97. Stray small finds have also been under a 100 year limit after which finders are obliged to hand them in.
The Eriksson commission now suggests a simpler wording: everything up to AD 1750 will enjoy protection. After that date, only cemeteries will be protected. Likewise with stray small finds: protected if made before 1750. And ships sunk before 1900 will be protected. Absolute dates, not relative offsets: of course, this law will no longer be appropriate 100 or even 50 years from now. But in the past the law has changed much more frequently than that. The proposed legislation is not designed for any long use life. And anyway, the wording submitted by the commission provides an ability for the County Administration to give selected post-1750 sites and post-1900 shipwrecks legal protection, instead of the current non-enforced blanket protection.
I think these suggestions are good. We shouldn’t have laws we aren’t willing to uphold, making it difficult for citizens, companies and government agencies to determine the legal situation around land development. The 1750 limit for sites and stray finds will codify the way Swedish heritage management has operated de facto for decades. And I know of no archaeologist whose research will be impaired. On urban digs, the top strata are often bulldozed away to levels far below 1750. If I want to know about 19th century buildings, I will look at the innumerable standing ones, not at grassed-over sites where only the foundations remain.
But the commission also makes some suggestions regarding metal detectors that I am much less happy with. More on them another day.