Archaeology for All

Stonehenge
Don’t let’s hide the glories of archaeology behind sloppy headlines.

We have seen some great archaeological headlines over the past few months. A visible presence in the news certainly keeps people interested in archaeology. While that is undoubtedly good for the profession, it does have caveats. Sloppy, or overoptimistic, reporting can backfire, and I am afraid that, to my mind, several recent news reports have been flawed.

I am not alone in this and the study of exaggerated interpretation has, itself, become the subject of some rather interesting archaeological investigation. Gordon Barclay and Kenny Brophy have recently published a paper (free to download) that tracks the progression of an interpretation from possible to certain through the course of various publications. They are concerned with ideas relating to the centrality of Stonehenge in the Neolithic of the British Isles and they follow them from academic to public arena. They go further to consider the ways in which some have added a layer of contemporary political thinking to the archaeological story. It is an excellent paper and their phrase ’interpretive inflation’ should become part of the archaeological lexicon.

It is a cautionary tale for any archaeologist. How many of us have not seen our ideas picked up and developed into something out of all academic recognition? In the ‘good old’ days journalists were usually happy to work hand in hand over several days with their archaeological informants and this provided the opportunity to control the extent to which one’s ideas became exaggerated, or even twisted, when presented to a difference audience. Today, sadly, time is shorter and that sort of personal attention to detail is often lacking. On many occasions, journalists work from prepared press releases rather than direct personal contact.

Of course, we all wish to be recognised for the contribution of our research. But even where we are not, I do not feel that we can abdicate responsibility when archaeological ideas run out of hand.  We need to be very aware of the possibility for interpretive inflation and try to avoid it. It is a dangerous process and one that does no favours for archaeology as a profession.

It is, indeed, a process that can, if we are not careful, occur within our own research papers.

It is natural to wish to tell a good story. And natural to want to see our ideas proved. Sadly, vindication can only come with further research, whether by ourselves or at the hands of others.  While it is tempting to progress from ‘possibly’ in our results section to ‘certainly’ in the conclusions, it is not honest.

One course of action we can take to control this is to be careful of our wording and not to let our enthusiasm run away with us when writing up our research. Another step is to be more careful when we word press releases and work with the media. To present everything through hyperbole is lazy and needless. The world may have drifted into a place where things have to be the biggest, best, or earliest, but it has not always been so. One of the strengths of archaeology is the way in which it highlights the glorious detail of the everyday. There is value in the ordinary and it is a story that we, as archaeologists, can tell. History, ironically, is often hidebound by the constraints of those whose voices were significant enough to survive. Archaeology may not have the voices, but the record of material culture and alteration to the world that we pick up is broader and more representative.

That is not to say that archaeology provides an unbiased record. Of course, there is still considerable bias. Often, but not always, it is the material culture of the important or significant that will survive down the millennia. Nevertheless, as archaeologists we can start to untangle the web of hierarchy and it is part of our job to emphasise the value of the ordinary and the under-represented. How boring the human record would be if told only through the point of view of one facet of society. We have privileged access to the past diversity of society, and we should be careful to make sure that we represent it.

Barclay and Brophy continue to discuss the apparent use of archaeological interpretation to bolster contemporary politics, in this case the Brexit debate. The mixing of archaeology and politics is hardly new, and, for me, should really be the topic of a separate blog. I’ve written on it elsewhere, in a volume to be published next year. In brief, though it is a difficult field and one that can, if mishandled, provide a toxic legacy, I don’t think we can, or should, avoid it. We cannot censor those aspects of present society wherein archaeology is a part. If it has a role to play, then it plays that role everywhere. But we do need to be careful, and we need to aim for balance. We cannot curtail or stifle other people’s views, but we can make sure that good base-line data is always available and we can work to bring alternative interpretations to the fore.

This leads back to my original point. If we limit the content of archaeology in the media to hyperbole, we limit the widespread understanding of the value of archaeology. We limit information about the past and, ultimately, we limit the role that we, as archaeologists play. It is a dangerous path to take.

I have had first-hand experience of this.  ‘Britain’s Lost Atlantis’ was coined as a headline by David Keys to cover the first archaeological indications of the area we now know as Doggerland, when a small flint scraper was found on the bed of the North Sea in the late 1980s. It was an eye-catching headline. Since then it has been used numerous times; an internet search yields a surprising diversity of newspaper reports that make use of it, the most recent published in June 2019, as well as several television and radio programmes. Of course, the original research is long since superseded by more recent finds and the application of more modern techniques. That is how it should be after all this time. The original headline is, to my mind, long superseded also, it hardly suggests anything new. There is much to tell, but I’d like to see a new headline. And it is not Atlantis!

Rather than build unrealistic expectations, or even dice with the onset of public boredom, how much better to focus on the detail. What is new? What new techniques have been deployed? Where? What can they tell us that previous work was lacking? With just a little bit of imagination, and not much effort, we could build a picture of the excitement of being an archaeologist, the way in which we use data to build an interpretation, and the ongoing contribution of continued investigation. That way we set up the scene not just for our results, but also for improved understanding of the work and significance of archaeology. That can only stand us in good stead when issues of funding, or recruitment, come to the fore.

The perils of interpretive inflation are salutary for any archaeologist. Impact may be king – but there is only a limited number of times that we can be the first to see wondrous things or discover the biggest and the best. Every time I read an account that highlights the unusual nature of a discovery, I feel a little bit like Tinkerbell when she explains that whenever someone doubts the existence of fairies then a fairy dies. How long before our use of hyperbole starts to kill a little bit of some of the ordinary life of the past.

We don’t want that.

 

 

 

Chocolate: not as Relaxing as You Thought

Archaeology works hard to be inclusive.  Participation involves responsibility, but there are always people on hand to advise. Why then has a well-known company apparently chosen to dive in without forethought?

It can’t have been the Spring Publicity campaign that Cadbury planned. On the face of it, the idea: to encourage families into exploring the outdoors and engaging with heritage, was such a good one. How could it all go so horribly wrong?

Not only have they been encouraging illegal behaviour (the ransacking of archaeological sites is covered by legislation in each of the countries of the United Kingdom), it is also irresponsible. I doubt that they would suggest that kids go out and collect birds’ eggs from nests. So why was it deemed acceptable to Continue reading Chocolate: not as Relaxing as You Thought

The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

Hon fellows
Courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland: 2018 new Honorary Fellows, Caroline Wickham-Jones, Diana Murray, Lisbeth Thoms, and Jane Ryder.

I am honoured to have been elected an Honorary Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

The Society was founded in 1780 and since then it has played an active role in promoting the heritage of Scotland. It is an impressive record. Clearly, over the years, it has had to change: matters that were considered significant 50 years ago Continue reading The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

The appeal of a good story

Some ideas regarding the past linger in the popular imagination even once they become superseded. It can be very difficult to change a well-loved narrative.

Archaeology is a popular subject today and that is a good thing. Interesting narratives relating to the past are increasingly common and it is not unusual to find people incorporating material into general conversation. It is very different to my childhood and a big step forward. Continue reading The appeal of a good story

Political Archaeologies

Stonehenge in low winter light, December 2004
Archaeology is far more than the straightforward study of the remains of the past.

It has been interesting to watch two television programmes recently which both discussed an explicit link between archaeology and contemporary global social politics. The ‘Cheddar Man’ programme on Channel Four earlier in February was keen to flag up the way in which confirmation that the indigenous hunter- Continue reading Political Archaeologies

Introspection

Maeshowe
An early view of Maeshowe, published by James Farrer in 1862. How much does our archaeological understanding advance year by year?.

I wonder, as we move into February, where all the archaeology we do is taking us. I’m not qualified to take a global, or even national view. But it is not a bad idea to undertake a little personal reflection. How has ‘my’ archaeology grown in the past year or so? Has it grown at all? Being an archaeologist is fun, and I Continue reading Introspection

Storytelling and Archaeology

I participated recently in a storytelling event organised by a project known as ‘Orkney Beside the Ocean of Time‘. They seek to investigate the relationships between the people of Orkney, Deep Time, and landscape change. For the event they invited half a dozen Orkney archaeologists to gather together and share a Continue reading Storytelling and Archaeology

Guardian Newspaper helps archaeology to reach the parts that other papers ignore

Neolithic houses
Reconstructed Neolithic houses at Stonehenge. Archaeology is as much about everyday, mundane elements of life as it is about the showy and the monumental

The Guardian Newspaper is starting an archaeology and anthropology blog: Past and Curious. It is a great step forward for a newspaper which has always (to my mind) had a good reputation for measured, well-researched archaeology. It should be interesting. I’m hoping it is going to tell us more about the ways in which the past impacts on ordinary everyday lives, today and in the past, here and elsewhere, rather than about ‘tombs, treasures, tribes, and high adventure’, though. This is just because one of my bugbears is the way in which we reduce everything archaeological to hyperbole. To be fair they do suggest that they will be aiming to get behind the scenes and into the nooks and crannies of our work. Perhaps I’m also jealous that archaeological adventurer was not a career path when I graduated, and these guys seem to be taking full advantage of the possibilities that suggests. But then, if I reflect, I’d have to say that I’ve had my fair share of adventures: digging on the Lebanese border with Israel in the 1970s; trying out stone age technology in Lapland in the 1980s; working in the arctic; and in the far south.

It is certainly true that archaeology impacts on everyone, everywhere, in every field of life. So, I look forward to reading their blogs and seeing how they settle in. It is a great step forward, towards the infiltration of archaeology into all aspects of the twenty-first century.

Communication

Runes at Maeshowe
The Norse who carved the runes at Maeshowe were clearly literate. I have a feeling that they would not have been that surprised to know that some of their messages have survived – even if we find it hard to understand exactly what they were wanting to communicate.

It is just over a year since I started writing this blog. I’ve been thinking about why I am still writing.

Actually, it is quite addictive. I love writing, I like crafting language, and I particularly like the way in which the blog allows me to write without rigid boundaries. Of course, there are norms, both social and academic which I try to follow. These include adding links to sites that I might mention and, obviously, crediting and linking to other material. I don’t have to worry about house-styles, specifics of grammar, or content, because I’m not bound by publishers or referees.

It is wonderfully liberating to be able to jot down my thoughts on topics that matter to me. And amazing that anyone likes to read them. It gets me thinking and encourages me to research topics that I might normally gloss over. I enjoy the challenge of trying to craft something sensible and vaguely interesting in a relatively short space. Occasionally someone will comment on something and occasionally the blog has led me down completely new and interesting routes. It has all been fun and I don’t intend to stop. I was surprised by how stressed I got recently when poor broadband restricted my ability to communicate online.

There are so many different ways in which one can communicate. I’m no artist, and definitely not a musician. My contact with fiction writers has taught me that I could never write a novel. I love lecturing, but it is a more limited format. Many years ago I presented a radio programme on local archaeology: that was fun, but it was a lot more work than the blog. I spent a couple of days this summer working with a camera crew for the BBC – that was fun too, but I’m not sure I’m a natural; it is quite stressful trying to say the right thing with the right emphasis, enthusiasm, and facial expression. In academic writing I struggle to use the correct jargon. This is mainly because I hate jargon – if you are trying to communicate with the world, then it just seems lazy not to take the trouble to explain something in a way that everyone can understand. It seems I’m not alone in thinking like this, I have recently discovered the Rounded Globe publishing house which aims to produce freely available, jargon free, scholarly texts. If you have not visited their website – have a look.

I do love writing popular books and articles, but they can be time consuming and you are bound by the strictures of your editor and publishing house.

So, I’m left with the free-style blog.

I’m lucky to live in an era when internet technology not only allows me the means to reproduce my work for free, but also to export it around the world. If I have an overriding theme, it has to be the way in which the world of the past continues to touch on my own life. When I visit the Neolithic sites of Orkney I wonder about those who produced the carefully incised designs that one sees on so many of the stones at sites like Ness of Brodgar. Those who carved them, too, were communicating. Perhaps they loved it just as much as I do. We have long lost the lexicon and the grammar by which to understand their work. Maybe it was only ever intended for a few, maybe it was more general. Those who carved the Viking runes in Maeshowe seem to have thought that they would be understood by many. Those who produced the carefully illustrated Christian gospels knew that they would only be read by a few and that a ‘translator’ would be needed in order for their work to be appreciated by the general populace. I wonder how any of these people would feel were they to know that their communications are now the subject of study so many years later. Time, it seems, is the one element where my predecessors have the advantage of me. Somehow, I feel there is less chance that my ‘wisdom’ will be the subject of such interest in 3016.