Thursday, 1 March 2018



     I don't know about you, but every time I come across excavation reports that predate processualism, especially those from the late 19th and early 20th century I am astounded at what was achieved. This is somewhat in contrast to many of my colleagues and contemporaries who seem to concentrate only on "what was lost" and "how it could have been done so much better". This is a bit of a quandary I must admit.

     You see I came to archaeology quite late in life (50+ since you ask) and remember the days before the internet, GPS, Total Stations and so on. Geophys, Lidar and scientific dating, all very modern, and very clever, advances. But then do you ever wonder what we might have access to in another 50 years? Does that mean we should desist from excavation / fieldwork until then? And what happens when "then" arrives? You see we can only do the best with what we have at the time, and should respect the work of those that went before.

     The likes of Wheeler and Pitt Rivers and Flinders Petrie as examples, we should laud them, not on the lack of scientific equipment and expertise, but on what they achieved because of that very dearth.

     It is not just in methodology that things have changed. Theoretical concepts have evolved too (though maybe not progressed) and we are often too quick to denigrate the Antiquarians and Culture Historians. As recent papers have demonstrated the ideas of movement of peoples, as opposed to ideas and technologies, appears to be supported by aDNA studies. Particularly in NW Europe ( you should have seen something in the global media about this, if not just google beaker people and dna you will get there).......

                   in fact don't bother, here it is:

The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of norhwest Europe 

 ..........where the ideas of Kossina and Childe (in fact most Culture-Historians) no longer seem so far fetched. Volker Heyd wrote a rather tongue in cheek letter about this called "Kossina's smile"! Prof. John Collis has reservations about how such results are obtained and extrapolated...his letter I actually covered in an earlier missive and if you haven't yet read it.........then I suggest you do and Heyd's as well.

     You may wonder where this is going (I do too sometimes). You see have any of you read a recent excavation report? Or research paper? I, for my sins, have read many. Maybe too many if that is possible. And they all have one thing in common. An expose of data using the latest equipement and statistical analysis. Bayesian Stats and Monte Carlo simulations, combined with cladograms of expanded microdata. All very clever I am sure. And all reasonably accurate in all probability. But there is no narrative. No story or flesh to the bones.

     For all the modern science we may have just come full circle. We berate the Antiquarians for collecting and displaying yet what they did with artefacts we do with data. Nothing more and nothing less. Has archaeology seems not. And until such time as we allow our personal experience a role in interpretation, our gut feeling, we do no beter that the Antiquarians. The display and artefacts / data might be different, but the outcome rather similar.........but without the possibility of public display in museum collections. 

     So in fact we regress, the more we "science" the less we think and the less accessible what we do becomes! More of which next time.