30 September, 2011

The Archaeology of a strange and alien land

As a professional archaeologist, I owe my existence not just to a planning system and government legislation that protects our heritage, but also, and more fundamentally, to a wider public interest in the past. This popularity is evidenced by highly rated series like Channel 4's Time Team in mainstream television schedules, as well as by specialist commercial channels like Discovery History, History, and Yesterday.
The BBC’s series a History of Ancient Britain, is an interesting proposition, not least because history is primarily based on written sources, and the program is mostly about prehistory, which, by definition, is not. I have already made my feelings fairly plain about the Age of Cosmology episode: It is a perfect example of the loss of rationality that afflicts much modern archaeological thinking and clearly informed this script.
If archaeologists start imagining beliefs, cosmologies, and perceptions for people who left no records, there is the real danger that our audience will lose faith in the narrative. However, one thing that I found most challenging, was one of the opening lines in the set up;

" . . .This Britain was a strange and alien world . . "

Neil Oliver, A history of Ancient Britain. BBC
Is the past strange and alien?
Firstly, just whose perception are we talking about?
It cannot conceivably be the people living at the time, since for them, Ancient Britain was presumably fairly normal, and besides, they left no record of their feelings on the matter. [However, in the light of what I have said about ancient cosmologies, it remains a worrying possibility.]
If we assume the script is referring to ‘our’ perceptions, for us looking at back at the past, to say it is ‘strange and alien’ could be a simple truism, if all it is saying is that ancient Britain was very different from our modern one. I think we can grasp that there was a lot more landscape, with no rhododendrons, spruce trees, litter bins or signage, - granted one might be surprised to run a bear - but it certainly would not be ‘alien'.

In the context of the program, ‘strange and alien’ was probably just scene setting, where a bit of salacious hyperbole is to be expected. British history is perhaps more often described as bloody and violent [terms like romantic and beautiful being reserved for programs about the gardens planted in such bloody times].
I can perhaps understand that someone else’s past, Egyptian or Chinese archaeology for example, might seem a bit strange, although I don’t find it so, but to find the past of my own region and culture described in this way is concerning.
However, I suspect the scene is being set for some strange and alien ideas about the past, of the sort that have become current in university departments.

An asymmetrical conflict
This article marks the end of my summer season of campaigning against a damaging trend in archaeological thinking; because some aspects of post-processual archaeology have placed themselves beyond rational argument, I have resorted to satire, cartoons, and other attempts at humour to get my point across.
Ever since I was suspended by Newcastle University for not wishing to write about how Iron Age people felt about living in roundhouses, as part of my PhD, I have been engaged in an asymmetrical conflict with a strain of academic archaeology that has given itself permission to create belief systems and cosmologies for ancient peoples, and use them to explain archaeological features.
I imagine that in other respects Newcastle in actually a normal university, where the staff would not dream of making things up just to have something to teach to their students. However, universities are moneymaking enterprises, and I suspect they don’t really care what staff research or teach, just as long as students are prepared to pay the fess. If you want to be an expert on Iron Age building cosmologies, you are free to write your own job description and make up something to teach students, such as how people that nobody has ever met felt about living in buildings that nobody has ever seen.
It was clear my PhD had no future at a university like Newcastle; as a professional archaeologist, I am not allowed to make things up - you'll end up in an unmarked feature behind the spoil heap if you start that sort of game.

Strange and Alien Archaeology: The Journey
It has to be said that that the incomprehension was mutual; as a practitioner, I was a stranger in a strange land, with little common ground with the academic department of my local university. My generation of archaeologists were lucky to have been taught by those who had been there, done it, and got the tee shirt, even if they had not always written it up. Many of the academics charged with training today's students, may have hardly left the campus since arriving there from school themselves, and consequently are often experts on all those things that archaeologists don’t find, like belief and cosmology.
This intellectual culture has seemingly outgrown the limitations of the evidence, and its existing preconceptions and visual culture of the Prehistoric built environment are as simplistic as they are dysfunctional.
Looking from outside, I can see eight significant steps on this journey that have led archaeology into this strange and alien land, although seven might be considered the more appropriate narrative convention.
1. Faced with the complexities of interpreting multiple and unknown superimposed structures, field archaeologists resorted to recognising and comparing shapes, such as circles and squares, to rationalise a proportion of the data.
2. By concentrating on similarity of shape, differences and non-matching data were ignored in favour of the lowest common denominator, leading to a primitive one-size-fits-all model.
3. Individual buildings became conceived as simply shapes, which could be compared with any similarly shaped ones elsewhere, giving rise to entirely inappropriate ethnographic comparisons and ‘parallels’.
4. These in turn fueled simplistic culturally-dysfunctional reconstructions.
5. The subject has been further mystified by the invention of belief structures and cosmologies to fit the various shapes of structure.

If this structure was English and Neolithic, it might be a ritual timber circle in a henge;
Luckily, it's Irish and Christian , so it is spared that indignity;
[it's a Ringfort - so it's definitely a building].[1]

6. A dependence on simplistic notions about shape has led to failure to comprehend the evidence for building on technological level.
Bronze Age woodworking tools [2]
7. While we have characterized the past in terms of the stone, bronze, and iron tools, we have taken less account of the significance of the now largely-invisible products that the tools were developed to create.
8. A failure to appreciate the complexity and central importance of mans' relationship with woodland was possibly the the biggest oversight of all.

These are the eight steps that I would identify as crucial departures from the road of rationality that has led some to wander into a strange and alien land.
While the archaeology taught in universities is perfectly well adapted to creating the next generation of lecturers, its value to the profession is less clear. It's a shame to cream off the intellectual elite, only have them count angels dancing on pinheads, while us children of a lesser intellectual god are left to work out how to do archaeology for ourselves.
Archaeology is a young subject, and perhaps it has just reached the stage where it wants to paint its bedroom black and is demanding a vegetarian diet; but unless it starts taking a more rational approach, and develops a more appropriate narrative, it risks losing touch and credibility with its audience, which would be bad news for all concerned.

Sources and further reading

[Last Accessed 29/09/11]
[2] Forde-Johnston, J. 1976. Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, Dent, London; Fig.6, p. 24.


Timothy Reid said...

Hi Geoff

8. A failure to appreciate the complexity and central importance of mans' relationship with woodland was possibly the the biggest oversight of all.



Geoff Carter said...

Hi Tim
Thanks Tim, glad you agree;in the past the majority of material culture was fabricated from wood, although as almost non of it survives, this is easily overlooked. Woodland is the starting point for much of what archaeologists are trying to understand.

I am working on an article about Vitruvius and his understanding of trees and timber.