19 January 2012

Archaeology: art or science?

Astonishingly, I first wrote this post about eight months ago but didn't actually post it. Since then, I have been grappling with the work that has been involved in this particular project. Now that the end is in sight (and still some weeks away, and regrettably about six weeks overdue), I have decided it is time to re-post my original thoughts. I shall probably put up my final thoughts, which may well be more robust, when we are near completion/publication. Original post follows, in italics:

This old chestnut [ie. art versus science] has reared its head in a quite specific fashion for me, and it looks like I shall be grappling with this particular issue for the rest of the year.

Specifically, I am writing up a commercial archaeology project that was undertaken in 2007 and 2008. This was just before, or indeed during the early stages of, the crash. The curatorial and commercial wings of British archaeology were at their strongest and most powerful. PPG16 was still in force, and there was optimism about a future replacement which was in thair. The curator in question was known to be strong-minded and rigorous. The contractor was long-established, with an excellent reputation, and well known for producing high quality work with solid academic credentials.

However, between the completion of the work in 2008, and the final write-up on which I am now engaged in mid-2011, several things happened. Firstly the contracting unit was wound up by its parent organisation and the archive split between two successor organisations. Secondly the curator suffered a period of ill-health. Nationally, of course, there had been a change of Planning Policy (PPS5) and then a change of government with subsequent further changes in approaches to archaeology, planning and heritage.

My initial exploration of the archive suggests that the recording process fell short of the idea. Yes, certainly, systems were in place, Standards and Guidance were folllowed, and best practice was attempted at all levels. However... a turnover of field managers, other preoccupations of project managers some 80km away, and the inevitable problems of excavating a large and complex site in developer-determined timescales and chunks ...all means that the archive, whilst earnestly and conscientously compiled, regettably falls far short of the objective 'preservation by record' that we all had in mind when PPG16 was launched.

I find the philosophical and methodological implications of this project particularly interesting. Many colleagues have for many years questioned the objectivity of archaeological recording methods. My own personal interest in this area goes back to discussions in the early 1990s with Adrian Chadwick and other colleagues of the now long-defunct South Yorkshire Archaeology Unit, often in 'The Bath' public house in Sheffield. Although Ian Hodder was among the first to publish on the question of reflexivity (based on his experiences at Çatalhöyük); however I found Chad's 1997 paper in assemblage to be more inspiring, and have followed with interest the many attempts by other members of the South Yorkshire diaspora (including the Heathrow Framework project) to make allowances for subjectivity in the archaeological record.

Of course many colleagues have had to grapple with much earlier sites, whose archive is less complete and less familiar. However this is going to be an interesting exercise.

...and so it has proved to be!

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