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BRITARCH  February 2000

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Subject:

Re: What do people read.

From:

bhoffm <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

bhoffm <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 01 Feb 2000 11:40:19 +0000

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

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I am afraid I have to agree with a lot that has been said before. 
I have spend a lot of time with reports of past excavations in order to
re-evaluate the material or the structures found and in general, the
summary reports (however glossy) are usually a dead-end. I agree they
make good reading, but they are very much a child of their time and they
date incredibly quickly. I have had summary reports written in the 1950s
and even the terminology has changed so much that they are over wide
stretches unintelligible without the detailed reports at their side. 

While I can still work with some of the reports published in 190x, which
openly admit that they don't know what is going on, but reproduce the
plans and sections, so that the features can be re-interpreted in the
view of what we know today. 

In case you need an example: The early German excavations of Roman vici
were mainly collections of pits and cellars, timber features were not
easily recognized. Some of the summary reports (and yes they were around
then) refer to these structures as sunken dwellings and put forward all
sorts of interesting interpretations, while the detailed plans published
at the same time allow today the interpretation oas standard strip
buildings with cellars under the front rooms).

As to the archives: Accidental fires like Flag Fen are a problem, but
after two world wars on the continent most old archives are heavily
damaged because of war damage or even after war looting (perhaps
somebody on the list can enlighten us as to the state of the excavation
archives in Bosnia, Central Croatia or the Kossovo, I certainly know
that these things used to exist). 
A lot of continental sites are know only accessible through their
published versions, and the statement about an excavation publication in
1938 'in preparation' or 'more detailed publication to follow' is quite
often the last that was heard of that site. I am afraid there is in
archaeology a certain security in numbers (the better the site is
published the higher its chances of survival for further research).

As to the price for books: Yes, I know exactly what is being referred
to, a site report of 240 pages for 70 is far beyond any level of
reasonability and I also wait for them to be remaindered. 
But let's face it this is actually not an archaeological, but a printing
problem: archaeological site reports are perceived to have a small
market, therefore they have small print runs and a small print run costs
only marginally less than a large print run, but the price goes through
less copies. 
Result the books are VERY expensive and nobody buys them, therefore the
perception of a small market.

Whereas the summary reports are perceived as having a large market and
the larger number of copies makes it easier to sell the books cheaper.
That is part of the reason why Renfrew and Bahn has got more pages and
is still cheaper than the Birdoswald publication. 
If the proper excavation reports were presented in a slightly less
boring fashion (and perhaps with a higher input from the campaign for
clear English), more people would buy them and they would be cheaper.
Let's face it we all wait until the reports are remaindered at 25
rather than pay the original 55, unless we really have to. Which also
means that at 25 the publishers would be able to sell more copies.

Also at the moment the public perception is that WE (the archaeologists)
don't want the general public to read the full report, therefore the
general public goes and gets THEIR versions, i.e. the summary reports
(and then get told that they don't have the right to comment, because
they don't read the proper books). <this is a literal quote from an
adult education class that I was trying to get to read the full
excavation report of Fishbourne, rather than the summary>.
Most of the general public do not mind reading the large excavation
results, if they a) are well produced and b) jargon free (or alt east
the Jargon laden sections, clearly identified as such).

I have to admit that I am still impressed in this context by the
publications associated with the exhibitions of the Ottonen emperors a
few years back in Germany. Apart from a general 'What is that in the
case there?' catalogue of the exhibition there were 7 or 8 academic
publications dealing with specific aspects of the era (e.g. Castles,
rural settlement, archives, administration, gaming and gaming boards,
the royal jewellery, about 60cm of shelve space all in all). All of
these volumes were very academic and definitely not summaries written
for the lay-men, and I suppose most people would not expect to find them
outside a historian's/archaeologist's office. 
However, some of them are produced in such a clear language (and with
such good pictures) that they found their way into a lot of peoples
bookshelves, that only have a hobby interest in the subject (and could
be for a long-time be found on the bookshelves of 'non-specialist'
bookshops as good Christmas presents. Similarly the books associated
with the exhibitions on the Roman wreck of Mahdia, the Alamanni a few
years back or the Franks. But before the image is created that this is a
German phenomenon, this is actually fashion that has spilled over from
Italy and to a certain extent from France. 

Summary reports have their place, perhaps as a site guide or a summary
to a subject (i.e. the English Heritage or Historic Scotland series),
but I am afraid I disagree strongly with the idea that they should
replace the full published reports and send people to some far off place
for further detail. If people were really happy about this solution, why
do we have requests to find copies of rare books and why do we spend so
much time at conferences complaining about the publication strategies of
the communist post-war era in Eastern Europe. They used exactly this
system: Have a good archive and for those we know that would be
interested we publish a few copies of the report. If you are not sitting
on the archive this is frankly often perceived by outsiders as elitist.

Just my two pence worth.

Birgitta Hoffmann.

  


-- 
Dr. Birgitta Hoffmann  -  Dept of Classics - University College Dublin -
Belfield - Dublin 4 - Ireland - 
Tel: 00353-1-706 8662  Fax: 00353-1-706 1176 
Gask Project Web Page: http://www.morgue.demon.co.uk/Pages/Gask.


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