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Subject:

SV: Past, Present and Future.

From:

Gary Brun <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

British archaeology discussion list <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 13 Feb 2005 20:55:26 +0100

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Thank you for that answer Chris.
Helpful :-) 


Gary Brun

 

-----Opprinnelig melding-----
Fra: British archaeology discussion list [mailto:[log in to unmask]] På
vegne av Christopher Cumberpatch
Sendt: 13. februar 2005 20:46
Til: [log in to unmask]
Emne: Re: Past, Present and Future.

Gary Brun asks:   Why should people spend so much money on digging up the
past instead of channelling that money into the future. What would happen if
you as an archaeologists had to justify your salaries and why the profession
existed. How would you handle the negative media coverage of your profession
if this subject was to be explored.
>
    There seem to be two questions wrapped up together here.  The first
concerns archaeology as an interest in the past and in what happened in the
past - a very broad question about who we are and where we come from and our
apparent need, as human beings, to have some sort of understanding of these
questions.  The second is about archaeology as an institutional practice -
why have we arrived at 'archaeology' as a way of knowing about the past as
opposed, for example, to myth, stories or religion.
    With regard to the first question, I don't know of any society (someone
will correct me here, I'm sure) which does not have a conception of the past
of humanity and of their own society in particular.  Anthropological
accounts of the complicated structures of explanation existing in other
societies will supply details of this (the 'Dreamtime' of native Australians
for example and many others).  All societies invest some of their resources
in the maintenenance of specialists in such questions, whether these people
are priests, keepers of records, tellers of myths and so on.  I presume that
this aspect has been investigated by those who have looked at the emergence
of the human mind in the early stages of the evolution of homo sapiens.  I
am quite unfamiliar with this literature, but presumably writers such as
Steve Mithen and Clive Gamble have discussed it.  We do not, of course do
'either' the past 'or' the future, as human beings we do both and many
discussions about the future take place in terms of what we know, or believe
we know, about the past.  Just look at any daily newspaper to see the role
that the past plays in the present, especially in politics, and by extension
in the creation of the future shape of society. Although I know that some
disagree with me, I am of the opinion that archaeology is a highly political
activity and that there is an urgent necessity to understand the complexity
of the past as a way of questioning those who make assertions about the
present on the basis of it.  The papers that  wrote as a result of my work
in the Middle East are an attempt (a poor one, I admit, in retrospect) to
explore some of these issues with reference to recent events in that area.
Others, notably Martin Hall (with reference to South Africa) had done, and
are doing, similar and better work.
    Why archaeology specifically (rather than some other means of 'knowing
the past')- well, my answer would be that since the 18th century we have
developed a set of conceptual and practical tools which allow us to excavate
sites and extract data from the soil which can then be interpreted in terms
of the human and natural processes which led to the formation of those
sites, in such a way that we can make meaningful and defensible arguments
for sets of statements based upon the data that we present in our site
reports.  In doing this we archaeologists use a range of techniques drawn
from a wide range of other disciplines, whether these are of the 'hard
science' nature (C14 dating, studies of fluvial environments, pollen
analysis and so on) or a social science / humanities nature (critical
approaches to the texts that we and others produce, arguments over the
status of words, phrases, statements, arguments and so on).
    We do, of course, have to handle negative comment from time to time,
either through the organised mass media or from other interest groups and we
do have to justify our salaries or, in my case, our fees.  This is, of
course, entirely justifiable - everyone and every discipline or practice may
be legitimately questioned and I don't know a single archaeologist who
hasn't at some time, dealt with such questions either on a personal basis or
as a result of critique from others.  Some people abandon archaeology as a
result; a close friend of mine has left archaeology and now works for the
UNHCR in Sri Lanka, doing things that I can only admire unreservedly (and
could not do myself, for many reasons).  Others of us remain in the
discipline, thinking it to have a value that is far less immediate in its
effects but is nevertheless justifiable in terms of understanding of what
and who we are as human beings and as members of human societies.
    Without dealing with the wide variety of critiques that might be
levelled at archaeology, it isn't possible to give a comprehensive answer to
the specific question that Gary Brun has posed regarding negative media
coverage - the response would depend entirely upon the nature of the
challenge but some examples might be useful. In terms of 'why archaeology
and not metal detecting', I would say that, for me, the archaeological
process supplies me with a broader range of data about the past than does
the activity of metal detecting.  Instead of having a collection of metal
objects from more or less poorly known contexts, I have access to a wide
range of complementary types of data which  give me a fuller, richer picture
of the site (and by extension the society) that I am investigating.  These
do not exist in isolation but are tied together conceptually by the notion
of context and the relatively sophisticated means that we have developed to
understand and interpret the nature of stratigraphic context.  I work mainly
on pottery and if a field walker or metal detector user gives me a piece of
medieval pot (or a collection of sherds) that he/she has found then,
assuming that it is from the area that I work in, I can tell them (based
upon the accumulated evidence of many archaeological excavations) how old it
is and perhaps where it was made.  This is fine as far as it goes. If I am
able to study an assemblage of pots from an excavated site, however, I can
give far more information about the settlement and, most important, about
the people who lived there.  What were the range of sources from which they
obtained their pots, how did these change over time, what range of
activities did they use pots for and, more contentiously perhaps, how are
the forms of the pots involved in structures of symbolism and daily
practice.  By using the data accumulated over a hundred years or so of
investigation, I can also give dates to successive phases of activity on the
sites.  By working with the animal bone and botanical specialists I can
start to make suggestions about the domestic economy and so on.  This is
why, in the final analysis, I line up with Paul Blinkhorn, Paul Barford and
others in believing that archaeology as a set of practices backed by a broad
theoretically justifiable set of premises and presuppositions is a better
(in the sense of deeper, broader and more inclusive) way of knowing the past
than is the practice of collecting metal objects, aided by the use of a
metal detector, even when this is carried out responsibly.  Much the same
goes for those from the 'pagan' fraternity whose approach to past societies
is mediated through a religious frame of reference with the focus on an
empathic, experiential or emotional response to monuments such as Seahenge
or Stonehenge.  Why cast away so many possible and complementary sources of
information in favour of one small, narrow one and why make a virtue of it?
Why settle for images based upon a flick-book when you can have a DVD, if I
may draw an analogy?

Chris Cumberpatch

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