thinking about archaeology

There comes a time when you can’t resist it

Aubrey Hole 7 in 2008, as featured in Current Archaeology

I edit British Archaeology, undoubtedly the best such magazine Britain has ever seen. But there is another UK archaeology magazine, called Current Archaeology. Naturally we are often chasing the same discoveries and excavations, but I have always resisted referring to CA in BA (or here), tempting though it can be to point out CA’s errors, bloopers and the months (sometimes years) before it gets around to mangling a story first told in British Archaeology. That would just be rude.

Then along came their December issue, with a cover feature about the newly-discovered “Bluehenge”. Many archaeologists knew about this discovery before it became public news, but we were respecting project director Mike Parker Pearson’s wish that it be embargoed till National Geographic, one of the dig sponsors, had launched it in the new year. But on October 2 the Daily Mail ran a big story headed “Bluehenge unearthed”. Someone (I think I know who, but am not going to tell) tipped off David Derbyshire. He got a scoop, and the rest of us got licence to follow it up.

So full marks to Current Archaeology, you might think, for publishing the first magazine feature on the discovery, in mid November. But the test score falls when you look closer. The piece was written by one of its editors largely, it seems, on evidence culled from the Daily Mail, a press release and a visit to the dig. Most of the text is not about Bluehenge, but Durrington Walls and other aspects of the Stonehenge Riverside Project that have been well reported over the years.

So why am I now suddenly publicly criticising Current Archaeology? It’s because of a photo in this feature – an outrageous example of how CA can go wrong. It made me laugh, but I thought, I can’t let them get away with this!

The feature is illustrated with 12 photos by Adam Stanford (a rare bright light in the darkness that is archaeological photography), and two colour drawings by Peter Dunn. While CA was preparing its Bluehenge feature, British Archaeology was doing the same thing. Well, sort of: the BA text is actually about Bluehenge, and was written and proofed by its excavators, Parker Pearson and colleagues. I too was using images from the project photographer and illustrator, and was in touch with them. Which is how I discovered what the other magazine was doing.

Adam and Peter were both upset with the way Current Archaeology was using their images. A few had come with the press release, but most had been taken from Adam’s website (well worth a visit), where a limited number of his photos are posted at relatively low resolution. Adam had directed CA to his site, but communication subsequently lapsed.

For its feature, CA had wanted a shot of last year’s Aubrey Hole excavation, which Julian Richards and I directed with Mike Parker Pearson. Adam had one on his website. But – oh horror! – rival magazine editor Mike Pitts was in it. Still, Adam and I have several hundred other photos, and a quick phone call would turn up a nice one without me. Except what Current Archaeology did, was download the web photo and Photoshop Julian and I out (in case you’re wondering why I think it was me and not Julian who was the offending person, he frequently appears in CA, and it was impossible to take me out and leave Julian in).

So the editors of Current Archaeology decided that rather than expose its readers to its competitor’s editor, it would give them a photo shorn of two excavation directors (arguably part of the story) and more importantly, a badly doctored image of Stonehenge, where Julian and I had obscured the stones. That’s Current Archaeology. Never knowingly putting the archaeology (or an archaeological photographer) first.

Now, if that had been you in the photo (or not), would you have been able to resist writing about it? And you can read the real story of Bluehenge in the new British Archaeology – with all sources fully acknowledged.

The real photo by Adam Stanford, with (on right) Julian Richards and Mike Pitts

And in case you were in any doubt….

* I am a contractor to, not an employee of, the Council for British Archaeology (the publisher of British Archaeology), and neither the magazine nor this website need reflect its views.

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3 responses

  1. I think it’s probably legitimate to comment about their editing when what they’ve edited is, well, you. But I’m glad that otherwise you’ve resisted any public critique. I might not have managed that, but it’s a game only they can win.

    December 13, 2009 at 6:54 pm

  2. I still think you should have resisted. Pouring scorn from the moral high ground is a precarious business. Interesting to hear that the rivalry is so keen though, I’m surprised you take any notice of them.

    December 16, 2009 at 11:45 am

  3. Terry O'Connor

    Quite apart from CA’s lack of courtesy (or am I showing my age?), in extirpating you and Julian they have managed to produce just the kind of static, narrative-free site photo that I warn students about. As to whether you should have published the story, it is good to have the facts laid out so clearly so that colleagues can decide for themselves whether the right reaction is scorn, exasperation or a sneaking regard for successful roguery.

    February 1, 2010 at 6:30 pm

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