thinking about archaeology

Archive for January, 2017

Ten archaeology headlines I don’t want to see in 2017 (but know I will)

stonehenge road junction.jpg

  1. Ancient Britons/people were not as primitive as we thought

Over a century ago, the Illustrated London News ran a feature about the newly excavated iron age lake village at Glastonbury, headlined, “Not the woad-daubed savage of the old history-books: the civilised ancient Briton”. When we see a headline like this, we know the writer went to school before 1911. We might guess rightly that a PR office had issued a release with a story making the claim, and worse still that the archaeologists behind the report had themselves suggested something similar. Archaeologists seeking to make their research sound important should note that the readers you want to reach know that the people who invented art, boats, farming, houses, fireplaces, language and making string were not primitive. Claiming so only makes you look that way.

  1. Neanderthals were not as stupid/brutish/macho/hairy as we thought

See above. This was neanderthal journalism (whoops, there I go) even before it was found that apparently everyone alive today originating from outside Africa has a small amount of neanderthal in their DNA. Now it’s not only stupid and lazy, but racist.

  1. *** explains Stonehenge

No it doesn’t. And anyway, it’s been said before, probably some time in the 18th century and every other Tuesday since.

  1. x-rays/lasers/drones/satellites/sonic screwdrivers discover hundreds/thousands/millions of ancient shoes/temples/civilisations

There is part of me that likes these stories. There is often good research behind the headlines: who would begrudge easy publicity for field projects that need to please their sponsors? And isn’t the promise of making spectacular discoveries what first drew many of us into archaeology in the first place? Yet on balance they don’t work for me. First, the science is over-hyped, when there is a lot of more sophisticated technology out there that is profoundly changing the way we understand the past, but is almost impossible to put into a short heading that makes any sense. Many people reading these stories must think to themselves, how hard is looking at Google Earth? Are archaeologists really that far behind the tech curve? Secondly, claims to have discovered all those things nobody knew about often forget to note that other archaeologists who might have spent half a career researching an area actually did know all about them. It’s just that their pictures weren’t quite so pretty.

  1. Archaeologists find mysterious chamber in pyramid

The real problem with this headline is the first word. Is there nothing better for an archaeologist to do in Egypt right now that doesn’t involve a pyramid that nobody is going to steal or destroy? Although on reflection, perhaps looking at pyramids is better than digging up more mummies. At last no one has to pay for the conservation and find somewhere to store everything.

  1. Viking helmets did not have horns!

That’s probably true (though I like to think there was a Grayson Bluetooth out there, in touch with his inner Viking man, who thought horns looked rather dinky, and attached a blond wig to boot), but archaeologists have been saying it for a very long time. Everyone knows! Roberta Frank dates the horn idea to 1875, when Carl Emil Doepler designed costumes for the first Bayreuth production of Wagner’s Ring cycle. “However ‘wrong’,” she concludes, “the horned Viking helmet has been a recurrent fantasy transmuting the desert of daily existence into contours rare and strange.” Or in other words, why spoil the fun? (See “The invention of the Viking horned helmet,” in International Scandinavian & Medieval Studies in Memory of Gerd Wolfgang Weber, ed M Dallapiazza (2000), 199–208.)

  1. Archaeology is in crisis

This is different, in that while I don’t want to read it, I know it could be true in Britain and I wish it couldn’t. The effects of relentless government cuts on Historic England have resulted in the recent departure of significant numbers of experienced, skilled staff. Central government support for local authorities is so poor that the latter often have no option but to choose between funding libraries, museums, archaeology services, hospitals and schools to the point that some of the former have to close, and even if not they are severely stretched. Significant archaeological archives could be disposed of simply became there is nowhere to keep them. Archaeological research is an international affair: the impact of Brexit is certain to be negative, and not just through the loss of EU funding. Insufficient skilled archaeologists to meet the demand from new large infrastructure projects could mean development without archaeology, an idea that might catch on. And so on.

But all is not lost. Public interest in archaeology has never been higher, and arts, heritage and culture make a very significant contribution to the British economy and the UK’s international identity. Will there be a crisis? A lot depends on how well the archaeological profession can work together to stand up and speak clearly in language politicians understand. The headlines we want to see, are “Government supports archaeology because it matters to the nation.” Because it does.

  1. *** rewrites the history books

The past is a long, big complex place. No one discovery or idea is going to turn everything upside down, nor for that matter is one archaeologist. Research is now happening on a very larges scale, and an unprecedented amount of new stuff is being discovered and understood. If books are changing, however, they are being extended and revised, or written from scratch where none previously existed, but much of what we thought we knew is always going to stay in. And anyway, with no A level archaeology, who needs history books that need archaeology any more? If books need rewriting, it’s not because of something somebody found. It’s because they were no good in the first place.

  1. Archaeologists find 2,000-year-old pot decorated with face of Jesus in kitchen of Albanian garage mechanic who used it for storing liquorice, revealing the Lord was a redhead and almost bald

Or something like that. Typically with these stories, where a find of sensational international interest falls off the back of a lorry and is fortuitously picked up by a scientist no one has ever heard of, you find that said scientist has written an embargoed book, and/or is about to feature in a film to be screened on an obscure channel and is interested in talking to anyone who would like to buy said discovery. Here’s a tip for any journalist who knows nothing about science or archaeology, but finds themself writing about a science and archaeology story that sounds like the exclusive of a lifetime (a growing likelihood in these times where journalism is less and less well paid and driven more and more by trivia). Before going to your editor with the story, talk to an archaeologist. They will help you, and you might have a sensational exposure of post-truth fakery on your hands. If it sounds incredible, it probably is.

  1. Experts say tunnel under Stonehenge could irreparably damage world heritage site

There is going to be a consultation this spring to consider options for the A303 road tunnel past (not under) Stonehenge. Will the press report this in a balanced, understanding way, or will it focus Brexit-style on the loud voices obsessed with stopping a tunnel regardless of any proper consideration of the current situation and potential outcomes? And… whoops, this one has already happened. As I write, the Guardian has exactly theses words in a headline and subhead, quoting Dan Snow and Tom Holland. These are good men both, a forceful TV presenter of military history (Snow) and a masterful writer on classical history and presenter of Radio 4’s Making History (Holland). But, pace the Guardian, neither is an expert on Stonehenge archaeology or the Stonehenge tunnel. Nobody beyond involved engineers can be a tunnel expert – we still have a great deal of detail to learn. I’m not sure what Michael Gove had in mind in his infamous dismissal of “experts”, but tabloid-style use of the word like this does nothing for public understanding or respect for specialists. You do not become an expert by making the most noise (as I’m sure Snow and Holland would agree).


Trowels at the ready

garden villages.jpgThis is a map of local archaeology, or, as the Department for Communities and Local Government would describe it, of approved new garden villages. The plans are not new – the name Welborne was chosen by local residents several years ago for a village in Hampshire – but the promise of government support for 17 new settlements is welcome. Greenfield developments have the potential for many significant archaeological discoveries. We should support the planning system and the archaeologists it brings to these sites, which together will give unique historical depth to new communities, and enhance our national heritage. And we should support the schools, universities, museums, and Historic England and all the other archaeological organisations down to the smallest local voluntary group, that inspire, educate and employ the archaeologists needed for the job.

Happy New Year!