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).


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

  1. 11. Xxxx (in the Near East) has been blown up by fanatics. 12. Xxxxx (well-meaning actor) demands return of Elgin Marbles.

  2. Hmm.. that didn’t work well.. there must be an auto html translation on this site. I’ll try using html:

    “The headlines we want to see, are “Government supports archaeology because it matters to the nation.” Because it does.”

    Why do you believe it matters Mike?

  3. “You do not become an expert by making the most noise (as I’m sure Snow and Holland would agree).”

    Well said Mike. The loudest voices often come from the most ignorant (politics aside). And why do so many features in the press, and elsewhere, keep saying a tunnel *under* Stonehenge. That’s sloppy journalism at best and misinformation at worst.

  4. Mike, having now had access to information that must have been available to those “in the know” well before yesterday (ie the Technical Appraisal Report (TAR) and its appendices) the thing that bothers me is that it’s clear that the tunnel options, and specifically the portal positioning, had been fixed at a meeting in June 2016.

    When folks have raised concerns about that positioning towards the end of last year, based on spotting what was going on on the ground, they’ve been told “nothing’s been decided yet” when clearly we can now see that it was all over bar the shouting.

    It’s too easy to be cynical about “consultations” being exercises that occur only when decisions have been made behind the scenes, but there’s hard evidence that in this case it is exactly that situation. In fact pretty much the only choice being offered people in this consultation is whether the bypass for Winterbourne Stoke goes north or south of the village.

    The “at least 2.9km” mantra has turned out to be “2.9km”, so the hope that perhaps sense might prevail and the long tunnel of 4.5km would be given serious consideration has been dashed. When it’s spelled out that the difference is a mere £600M (or 1/8 the cost of refurbishing Parliament) then you have to wonder why the 4.5km option was ruled out in the initial sift.

    The figures in the TAR show that an additional £600M wouldn’t negate the net benefit that’s been costed out at 1.5 – 2 times the capital cost of the tunnel option (estimated at between £1.4Bn and £1.8Bn)

    In fact for £2Bn you could do the surface route south of Salisbury and give that city the bypass it’s been crying out for without obliterating large areas of the WHS for the portals and feeder roads that the tunnel option requires.

    Looking at the TAR in detail shows that the proposed 8m high flyover/embankment for Countess Roundabout, plus the eastern portal positioning north of the A303 and east of the Avenue will likely have a major impact on the mesolithic site at (but not confined to) Blick Mead. We already know from previous research by MPP and others that meso activity extends north of the A303 up the re-entrant valley, towards King Barrow Ridge and over to Coneybury.

    Is putting the engineering for a flyover, portal, feeder roads, grade-separated junction and associated works right next to and on top of arguably the most important newly discovered mesolithic site in Europe *really* something that the archaeological community is comfortable with?

    Is putting a 1km surface routed 4-lane feeder road (with up to 5m deep cuttings) from the western portal to the A360 within the WHS and starting from a deeply dug portal exactly in line with the winter solstice sunset alignment something we believe future generations will be proud of us for doing?

    UNESCO’s own case study for Stonehenge says that there should be no development on Stonehenge’s sightlines, yet the claim is constantly being made that UNESCO are in favour of what’s going on, without any reference being made to their concerns about the siting of the portals. Concerns which were made plain in their 2015 mission report.

    All this destruction of landscape within the World Heritage Site to save £600M of ersatz “money” that can be generated by quantitative easing on a whim when politicians feel like it.

    Come clean, please, Mike – you and the other short tunnel supporters are in the camp of “it’s this tunnel or nothing, and we’d rather take this tunnel at almost any cost to the wider WHS than lose the chance of removing the A303 from the landscape” aren’t you?

    That’s truly sad. If the heritage that we hold in trust for the future can’t even count on being defended by the organisations and people charged with looking after and explaining it, what hope is there?

    We know politicians are short-termist and lack vision, it’s a pity it seems they’re not the only ones.

    1. An interesting post Simon. I agree. And I think there’s an easy solution.

      The proposed tunnel portals would do enormous damage to Blick Mead, and additional damage within the World Heritage Site. The idea seems to me to be as crude as that of demolishing St Paul’s Cathedral to make a straight road between Ludgate Hill and Cannon Street. According to this proposal, the World Heritage Site is expendable in order to create a dual carriageway A303.

      The simple solution is to build the dual carriageway on the surface. The archaeological damage created by widening the A303 is slight, at least compared with the tunnel portals. It’s the cheap solution. It’s the quick and easy solution. It leaves all options open for a future generation, including a long tunnel and a southern diversion that doubles as a Salisbury by-pass.

      Of course a surface dual carriageway has one enormous advantage that no other scheme has: it preserves the iconic glimpse by road-users of Stonehenge, a view which is today a part of our heritage, as it has been for thousands of years. Just as A1 motorists enjoy the glimpse of the Angel of the North as they drive through Gateshead, so A303 motorists enjoy the view of Stonehenge. This is the democratic approach to Stonehenge which gives every A303 user a free view of a key part of world heritage. The tunnel takes this away. It puts Stonehenge behind a pay-wall as a monument which can only be seen by those who pay the entrance fee during opening hours.

      We need to be defending our heritage. This means defending Blick Mead and all of the World Heritage Site from the vandalism that is the tunnel portals. It also means defending people from the possibility of an organisation taking ownership of the view of Stonehenge. Stonehenge should not become a monopoly product which is the milk-cow for a heritage charity. In upgrading the A303, doing the right thing for heritage and democratic access corresponds with the cheapest possible option, the surface dual carriageway.

      1. Mike/Graham,

        From the publics and motorists point of view, by what I have read on various forums and heard on various radio and TV programmes from the very onset, this has been a ‘stop the public from seeing the stones without paying plan’ and never about sorting the real problem out – the road itself! Of course, as in the majority of road plans, the widening of the road was the obvious and cheapest solution and room to do it, but in this instance the worlds most famous cash cow will now be milked from both ends if a tunnel, no matter what length, goes ahead! As has been pointed out, viewing SH from the road or surrounding area has been part of our heritage since time immemorial and this is now about to be taken away from us unnecessarily and unfairly. To our shame, once again greed will decide this – not common sense.

  5. “Is putting the engineering for a flyover, portal, feeder roads, grade-separated junction and associated works right next to and on top of arguably the most important newly discovered mesolithic site in Europe *really* something that the archaeological community is comfortable with? “

    I’ve been watching the discussions on various forums with great interest Simon. To some extent, it may not be all that relevant what the archaeological community is comfortable with: These sorts of consultation look to get the best weighted outcome for the entire community. The only real way to increase the weighting of various archaeological outcomes is to show that the archaeology itself has a particular importance to the general public.

    It’s often cited that archaeology contributes to the economy. However, whilst the arts, heritage and culture do contribute, it is much more difficult to argue that archaeology makes a contribution to either future development or the reduction of social risk. Others argue that archaeology’s contribution is to help increase inward international tourism: However, this is also not a great argument to use given the negative impacts of those activities (carbon depletion and global warming).

    The consultation will rumble on, but archaeological interests are only one of the stakeholders in the process. Without better explanations of why it is important (to people who are not already interested) it will not be given the weighting that many commentators would like to see.

  6. I understand what you are saying roygoutte, but the difficulty is that most (really almost everything) of what you can read on online forums, comment pages and in the press, or hear on radio or TV comes from people who know little about the subject, if anything at all. The problem of Stonehenge roads is one that has been recognised and worried about for over a century (really), by public commentary, by academic researchers and by official inquiries. This has been going on for so long that there is almost nothing new to say, it’s all been said and discussed and argued over before. “Stop the public from seeing the stones without paying plan” may sound informed, clever even, but it has nothing at all to do with the roads and the issues that a tunnel raises. The result is a public loss. The bigger picture, the things that matter, are not discussed, while people get bogged down in trivia. I try to raise the tone of the debate, but it’s a pretty thankless task. If you care about the Stonehenge landscape, my advice is to track down online documents and learn about the issues from people whose working lives are dedicated to them. Try to see the big view.

  7. There will be many vested interests in play over this issue. So the arguments and positions of experts and those whose working lives are dedicated to them can no doubt be marshalled to support a tunnel or not. For me the bigger picture question is why are we obsessed on our current transportation modalities.The use of modern technology means that traffic jams will ultimately with a driverless revolution in 30 – 50 years, if not sooner be a thing of the past. We will on the whole be able to far more efficiently use our current road network without the need for increasing its footprint either by widening or tunnelling.
    Humankind will look back in 100 years time to wonder why Stonehenge can only be seen by those who enter a visitor centre to see it. Similar to the fact that many threatened animal species can now only be seen by those who pay to enter a Zoo or watch a representation on a screen.
    In the context of Stonehenge and related sites such as Blickmead let’s raise the debate by looking for solutions that address not just our short term needs – but at least those of the next millennium.

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