Thursday, 6 December 2007

Step 8: Archaeology isn't just excavation

Everybody knows this, in theory. But if you listen to archaeologists talk about their work, they will describe their fieldwork as if it's the only thing that matters. And websites list in loving detail every site dug, with scant mention of the contractors' work on post-ex and publication.

Analysis, reporting, archiving are part of the process
If archaeologists have such problems acknowledging this, it is hardly surprising that non-archaeologists fail to appreciate it.

Uh-oh, we’ve got some finds

Digging is going to produce finds. To treat them as if they are some unforeseeable calamity is inexcusable. One of the major demerits of the 'roving contractor' is that they cannot develop any familiarity with local typologies and chronologies. A contractor from England working in south Wales once confidently identified a coin as Saxon and was taken aback at the doubt with which this was received; a little prior research would have revealed that Saxon coins are almost unknown in the region.

Unreported excavation isn’t archaeology, it is wilful destruction of the resource

Fieldwork that results in 'breathtaking discoveries that will transform our understanding' only raises the stakes higher in terms of eventual publication. If it's so important, produce the evidence.

To be fair, the discipline of work in the planning process has led to dramatic improvements in this area: even the least interesting projects will produce a basic factual account and a summary for the HER.

But there is another side to this question. Publication is important because it is supposed to add to knowledge. Excavators therefore have a duty as professionals to research previous work before they start a new excavation. Unfortunately many seem to believe that as long as they do their work properly they can ignore evidence from nearby, or rely on short summaries in the brief.

Excavators should read past reports before digging.

(based on Westheimer's Discovery - "A month in the laboratory can often save an hour in the library." - Frank H. Westheimer, chemistry professor; Runyon's corollary: "A couple of hours on the Internet can frequently save a couple of minutes in the library.")

Step 8a: Do you plan for the whole project?
Step 8b: Do you read enough before you dig?

No comments: