Tuesday, 12 January 2016

The Grand Challenge for Archaeology- the information cycle

In the 1950s, archaeologists had a clear idea of their role.  Wheeler says 'unrecorded excavation is the unforgivable destruction of evidence (Archaeology from the Earth (1954), p. 209), and goes on to insist that proper publication is the duty of the excavating  archaeologist.  His final chapter, What are we digging, and why?, is uncharacteristically slippery, though.  It appears that this duty is primarily imposed to ensure that the contribution to knowledge would be shared with current and future peers, to establish a truth that could in due course be communicated to the world.

In the 1970s Philip Rahtz's Rescue Archaeology implicitly followed the same view  - volunteers were welcome to view or help, but the core of the work was the excavation, recording, and academic publication of the site for the benefit of the specialist reader.  (It is interesting to see that he estimates that there were in 1971 about 200 professional archaeologists in the UK).

When the IfA (now CIfA) was founded in the 1980s, it embodied this approach in its Code of Conduct, specifying that excavators had a duty to publish a site within 10 years.

I rehearse this ancient history as a reminder that the contemporary view I often encounter that an archaeologist's primary audience is a non-technical, popular, community one, that involving non-professionals in the process of excavation and recording, that digging and showing is more important than reporting and analysis, is a recent development, and one that has had an unwelcome effect on the profession at a time when resources are tight and hard choices must be made.

The Grand Challenge that I see facing UK archaeology is that archaeologists need to re-engage with all stages of the information cycle, from research, to reporting, to sharing data, placing a high value on prompt availability of credible data and on using the data of others.

SMRs and HERs

The aspect of archaeology I find most frustrating is the way archaeologists use Historic Environment Records.  As the concept emerged in the 1970s, as Sites and Monuments Records, they were transformative.  Previously archaeology had to be understood by laborious research using printed gazetteers and hand-drawn distribution maps; instead, all known sites were plotted on large-scale (1:10,000) maps and accompanied by standardised data (initially on paper but transferred to computer in the 1980s).  The shift to computers meant that thematic searching was expedited - all Bronze Age cairns could be listed by a simple query.  It wasn't until the 1990s that the paper maps were replaced by online mapping and GIS so that it was easy to zoom in and out, relate distributions to topography, and overlay historic mapping.  Many are now available online.

Given these incredible research tools, we should be enjoying a golden age of high quality research and publication, with thousands at work, excavating hundreds of sites, generating new data and contextualizing the results.  Instead it appears that most are content with superficial and credulous research and an apathy about the value of their contribution.  One trend I have learned to dread is the use, in grey literature reports, of an HER site listing included as supplied.  I can only assume that those using the data in this way have misunderstood what HERs seek to do and how they are compiled.

Historic Environment Records are intended to be an index to known archaeological sites in an area.  They do not, in principle, consider themselves to be primary sources (and most do not hold primary archival material).  As an index, they bring together published and unpublished information and classify it in order to aid retrieval.  Their interpretation and analysis is restricted to a basic health check and then an attempt to make the data most likely to be found.  HERs will usually accept the source's conclusion about what they found.   It is quite common to find that many of the sites are less definitive than they at first appear:  antiquarian reports will be given an estimated NGR, wholly unjustified by the convoluted and vague locational information (and it is also common for any finds or records to have vanished), or an excavator's over-enthusiastic conjecture about a site is taken at face value.

In the early rush of creating the SMRs, a lot of thought went into providing a handy synthesis of the evidence in a newly-written description, to save users the necessity of checking each source and reaching their own conclusions.  Increasingly this has been abandoned, partly because of the increase in workload, but also because the validity of the synthesis is questionable.  Of all the people writing about a site, you can be quite sure that the HER Officer won't have had the chance to visit it.  They are worst placed to rule on the weight assigned to sources.  Descriptions will therefore quote from successive sources without necessarily reaching a judgement.  Elsewhere, decisions cannot be ducked: the site must be given a category - cairn, natural feature, modern feature, and a date.  HER listings for Roman roads, prehistoric ritual landscapes, or Dark Age burials often vanish into mundane, modern or natural features, their more dramatic classification being a relic of past fancy.  HERs cannot completely expunge such records, since a researcher may come across the original source and seek the relevant HER record.

The questions lying behind the maintenance of an HER are thus complex - addressed in the MIDAS data standard towards which many are working.

There are, as well as these unavoidable issues, other problems: sources may have been mistranscribed or misunderstood, or not consulted, and, fatally, NGRs may be mistyped.  When HERs were undertaking audits it was found that backlogs of 2 years of data awaiting input were not unusual.   Some sectors are much worse at making their results available: academics, independents, community groups, all unconstrained by planning, are much less likely to feed into HERs.

So HERs are, as an academic said about Wikipedia, a good place to start your research and a very bad place to stop.

Recording and reporting

Yes I know, don't call it excavation call it preservation by record.  But if we say this, and mean this, why is that the standard of records is so low, content with simple standardised descriptions with all the pondering on interpretation and significance left out.  This then feeds through into dull reports which say very little.  I was looking at a report on an evaluation by a professional unit that encountered a complex of prehistoric features.  Their date and purpose were left uncertain by the evaluation, but the conclusion decided that since they were of unknown significance no further investigation was warranted.   Somebody who considered themselves a professional was so incurious that they were happy to shrug their shoulders and walk away,  Even worse, there had been another development on adjoining land, not mentioned in the report, which had found more features, dated this time.  There is a case for archaeologists seeing themselves as technicians, servants of a process, creating data for others, but that seems to me to be an abdication of responsibility.  The excavator of  a site has spent weeks onsite and off engaging with the site and its  features occupying the forefront of their brain.  They, if well informed and thoughtful, are by far the most likely person to establish the truth.  One of the sad features of modern corporate archaeology is that there is little room for the bold hypothesis or imaginative site narrative - the passion and vision we hope to encounter on a site tour is routinely smoothed into tedium by the reporting process.


Which brings us back to Wheeler and publications.  Archaeologists need to be interested in more than their particular site or region.  They need to understand the context, the research questions, the developing narratives.  Otherwise they will end up making silly claims, that their watching brief with a Roman burial will 're-write our understanding of the conquest of Britain', or a ditch will change the way Bronze Age barrows are interpreted.  For much of the 20th century, sites were dug with unskilled, volunteer, or lackadaisical staff, with minimal resources.  That work produced the big books and the big theories that we still refer to.  Somehow, the plethora of data and the ease with which it can be accessed has narrowed our thinking.


This essay is not intended to criticise any individuals or organisations; I genuinely believe that they are doing the best they can in difficult circumstances.  My examples are anonymised and included to highlight where I believe we have gone wrong.

This post is part of the Archaeology Blog Festival