The British Archaeological Awards are, to my knowledge, a unique institution in the wider world of archaeology. Indeed, the fact that they exist at all - and moreover have existed for 21 years - shows that a proportion at least of the archaeological community in Britain is concerned with public attitudes to the subject. Within the Awards the Virgin Group sponsors an award `for the best presentation of an archaeological project to the public'. Despite what I shall have to say in this lecture, that thought gives me some cause for hope. But is this hope justified out there in the real world where archaeology actually happens?
My attempt to answer this question will be in two halves with a short gap at half-time for slides. I will first discuss why we should or should not involve the public in what many still perceive to be `our' work. In the second half I will consider what needs to be done to put matters right, if, indeed they are wrong - and that, of course, is for you to judge.
Archaeology in Britain is mainly carried out by professional archaeological contractors, university-based researchers and amateurs. The latter nearly always handle their PR and publicity better than anyone else and I am in no position to tell them anything. Similarly, university projects are normally carried out with a weather eye on wider publicity. No, it is the first category, that of archaeological contractors, which give me cause for concern. In all some UKP20m is spent each year in Britain on contract archaeology and I do not think that anyone - interested layman or professional archaeologists - knows enough about what they are finding.
Thanks to changes in official Planning Policy Guidance brought about late in 1990 (DoE 1990), about ten times as much money is being spent each year on rescue archaeology as was the case prior to the guideline changes - when most funding was by means of grant aid from central government, administered by the relevant national or provincial archaeological authorities. The principle behind the recent changes in Planning Guidance is very sound. In essence, it is that the developer pays the costs of recording or conserving archaeological remains affected by his development. In effect, rescue or contract archaeology has become a routine part of the planning process (EH 1995).
Publication of developer-funded excavation generally consists of a few copies of spirally-bound dry-as-dust reports where prose is replaced by numbered paragraphs which possess all the literary merit - although perhaps greater chronological accuracy - of a current railway timetable. It's part of the contract: no publication - no money. But by the same token it seems to me, if you have no readers, in effect you have no publication. The vast majority of these reports vanish into the contractor's files and the County Council's archives where they are swamped by thousands of others like them. Even the poor old developer who has paid for it all gets the same incomprehensible, jargon-ridden report, replete with numbered paragraphs. Print-runs of such reports are unlikely to exceed a dozen and I do not consider that such a minuscule print-run constitutes publication within the normal use of the term. The Internet has possibilities which are currently being looked-into but whether this will necessarily lead to a broader dissemination of our work remains, I think, to be seen.
I may have been unduly hard on contract archaeologists, but my consultancy work does expose me to many of their reports. And poor - in the sense of obscure and jargon-ridden - writing does seem to be a problem of many practical archaeologists. I know from experience that one's literary skills do get very rusty after a spell in the field, but then there is rust and there is no metal at all: if the wish to communicate clearly is lacking then there is little hope. Moreover, the current `culture' of archaeology positively fosters unnecessary jargon. Obscure archaeospeak is still encouraged in too many university departments. Until they start to teach their students to express themselves clearly, I can see little hope for improvement within the profession as a whole.
Lately I have undertaken some consultancy work for developers who cannot understand the significance of the reports that have been sent to them by their archaeological contractors. This is simply because the reports in question are unintelligible to the educated layman. By coincidence one of these was the sponsor of this lecture, Anglian Water Services. Over the years they had paid enormous sums to our profession, and in the course of this work they had made some extraordinary discoveries. But with a handful of exceptions, the reports they received for their money were impenetrable to all but a seasoned professional - and at times, frankly I was baffled. I was also ashamed that our profession could be so wrapped-up in its own concerns that it could ignore the needs of the client - who after all pays the bills. I have made informal enquiries of other major clients of archaeological contractors and have revealed a depressingly similar picture.
In the 1980s there was a drive to print the backlog of unpublished post-War excavations which was driven by moral indignation from within archaeology. I believe, however, that the next drive to `publish' (and I use the word in its broadest sense) will come from our clients. In the Anglian Water case, my researches have resulted in a book aimed at the general reader, but accessible to the specialist too. It is aimed at three specific audiences: the client's own staff, their customers and of course those members of the public with an interest in archaeology. Each one of these audiences has expectations and interests that must be anticipated and addressed. Anyone who has attempted it will know that such writing is extremely difficult; contrary to received opinion I would suggest that it is beyond (and not beneath) the training and perhaps even the ability of many archaeologists.
The reason why the long-delayed publication of the post-War `backlog' caused so small an intellectual stir - even within the diminutive world of archaeology - is also the reason why we cannot put right retrospectively our failure to disseminate the results of current excavations. Archaeology may be about transcribing the past into an accessible published account, just as the Times may be a journal of record. But the Times would go bust very quickly if it was prevented from thundering. Similarly, archaeology would swiftly become irrelevant were it to lose its practical, human side - exemplified in most people's minds by excavation. An archaeology that was confined to library shelves alone would indeed be Sir Mortimer Wheeler's `driest dust that blows'.
So whether we like it or not, an excavation has an immediate importance that is a product of current concerns, both academic and popular. The continuing discoveries at Boxgrove, for example, bring together a number of sub-texts in addition to the straightforward scientific enquiry into an extraordinary half million year-old Palaeolithic settlement. To some the human bones can be seen to make statements about Britain's long-term status within Europe, and to others there are gender implications. Many people would recently have seen the butchery sequence on the BBC Horizon documentary and then have thought vegetarian thoughts. Personally I was put in mind of a steak. But behind these themes lie deeper, unstated, current issues: Britain in Europe, the Women's Movement, Animal Rights etc. Remove the currency of both the academic and the non-academic issues - in other words remove the excavation from its contemporary context - and it loses a significant part of its relevance. I know full well that when people stop talking about Flag Fen, the site will be dead - and it matters not how many monographs, papers, books and films may have been devoted to it. It is being current that matters.
With these thoughts in mind I would suggest that there is much to be said for prolonging the period of active field research. Too often archaeologists and their clients are in a frantic rush to `clear' a given site. And that is precisely what they do. The archaeology is `cleared', a dozen copies of the report are promptly published and distributed. And that's that. But what a wasted opportunity!
With sensible planning important sites need not always be rushed through, particularly if the developer has a mind to reap the full PR harvest. My advice is to spin the operation out a little: let the story build: try to fit in with local and national issues. Above all else try to become identified with the local community for it is their past that you are excavating. Look after local interest and national interest will nearly always follow. Remember, people in Britain have a highly developed sense of place whatever their ultimate origins might be. A couple of years ago a young and very ill Asian child from Peterborough died before he was able to visit Flag Fen which he was desperately keen to do; so his family escorted his tiny coffin on a tour of the site on the way to his funeral. On that sad occasion I felt that the past was able to serve the needs of the present, albeit in a particularly poignant way.
Another way around the problem of over-rapid excavation is to construct a long-term research project into which smaller projects can be fitted, like pieces in a jig-saw. This has been done many times at national level, but not always very successfully. There is, I think, a world of difference between academic research priorities and a locally-based research project. Perhaps the difference is of pious hope contrasted with flawed reality. And I know which I personally prefer. I think Peter Cook would have enjoyed the flawed reality of long term local research. Indeed, one may have to be an absurdist even to attempt it. But it is the basic building block for all subsequent syntheses. Get it wrong and the whole edifice will start to totter.
In local research the individual pieces of the jig-saw rarely fit together and fondly held ideas have then to be discarded. But be not down-hearted! Such things should never be covered-up, as they allow one the opportunity to admit mistakes in public. And because local and national politicians and other dignitaries rarely admit their fallibility, any concession by a reasonably public figure that he has made an intellectual cock-up usually goes down extremely well with the media and everyone else. This mea culpa gambit is also an excellent means of converting a no-hope project - let us say a small sewage pipe trench in which nothing was found - into at least a local event: CITY WALLS VANISH thunder the local headlines with an implication perhaps of Joshua and Jericho, whereas the mundane reality was that the wall footings were removed by road-widening in 1932. I would almost go so far as to say that there is no such thing as bad publicity when it comes to local archaeology.
In the first part of this lecture I discussed why it is important that we communicate with our clients, our colleagues and with the public at large. Now I shall discuss how we do this. I will also offer some thoughts on what we should consider communicating. In other words, what is the role of archaeology today? I have no wholly convincing answers to this, the biggest of the questions that currently faces us, but nonetheless I think it is high time we thought about it. Otherwise, I suggest we should sing along with the soldiers of the Great War, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne:
We're here because,
We're here because,
We're here because we're here...
Actually it's not a bad idea - maybe that's how conferences such as IFA or TAG should end, with members linking arms and singing lustily. Not a dry eye in the house. But back to the real world.
At least two recent papers in the journal Antiquity have drawn attention to the need for archaeologists to inter-act with a wider audience. Both were theoretical pieces written by leading academics and neither suggested - nor intended to suggest - practical means whereby this laudable aim might be achieved (Hodder 1989, Tilley 1989). I have already discussed how and why we ought to make more of the actual fieldwork we undertake, but it is only possible to admit the public to a few sites and in the majority of cases our communication has to be via the printed word, video or other media. The use or selection of appropriate media is not my concern now. I am far more worried by WHAT we are to communicate than the mere means of publication. In later Victorian and Edwardian times educated men took great pleasure in the breadth of their knowledge. My own great-grandfather's library, for example, contained books on art, literature, local history, ornithology, botany and archaeology while he himself was an academic geologist, farmer and businessman. He even subscribed to the Glastonbury Lake Village volumes, but despite strenuous efforts I never tracked down his original copies and was eventually forced to buy another set at horribly inflated prices. The point I am trying to make is that something as potentially recondite as a detailed excavation report could be subscribed-to and purchased by a non-archaeologist. This in part reflects the contemporary intellectual `culture' where boundaries were less rigid and specialisation was not always viewed as a good thing. It also reflects, I suspect, the continuing myth of the multi-talented British `amateur' who could turn his hand to anything he chose. But whatever the reasons, the results were the same: textbooks such as Keller's Swiss Lakes, Munro's Scottish Lake Dwellings and Evans's Flint and Bronze Implements were in the libraries of many non-archaeologists.
The relevance of archaeology a hundred years ago was bound up with Darwinism and the changing roles of religion and science. Today archaeology often unwittingly (and sometimes rather discreditably) provides many countries with real or imagined `facts' to support nationalist agendas. But so far this particular form of relevance has not really surfaced in Britain. There are distinctive `schools' or traditions of archaeological thought in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, but none could be considered nationalist. Indeed, they are surprisingly moderate in this regard. So what is the relevance of archaeology to the public in Britain today?
One answer may lie in conservation. A few years ago I wrote a piece on the Greening of Archaeology and as I expected it vanished without trace (Pryor 1990). It didn't stimulate so much as an abusive letter! But archaeology has played a distinguished part in conservation. The Ancient Monuments Act of 1882, for example, was actually the first conservation measure to be passed by central government. Latterly the roads around Stonehenge have rightly given rise to howls of protest and high profile projects, such as Twyford Down and Newbury are seen to have a significant archaeological component. But we still play second fiddle, I fear, to ducks, butterflies, newts and orchids. More regrettably weird, "New Age" versions of antiquity are now coming into prominence - largely as a result of our own reluctance to communicate.
So we have a long way still to go. First we must convince the public at large that archaeology is important in its own right, and that the survival of ancient remains matters. Only archaeology can provide the long-term perspective on the past which will help society adapt to the demands of the present and the future. Which is why it is so insane that the National Curriculum begins English history with the Roman Conquest.
`Stones and Bones', as archaeology was known to television, did very well in the '50s to '70s. Indeed Glyn Daniel was voted TV Personality of the Year on two occasions. One is tempted to wonder whether a Cambridge Disney Professor of the future would even want to achieve such an accolade. The BBC series Chronicle reached large audiences with in-depth documentaries that have never been bettered. And then it was snuffed-out. Today Channel 4 have given us Time Team, an excellent series more in tune with contemporary television than so-called `straight' documentaries. Two and a half million viewers regularly tune-in and the programme has done a splendid job in explaining how modern archaeologists work and in particular how we make use of the mass of hi-tech equipment that is now available.
These are sterling efforts. But I would suggest they are beacons within an archaeological world whose narrow professionalism and indifference to wider communication is increasing.
If one turns the pages of Bulleid and Grey's Glastonbury reports, published in 1911, one soon gets a `feel' for the excavations. There are numerous pictures of wet and muddy trenches, pollarded willows, and men can be seen in bowler hats and trousers tied with string, attempting improbable things with large shovels. Then compare such evocative scenes with a modern report where the supposed objectivity - in fact pseudo-science - of the ubiquitous chequered scale which replaces every human being. Sometimes figures are permitted, but they must stand self-consciously to attention, grasping their range poles - in feeble mimicry of Sir Mortimer Wheeler's earlier work. It is as if the modern archaeological photographer was afraid of appearing to be artistic: his or her sensitivity to a given image has to succumb to the over-neat, lifeless, standardised format of a so-called publication photograph.
During the preparation of the Anglian Water book, for example, almost the entire volume has been illustrated by photographs taken from the personal collection of Nina Sage, an Anglian Water employee who visited the various excavations regularly. Nina's photos have people in them, and sometimes they look as if they're enjoying themselves. These were the only pictures I could find that featured human beings and which captured the sense of place.
Now I must make a confession. I read the previous two paragraphs more or less verbatim when I gave the lecture. Afterwards, at the reception, Philip Dixon asked very ingenuously whether or not I had read his first volume on Crickley Hill (Dixon 1994). I replied that I had not. A few days later, when I was preparing the present paper for publication, a copy arrived in the mail. It cut the ground from under my feet and demonstrates beyond any doubt that it is possible to write a modern `scientific' report in a human manner, and moreover, to illustrate and design it to be read with pleasure. I say now (for what else can I say?) that it is the exception that proves the rule. Let me quote from its Preface:
Excavation is a pleasurable experience for thousands of diggers every year. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that few accounts of these excavations are at all agreeable to read. The excavation report is too often the province of the specialist, or the researcher anxious to quarry information on details or to find parallels worthy to be quoted in another report. Often, too, such reports present us with analysed and polished stories in which one can look in vain for mention of the misjudgments and false steps which bedevil excavations as much as any other human enterprise.
So let me resume the argument I was pursuing before, that is, the ground below my feet abruptly vanished. I was bemoaning dreary, jargon-ridden reports and even worse photographs.
But why is this? Why have reports on the most fascinating subject that it is possible to study become unutterably tedious? Is it that archaeology is now so routine for some people that it has become like any other job - like accountancy or stock-broking? Are some people really and truly in archaeology only for money or a career? If they are, I'm deeply sorry for them. I sympathise with the doctors and nurses versus the accountants and managers in the current Health Service debate. Give me vocation versus career structure any day. Yet ours is a profession which seems to be showing more sympathy for the accountants than the activists in the field.
One gets the impression that the members of the various sub-committees of the IFA would rather enjoy the thrill of formulating by-laws than actually get out and dig barrows. Some people seem extraordinarily keen to forsake their boots and jeans for a grey suit. Personally, I'm in archaeology because I cannot conceive of doing anything else. End of story.
The failure to take interesting photos illustrates well the failure of most excavation directors to think in terms of any non-specialist publication. They seem to be saying: it doesn't matter; there's no point in doing it - so why waste time and film? I think the general failure to take good photographs (and there are rare notable exceptions - one thinks immediately of the Somerset Levels and Danebury) is symptomatic of a deeper problem, more serious than pseudo-science. It was touched on by Ian Hodder, in one of the two theoretical Antiquity papers already mentioned (Hodder 1989).
It has to do with each person's role as an individual within a project team and the use of the collective imagination. The reality of fieldwork is usually inspired improvisation, but the general public must never see behind the veil. And the academic public pretends that research follows a predetermined, science-based, path of hypothesis, test and validation. That is why archaeological reports are traditionally written like scientific papers, in the Third Person, past tense, passive voice: `it has been observed that', rather than `I saw'. The former is inflated, pompous and tedious. But see what a peer reviewer says if you try to do anything different. The entire `culture' of archaeology needs to change if we are to broaden our appeal.
Excavations and other field projects may be team efforts, but the report itself, or segments within it, are written by individuals with their own identities, prejudices, likes and dislikes. So why not write as an individual and come clean, as it were, about your biasses? Do it, and the report - be the topic never so dry - immediately comes alive. Moreover you are not hiding your identity behind a phoney smokescreen of objectivity: your contemporaries may know your academic strengths and weaknesses, but will future generations be able to penetrate the camouflage? Surely it's much better to come clean and write as an individual.
I came across the ultimate example of archaeological `de-personalisation', to coin a horrible phrase, a few years ago when the Notes to Authors published by the eminent East Anglian Archaeology series had the brass neck to stipulate that authors should be styled by their surname and initials only. Never mind what you actually call yourself - and like many reserved Englishmen I loathe it when over-familiar people take liberties with my name. I hate people calling me Frank almost as much as I hate seeing my name written F.M.M.Pryor. In neither case do I recognise the person who is currently sitting at the word-processor.
If Bulleid and Grey could assemble two massive volumes that appealed to the likes of my great-grandfather and which also provided sufficiently good data for a number of modern archaeologists to re-work, then I can't see why today we cannot do the same. Moreover we've also got microfiche and CD-ROMS on which to store reams and reams of data, if needed. The problem is that the `culture' of archaeology in Britain today is hostile to anything of this sort. It would be condemned as a retrograde step - if you like a move down-market. Consequently when we prepare our major works then we are writing for archaeologists alone and we have no intention of reaching a wider audience; that sort of thing can be left for the little `pop' book that may or may not eventually appear.
I do not believe that we do ourselves a service by excluding all but professional archaeologists from access to our reports. I think it is patronising in the extreme to assume that nobody other than a fully qualified archaeologist can be expected to read these tomes. Surely we should construct them at several levels, of increasing specialisation? To an extent this happens already - I wonder how many people listening to me now could understand the complex language used to describe the matrix and relationship of particles in a soil micromorphological report. Certainly I can't, yet I publish them in my reports. So there is already a hierarchy of specialisation in existence; but my point is that it starts at too specialised a level. An introduction in plain English to the principal chapters would greatly ease access to them. The great Sir Mortimer provides an excellent example in his Maiden Castle report of 1943.
I also think that jargon is frequently used to cover-up woolly thinking or simply to show-off erudition. Editors should be much harder on such things and a glossary of unavoidable specialist language and perhaps a table illustrating commonly occurring period names would also not go amiss.
Now there have been some notable successes. Chief among these must be the superb English Heritage/Batsford Series, but even one or two of these have displayed an inability to communicate in plain, jargon-free language. They are also, by their very nature, secondary sources and many people find pleasure and excitement in taking their enquiries further, to the very source of the story which is the site itself (if it still exists) and the original report.
I will never forget the thrill of anticipation and pleasure I experienced when I first read Bersu's account of his excavations at Little Woodbury (Bersu 1940). This was it: the real, undiluted thing. This was what the man wrote when he placed his trowel to one side. Although I found it hard work, it cemented an interest in archaeology that was starting to wilt on the then very roughage-rich Cambridge Diet of ABC Iron Age classification and peoples named after pots.
But how many laypeople have the time or leisure to go into things in such detail? - a cynic might ask. To judge from the volunteers and visitors at Flag Fen, the answer is many. And with the University of the Third Age and Adult Education courses aimed at retired people, I would anticipate that those numbers are about to increase rapidly, as the population in general grows older. People are also retiring - or are being retired - far younger than was the case twenty years ago. None of these people will thank us for making our work so very inaccessible.
Popular, theme-driven accounts are fine so far as they go, but many people want more, and at present we have erected a screen around the core of our subject to exclude all but ourselves. I have discussed the `cult of anti-personality' within archaeological publication, but we have also done our best to water down or exclude the other main element of our subject's appeal: the thrill of the chase. The moment of discovery. I feel like shouting it sometimes:
LISTEN DAMMIT, ARCHAEOLOGY'S EXCITING!!
Maybe we should not try to emulate the thrilling (if slightly fixed) account of the opening of Tutankhamen's tomb, but by the same token there's surely no need deliberately to under write, to remove all sense of moment and thrill. And anyhow, the mood or tone of the project can also inform its subsequent interpretation.
When I decided to open Flag Fen permanently to the public some 9 years ago I had no idea how it would affect me, the team I worked with and the way we viewed our subject. But it has transformed everything. We sometimes work for its own sake when feeling altruistic or for ourselves when feeling selfish. And we always work for a pittance. But our main motivation for most of the time is people.
Our researches are directed towards our visitors and at those who read our Newsletters, or the local press and occasionally national media too. We work for people with a lasting interest in archaeology or who are just passing through and of course we work for our peers and colleagues. The thing is, we work, talk, perform and write for individual people and not for institutions, journals or, come to that, for abstractions - such as Posterity, Science or Truth. Archaeology is about and for people, or it is nothing.
`Damn the Age,' said Charles Lamb, on the rejection of a sonnet, `I will write for Antiquity.'
`Damn Antiquity', say I, `I will write for its readers.'
Bulleid, A and Grey, H St G, 1911 The Glastonbury Lake Village, Glastonbury: Glastonbury Antiquarian Society
Dixon, P W, 1994 Crickley Hill: the Hillfort Defences, Nottingham: Crickley Hill Trust and Department of Archaeology, Nottingham University
Department of the Environment, 1990 Planning Policy Guidance 16: Archaeology and Planning, London: HMSO
English Heritage, 1995 Planning for the Past, Volume 1, London: English Heritage
Hodder, I R, 1989 `Writing archaeology: site reports in context', Antiquity, 63, 268-74
Pryor, F M M, 1990 `The reluctant greening of archaeology', Antiquity, 64, 147-50
Tilley, C Y, 1989 `Excavation as theatre', Antiquity, 63, 275-80
© Francis Pryor, 1996
Francis Pryor (© Simon Denison)
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