British Archaeology, no 15, June 1996: Letters

Star Trek digging

From Ms Carolyne Kershaw

Sir: I write in reference to Charles Thomas's article, `Diggers at the final frontier' (February). A present-day icon of science fiction, namely Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek, The Next Generation holds a degree in archaeology. I mention this because Star Trek does have cultural influence, both on scientists involved in the space programme (NASA named the first space shuttle `Enterprise' in tribute to Star Trek) and on the general population. There are `Trekkers' everywhere.

Several episodes of Star Trek, The Next Generation have involved archaeology. For example, one concerned a project in which a team of archaeologists were studying a humanoid species at a `Bronze Age' technology level from a high technology hide (to avoid contamination of the developing culture), much as naturalists today study animal species. Imagine the insights we might gain into our own human development from such studies.

I feel sure that `xenoarchaeology' is on the agenda of NASA and the European Space Agency, but way down the list. We won't find anything for xenoarchaeologists to study until we develop the technology to `boldly go' to other planetary systems.
Yours sincerely,
24 April

Keep the darkness

From Mr Norman Nail

Sir: The book Centuries of Darkness, by Peter James and several others, put forward controversial views on the chronological sequences in Egypt, the Near East and the Mediterranean world in the period 1200- 700BC, and it was roundly criticised by experts in the history and archaeology of those areas. Peter James now argues in his article, `Updating the centuries of darkness' (April), that the experts were wrong and five years' accumulation of new knowledge is proving him and his co-authors right.

Without considerable working-over of knowledge in the fields of Egyptology, Assyriology, Anatolian Studies, Hellenic Studies, and so on, for which your magazine obviously has not got the space, it is impossible to deal with the facts; but there are questions of the philosophy of history which arise out of the Centuries of Darkness approach to historic data which are worth looking at.

At the base of the Centuries of Darkness theories is the assumption that `dark ages'do not occur, there is a steady cultural progress in history, and there is no such thing as periods of regression and stagnation. So, if these appear to occur, it is because historians and archaeologists are using an inflated chronological framework which puts in sequence events which really occurred side by side in different locations in the same broad area.

Most historians and archaeologists, however, believe that dark ages do really occur and are usually related to the collapse of centralised and usually militarily powerful states. It can be argued that cultural decline is not the basic issue, but systems' collapse of one or more important parts of the state machine; and recovery can take some time.

Peter James asserts in his article that he and his collaborators do not deny the occurrence of dark ages generally, but only their occurrence in the areas and in the period they write about; but this merely adds a further assumption that a phenomenon found worldwide in the history of complex societies was absent in a fairly large number of such societies in a particular 500-year period.

Unfortunately, all these philosophical aspects of their thesis are not considered in Centuries of Darkness, which is essentially a series of tours de force, in which such facts about a particular dark age as they acknowledge (and they often don't acknowledge them all) are fitted into a framework which eliminates it as an historical period in the area concerned.

If the theory of James et al about dark ages were to be applied to Britain, we would have to assume that the Roman Britain of Theodosius was immediately followed by the Saxon Britain of Alfred the Great, and the events and culture of sub-Roman and early Saxon Britain were really located in some remote areas of Britain contemporary with the Theodosian/Alfred the Great sequence. Similarly, European history would be rejigged so the late Roman Empire was followed immediately by the empire of Charles the Great, and the events of AD400-800 were consigned to some contemporary backwater area in northern Europe.

If this British and European history purged of dark ages sounds arrant nonsense, it is because we have enough background knowledge to realise this; but, in my view, it is not greater nonsense than much of the rewriting of ancient history to be found in Centuries of Darkness.
Yours sincerely,
7 May

No Iron Age fields

From Dr W S Hanson

Sir: I am prompted to write in response to the article by Max Adams, `Iron Age ridge and furrow? So it seems' (April). I know the Breamish Valley reasonably well and have visited the sites to which Max Adams refers on a number of occasions, at least once in the company of the late Prof George Jobey whose pioneering work in that area and fastidious publication belies the claim that the landscape is little known.

Just because the extensive ridge and furrow ploughing respects the Iron Age/Romano-British settlement on Haystack Hill does not make the two contemporary - it merely reflects the difficulty of infilling and ploughing over such large landscape features in the medieval period. I noted a broadly analogous situation on a recent visit to Long Meg and her Daughters by Penrith, whose ridge and furrow runs right through the stone circle without displacing the stones. No one would suggest that the two are contemporary, but clearly the medieval farmers were not prepared to go to the considerable trouble of removing the stones.

Immediately above the three main scooped enclosures at Haystack Hill on a small plateau lies a rectangular enclosure which seems to contain or partly overlie less well-preserved remains of round houses, the latter, perhaps, part of a further Romano-British/Iron Age settlement. Also within that rectangular enclosure is a rectangular building, not readily visible on the aerial photograph which you published but quite clear on the ground (see George Jobey's plan in Archaeologia Aeliana 42, 1964, fig 10). This rectangular house and enclosure is most likely to represent the medieval re-use of the earlier settlement location and provides a more sensible context for the visible ridge and furrow. Far from being an integrated landscape dating from a single prehistoric time period, we have here a further excellent example of the time depth which is so commonly observed in the British landscape.
Yours sincerely,
University of Glasgow
19 April

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