British Archaeology, no 6, July 1995: Interview


Simon Denison talks to Clive Orton

Inventing the warm heart of logic

It is hard to know quite how to introduce Clive Orton. Nobody outside archaeology will have heard of, let alone care about, his major professional achievements, namely two new systems for quantifying pottery; and many even within the discipline no doubt consider his subject of interest - methods of analysing data - a boring if necessary evil.

Yet this diffident former statistician - presently Reader in Quantitative Archaeology at University College London (UCL) - offers a way of thinking about archaeology that is both essential and all too rare. All data analysis requires some mathematics, and Clive Orton is one of the few mathematicians employed in archaeology.

As a result he brings a clear-sighted approach to data-collection, which other researchers often undertake without direction or focus. Those who prefer the security of `total data accumulation', in the hope that someone else will come along and make sense of it all later, are often perplexed and infuriated by the kinds of questions he asks, such as: Why are you doing this? Do you really need to record every sherd, in order to answer the questions you are asking? In dating a site, how far can you afford to be wrong before it matters?

As an intellectual gad-fly, stinging a part of the intellect that most of us would rather ignore, it helps that Clive Orton is an exceptionally kindly and patient man, who gives the impression of having all the time in the world for everyone, and whose own sensitivities - which often run close to the surface - banish any suspicion that one may be dealing with the archetypal dry-as-dust computer boffin.

It would be impossible to understand Clive Orton without knowing that he is both a devout Christian, and a man whose own life has been affected more than once by tragedy. Born in 1944 in Dorking, he developed a twisted spine at the age of 16 as a result, he believes, of an experimental polio vaccine which was quickly withdrawn. As if that wasn't enough, his first child was stillborn, also probably as a result of unsafe medication. Although two healthy children followed, the death of the first led to a period of severe emotional instability in the family that lasted some time.

These events changed Clive Orton's life, giving him a capacious tolerance for `strange people', and a mistrust of conventional ambition. They also altered his career. After Cambridge University, where he read maths and belonged to the Student Christian Movement, he joined the Ministry of Agriculture as a statistician in order, he says, to have a secure future. But the child's death undermined his belief that a predictable future was possible. Giving up his job in 1974, he did `what he really wanted to do' and became an archaeologist (he had been an amateur since schooldays).

The civil service job, which involved long spells in Brussels, had in any case become tedious and absurd. `At the EEC, you'd spend three days arguing about what is a farm,' he said<196> incredulous that so pointless and bizarre a question could be asked at all, let alone argued over.

`At one time, it was seriously proposed that we carry out a survey to find out how many pigs people kept in their back garden,' he went on. `I had to persuade the EEC that this was stupid and would get them into disrepute with the British if they imposed it. I eventually asked what margin of error they'd accept, and they said plus-or-minus so many thousand. So I replied: plus-or-minus so many thousand, nought; would that do? Fortunately they said yes.'

So, moving to archaeology, he spent five years as a finds researcher in Southwark and Lambeth, and then at the Museum of London, before going to UCL in 1979. Since 1975 he has been Editor of The London Archaeologist, a periodical that publishes mini-interim excavation reports from the London area, for the archaeological market. If its articles are sometimes arcane and even (he admits it) rather dull, it is a reflection of his generous editorial policy - which is to publish everything submitted, except the downright lunatic. Why is he so unselective? `I find that usually people have something to say,' he said.

Clive Orton is a devoted father - he speaks with striking warmth of his children - and a clear and lively writer. Indeed his writing, which puts the leaden prose of many of his humanities-trained colleagues to shame, is a reminder that there can be far more to the mathematician - just as there is far more to the usefulness of mathematics - than one might immediately suppose.


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