My Lord Essex
Old stones and the sea
Riding into history
The folk that lived in Liverpool
So tyger fierce took life away
Editor Mike Pitts
Perspicuous meta-narratives rule
Gordon Noble says it can be difficult to write simply, but clarity is power
I came late to archaeology, having studied art history at undergraduate level. One of the major frustrations of my transition has been the style of much writing found in archaeological journals, books and articles. Writing that is full of technical terms, complex words and packed with references may look good, but if it is not understandable, then it is poor writing.
I was first attracted to archaeology thinking that it examined people in the past more directly than the study of society through a painting or sculpture. However, it often seems that the people and the objects of the past get lost in a sea of jargon and half-baked philosophies acquired from other disciplines.
Writers should always be aware of their audiences. This is especially true in a subject like archaeology, which attracts a diverse range of interest groups. Language and style should never get in the way of content.
The concept of jargon has been prominent in business and government in recent years, partly prompted by the Plain English Campaign. Jargon can be seen in a positive way, enabling communication within a specialised subject. However, there is also a negative side, characterised by language full of pretentious and complex syntax, vocabulary and meaning.
Every profession needs its jargon. However, we must ensure that any we use is precisely defined in an accessible place if not within the text itself. We must also recognise the difference between technical language and deliberately difficult and pretentious language. Often the social result of jargon, intended or not, is to make those who are unaware of the meanings of these terms, feel disempowered and even resentful. This is not a beneficial reaction to bring out.
Writing does not need to be merely functional – some of our greatest communicators and most eloquent authors have believed passionately in the simplicity of language. The cost of jargon most definitely outstrips the benefit. Ideas must be valued above all else and these ideas will become more powerful if communicated well.
Public dissatisfaction with much professional archaeological writing can perhaps be evidenced by the number of ‘fringe writers’ (eg Graham Hancock) that archaeology attracts, writers not generally accepted by academic archaeologists as being credible or reliable. This phenomenon is one peculiar to archaeology: I am unaware of any fringe botanists or fringe geologists.
The number of fringe writers underlines the public interest in archaeology. Perhaps if academic institutions valued non-academic publications and archaeologists became more accessible writers, we might be able to deliver what we would like to imagine as more informed opinions and ideas, to a much wider audience. Clear, accessible, imaginative writing must be an important element in ensuring that archaeology continues to interest the many, not only the few. Jargon can hide a lack of substance in the ideas and aims of an article. Good ideas and thinking speak for themselves. It can be more difficult to write simply, but accessibility must be the aim of archaeological writers.
Archaeology is not inherently valuable or necessary for society and is not guaranteed a role in future worlds. Archaeology can enlighten and enrich but only if we allow it to do so—we must promote archaeology to the widest audience possible if we are to retain a sense of value in contemporary society. Part of the solution to attracting (and justifying archaeology to) a wider public must lie in clear analytical thinking and writing. After all, surely we value ideas over spin.
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CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005