P.W. Blinkhorn and C.G. Cumberpatch, The Tyranny of the Field Archaeologist


The Interpretation of Artefacts and the Tyranny of the Field Archaeologist

P.W. Blinkhorn and C.G. Cumberpatch

This paper, originally delivered at the Interpreting Stratigraphy conference in 1994, is intended to reflect the growing sense of disquiet at the way in which the archaeological process is currently being carried out in England, which we, the authors, have detected amongst finds analysts.

Some of the more detailed themes relating to the issues raised here have already been examined at TAG [1] and other conferences, but we felt that the Interpreting Stratigraphy forum was of importance because we wanted to try to tackle what we see as the core of the problem. This is the emphasis which field archaeology places on chronology and settlement dynamics at the expense of other, equally valid, subjects. It appears to most field archaeologists that artefacts are a way of confirming and calibrating their stratigraphic sequences and interrelationships. Similarly, ecofact studies are regarded as providing clues as to what the inhabitants of a given site were eating when they were not digging holes. As finds analysts we feel compelled to register our dissent from these views.

The combative title and the provocative nature of some of the comments in this paper are entirely deliberate. Despite IFA [2] guidelines (1991) stating the need for all contributors to a project to be involved in its planning from the very earliest stages, there still appears to be a widespread reluctance on the part of some field archaeologists, curators, and project managers to allow finds analysts an active role in the policy-making and interpretative processes.

Within the subdiscipline of artefact studies (as represented by contributions to recent conferences and through informal discussions), we think that two linked strands of thought can be seen emerging. The first of these is the potential for artefact studies to make a real and substantial contribution to what we might call post-processual or contextual archaeology. By this we mean that workers in a variety of specialised fields, from palaeopathology to pottery studies to environmental archaeology and soil studies, are realising that it is within their power to talk directly about the role of the things that they study (including the environment, which we include here as 'landscape' -- a de facto artefact) in contributing to interpretations of individual sites, settlements, and regions in terms of the human practices of which they are the surviving traces.

The second theme is the current institutional framework within which archaeological field work is conceived, planned, and executed. This does not allow artefact and ecofact analysts sufficient contribution to the processes of research design, detailed planning, and the establishment of practice in the field to maximise the possibilities offered by recent theoretical and methodological advances. It is these two linked issues that we wish to tackle in this paper.

The latter half of the 1980s saw the establishment of a set of theoretical parameters and precepts which delineated the scope of a contextual archaeology. The last few years have seen an engagement with the data out of which has come the first true post-processual or contextual archaeologies (including, for example, Tilley 1991; Johnson 1993; Barrett 1994). Whether or not one agrees with the details of the analyses in these and other works, such contributions represent the practical extension of the theoretical agenda established during the 1980s. It would be refreshing to see such work translated into a medium for the general public -- perhaps a museum display that takes the difference of day-to-day practices in the past as its theme and shows how such practices form structuring principles inherent in social formations and their reproduction. An example of this might be the preparation, serving, and consumption of food; such a display would depend very largely on the evidence of environmental studies, palaeopathology, pottery, wooden artefacts, metalwork, and so on.

Artefact studies are critical to the writing of a contextual archaeology. At one level they are our primary source of data. At another, it is clear from numerous sociological and ethnographic studies that the role of artefacts in society goes far beyond the functional. While the metaphor of 'material culture as text' may have been overused, it can hardly be denied that artefacts are centrally implicated in discursive practice. By this we mean that objects are endowed with a range of meanings known to, and manipulated by, those who made and used them (q.v. Miller 1985). This alone means that the consideration of the significance of an artefact goes far beyond its usefulness in providing a date for a layer, feature, or site. Such considerations were not necessarily part of the role that the object played in its original context, and in considering only such factors archaeologists are producing a literally meaning-less account of the nature of objects.

It is clear from our conversations with ceramicists and with specialists in other fields (notably metallurgy and human bone analysis) that there is a widely shared desire to contribute to the writing of the past through studies which either have greater depth, are broader in scope, or both. This, as we mentioned earlier, can be linked with the emergence of contextual approaches to the past and a renewed interest in the everyday practices of the inhabitants of the sites which we excavate and survey.

We should make it clear that we are not advocating the fusion of primary contextual (or site-specific) information with synthetic contextual (or society-specific) information. While it would be very satisfying to make every finds report into a significant piece of research, it is clear that an excavation report or the results of a field walking survey must be primarily concerned with the presentation of the results of that piece of field work. It is equally true however that the onus must be on those of us who deal with the data at a primary level to present both usable data sets and meaningful interpretations to those who undertake the task of synthesis.

Currently, government policy and the grotesque imperatives of professional bureaucrats are reducing research degrees to the status of glorified laboratory reports and are thus effectively sweeping away one of the primary methods of synthesising archaeological data. Under these conditions, the responsibility of those of us who deal with the primary archaeological record to produce work of the highest interpretative quality is growing as it never has before.

This then is the first strand of the paper: the possibility and potential for artefact analysts to contribute in a substantive way, not just to the 'when' and the 'where', but also to the why of archaeology. We have known for a long time how the Romans made pots, how tall a Saxon was, and that Iron Age people bent swords and threw them into rivers, but surely it is now time to consider why the Romans used those particular ceramic types, what made the Saxon that height, and why the Iron Age person felt it necessary to bend and discard that sword. To continue to reinvent the wheel is a particularly pointless activity, but there is a strong sense that this is exactly what is being done in field archaeology at the present time.

This brings us to the second strand of the paper: the role of the specialist in the planning and execution of archaeological field work. Those of us who deal with artefacts are all too familiar with the ways in which the process works at present. It normally involves some variation on the basic sequence of desktop survey, evaluation, spot dating of finds, and excavation. On completion of the excavation there follows a short interlude during which the finds are cleaned before the project manager tries to find a specialist for each group of material. There then follows a brief and rather depressing conversation on the lines of 'Can you do the pot / bone / metalwork / flint / insects / seeds / coprolites (or whatever) from this site'. The artefact specialist, grateful for a chance to satisfy the insatiable appetites of parasitic High Street financiers, tugs a forelock and agrees, allowing the manager to wander away, happy that his sausage machine is still grinding away and that a new batch of reports will be delivered in due course. Sometimes the manager will ask the specialist what the report will contain, but generally, as long as it consists of a list of context specific dates and some nice pictures to give the final report some bulk, no more is required.

The point is that the current institutional and practical framework of field archaeology does not allow finds analysts to make a contribution to the processes of planning, research design, and practice in the field. The potential for the maximisation of the possibilities offered by finds analysis is never considered. Such an approach runs directly counter to good practice in terms of both the management of staff and of the quality of the product (if the reader will forgive our employment of the hideous rhetoric of 1990s Thatcherite archaeology for a moment). More importantly, it runs counter to good analytical practice in that we are interpreting the past in terms of the preconceptions of only one element in the process of excavation and analysis -- that of the field archaeologist. There is no doubt that many of these individuals are highly skilled at the tasks of understanding the stratigraphic record, handling the varying skill levels of the workforce, directing machine operators, dealing with developers, and wrestling with the intricacies of MAP 2 [3]. However our experience suggests that few, if any, have a detailed appreciation of what is currently going on in the obscurity of those rather sinister places where the specialists lurk, whispering and sharing dark secrets concerning the peculiar practices of people and animals. Fewer still appear to want to know.

One example of this might be the experience of the finds specialist who was asked by a project manager to remove the word 'taphonomic' from a project design on the grounds that the manager in question did not like the use of 'trendy TAGspeak bollocks'. After being given a tactful explanation, the manager insisted that the phrase 'examination of the physical and chemical effects of deposition' be substituted for 'taphonomic'. However when the finds specialist suggested that the phrase 'diagrammatic cross-section of accumulated archaeological deposits' be substituted for the words 'section drawing' the manager refused because, in his words 'everyone knows what "section drawing" means'.

Such experiences are depressingly familiar. The attitude to pottery can be summed up by the project manager, who, during a site tour, informed his largely lay audience: 'Pottery can be very useful; one sherd on its own is no use, but if you get twenty you can work out how old the building is'. This seems to suggest that, contrary to accepted belief, it is not what you do with it but how big it is which counts.

This might seem a mildly amusing anecdote relating to the eccentricities of field archaeologists, but it has recently emerged that the manager in question, during evaluative excavations, ensures that his diggers work on a feature until twenty sherds of pottery have been found, at which point a representative sample is deemed to be present and work on the feature stops. Amongst the more extreme examples is that of the recently heard report (from a first-hand witness) of the manager who machined off a number of Saxon burials in order to excavate the Romano-British farmstead underneath. His justification for this was based on the fact that 'there was nothing about a cemetery in the brief or the specification'. Similarly, the actions of the site director who, anxious to please a group of cost-oriented managers (and thus ensure continued employment), disposed of environmental samples 'in order to save on storage costs' must give grounds for concern.

If these were isolated examples then they would simply be more fodder for the spinning of the beer-driven yarns which are all part of the traditional archaeological lifestyle. Sadly, however, they are more than that and lead to a point of considerable importance for the conduct of archaeology in the 1990s: projects are ruled by the specification, set by curators and interpreted by field archaeologists, and all work on site is carried out with this in mind. Rarely, if ever, are finds specialists consulted as to the nature or content of this document. The main consideration seems to be to dig as much of the site as the money will allow and to find enough 'goodies' to date the major features. Such work is also governed by the assumption that those who are best qualified to excavate a site are also best equipped to interpret the material traces of past human activity. This is not necessarily the case. No single group of specialists has the right, or the breadth of knowledge, to dictate the whole of the investigative strategy.

It is known, however, that the knowledge and techniques for interpreting such traces do exist. They are not at present being mobilised in a practical manner. The present method of handing the specialist a bag of finds some months after the excavation has been completed and asking for a report is not good practice. One doubts if a group of engineers approached British Rail in 1994 and said, 'We've built this big tunnel under the English Channel -- do you think you could run a few trains through it?'

As archaeologists we now have a set of theoretical precepts which allow us to make sense (or senses) of human practices in the past. We have a battery of analytical techniques which allow us to find out more about artefacts and ecofacts than ever before but we are largely unable to apply these meaningfully because of the tyranny of the structure of archaeology which continues to assign a preeminent position to the role of the excavator. This is now being compounded by extending even greater powers to the curatorial arm of the profession.

Most curatorial archaeologists are graduates of field archaeology, and, like most field archaeologists, tend to have a limited grasp of the significance of artefacts and the analytical options available. Evaluation and excavation briefs rarely place any emphasis on the analysis of finds other than to provide dates for features. This is despite the fact that the traditional conceptions of the role of the specialist and the framework of excavation, analysis, and publication can be challenged by the position ascribed to material culture by a post-processual or contextual framework of interpretation. It appears that the time is long overdue for procedures such as those recommended by the IFA finds group to be put into practice and to allow all specialists (including excavators) to make a contribution to the research policy before a site is excavated rather than after.

Many people have suggested that the practice of having a single name on a report is counterproductive, and though increasingly it seems as if more teams of people are being credited, there is a need to go further. The symbolic question of whose name comes first in the list of contributors to a particular report should perhaps be dictated by the contribution made, and that contribution should be dictated by the nature of the site. In the case of a cemetery, for example, it should be the responsibility of the palaeopathologist to draw the data together. Similarly, in the case of industrial complexes, such as pottery kilns or smithies, the co-ordination should be in the hands of a person with a profound knowledge of the archaeology of these processes. It might well be argued that these are absurdly simple cases and that most sites involve more than one activity. This is certainly true, and it simply reinforces the point being made.

A major handicap to such co-operation may be the culture of machismo and physicality which surrounds field archaeology. As an IFA survey has demonstrated, excavation tends to be a male-dominated activity, whereas finds specialists tend to be women, with artefacts often considered by the former to be a bit 'girlie' and 'boring'. This may explain the reluctance of those in positions of power to seek or to take the advice of specialists in the early stages of the planning of an excavation. In this sense flotation and wet sieving might have achieved their wide acceptance because of their links with 'hard' science, but ceramicists are still rarely consulted about the differential recovery of fine wares or about methods of recovering the low-fired, friable pot sherds which are typical of the later prehistoric and pre-Conquest periods, particularly in the north of England. Similarly, when Iron Age sites are being excavated, any questions regarding the planning of the excavation strategy in relation to J.D. Hill's work on structured deposition (e.g. Hill 1992) are usually met with blank looks or vague mutterings about trendy TAGspeak.

Sampling strategies appear to have remained locked into a conceptual framework rooted in the 1970s. No account is being taken of the repeated, convincing demonstrations that human beings indulge in purposeful, structured activities which are not best investigated by the use of sampling strategies apparently plucked out of thin air. What, for example, is the rationale behind excavating ten percent of an Iron Age site in the south-east Midlands? We do not know enough about the day-to-day practices of Iron Age people to be able to place a sample of this size with any hope of obtaining meaningful results, nor of interpreting those which we do obtain.

One mechanism which might allow us to deal with complex sites intelligently and efficiently would take advantage of the recent appearance of the 'archaeological consultant'. A model for future practice would see the results of a desktop assessment being circulated around a range of appropriate specialists who would be able to suggest sampling and collection strategies from a more informed standpoint than that of a person with a limited experience of specific site types. The process would be repeated, post-evaluation, bringing in specific consultants, or dropping them as necessary. Some small increase in cost might be involved, but such costs could be built into the overall budget and this might not be such a problem as developers are accustomed to the practice of subcontracting. Balfour Beatty or Wimpey [construction firms] do not expect their surveyors to install plumbing in a partially completed building nor their electricians to select the type of concrete needed to build a bridge. Field archaeology, in contrast, currently operates in precisely the opposite way.

If the increase in cost is a problem, then we may require that a stronger stand be taken by national archaeological organisations. Archaeology normally represents only a tiny fraction of the cost of a large development. A good example of this occurred comes from May 1994, when a report in the Observer newspaper noted that the Department of Transport was complaining that the annual three million pounds spent on archaeology was too much and that cuts should be made to save money. The post-excavation analysis of finds was targeted as an area where reductions could be made. To put the amount of money into perspective, three million pounds is roughly the cost of half a mile of six-lane motorway.

The present system of contract archaeology, which is a mirror of the political and economic values of the 1990s, places the emphasis on getting the job done as cheaply as possible rather than in the most archaeologically effective way. If it were not so outrageous it would be almost laughable that the people who decide which tender to accept, i.e. the developers, are least suited to be making such a crucial decision. More sinister is the increasingly widespread use of confidentiality clauses in contracts of employment, apparently a result of this development (Anonymous 1998). There is, increasingly, an unexamined acceptance by archaeological managers and some 'entrepreneurial' consultants that 'the client' is synonymous with the developer, rather than with the discipline of archaeology and with the public as a whole (e.g. Strickland 1993). Such a position flies in the face of recent theoretical considerations of the nature of historical consciousness (cf. Samuel 1994; Cumberpatch, in press). The past, in its many manifestations, is a fundamental component of the human world view and the effective privatisation of the archaeological past through the competitive tendering and contractual systems is deeply disturbing. While it is clearly right that the 'polluter pays' principle should be adhered to, the critical decisions concerning investigative strategies should not be in the hands of those to whom archaeology is akin to toxic waste -- something to be disposed of as quickly and quietly as possible.

It has often been pointed out that archaeology represents a finite resource, but the present system is not doing justice to that resource. We have all read with some amusement of eighteenth-century barrow diggers setting out for a diverting day of antiquarianism, viewing the skulls and bronze artefacts over a large picnic lunch, while the workmen use the old pots for target practice. What will the archaeologists of a century or two hence make of today's curators who regard ten percent of a site as a reasonable sample?

It is time to develop the concept of inference potential (Adams 1991) to include the aggregation of qualitative information from a specific site or partial site to equal more than the sum of the parts. Doing this will require team work in the truest sense of the term, as well as the acknowledgement by those who have traditionally set the data-gathering agenda (curators and project managers) that they do not have a privileged access to the understanding of either archaeological sites in particular or the past in general. The requirements of specialists might sometimes have to override the dictates of hallowed traditions in the planning and execution of field work. While we feel that these points are of critical importance to all aspects of archaeological field work, they have a particular relevance to evaluative excavations -- a branch of practice which has grown up seemingly without any explicit attempt to consider exactly what it is that we are supposed to be finding out from such procedures.

As those who control the structure and funding of archaeology in Britain have decided that we are to go down the road of competitive tendering and project funding, it is up to those of us who are responsible for the final product (the published report and the site archive) to demand that there is no sacrifice of interpretative quality to any other consideration, especially money. It is obvious that, both as a profession and as an academic discipline, we have the technical and intellectual capability to enhance this quality. It is also obvious that the time has come for a radical reassessment of our day- to-day practices. We should do this with a view to overcoming the inbred conservatism which seems to afflict many field archaeologists, and perhaps more curators, when they are faced with theoretical developments in the various branches of specialisation which consume such a large part of archaeological budgets.

The authors would like to thank all those who have offered comments on this paper. The opinions expressed remain those of the authors alone.


Copyright © P.W. Blinkhorn and C.G. Cumberpatch 1998


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