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Monday, 26 January 2015

Worth knowing, or not?


I found this rather entertaining -- relevant maybe to our current discussion on whether archaeology, history and museums are worthwhile in the great scheme of things!

Perhaps we should investigate whether archaeologists, not archaeology itself,  are worthwhile......

15 comments:

TonyH said...

Is the one at the back the trained hod - carrier for one of the very earliest brick building sites?

Jon Morris said...

The subject fascinates me: I'm not sure it's possible for archaeologists to be not worthwhile if archaeology is worthwhile. Unless, that is, the discipline has deviated from its purpose.

Archaeology/archaeologists are known to be useful to tourism (a lot of people say this as the sole economic justification for doing it). Tourism has economic and some social benefits but the particular argument for archaeology (as a 'technical support' discipline for tourism) appears to be very easy to dismiss.

Chris's view is quite interesting:

It [archaeology] is important because of what we can discover about [society's] process and methods and motives, the weighing of evidence and the construction of a plausible narrative that can be acted upon.

But the above doesn't appear to be what archaeologists do (if you believe that the above might define the potential value of undertaking archaeological research): Unless I haven't understood what they do, the consideration of methods and motives appear to be a relatively trivial add-on to the study of objects (for example landscapes as objects).

All a bit of a mystery. Nobody has an answer so gave up asking a while back.


Jon

Jon Morris said...

The subject fascinates me: I'm not sure it's possible for archaeologists to be not worthwhile if archaeology is worthwhile. Unless, that is, the discipline has deviated from its purpose.

Archaeology/archaeologists are known to be useful to tourism (a lot of people say this as the sole economic justification for doing it). Tourism has economic and some social benefits but the particular argument for archaeology (as a 'technical support' discipline for tourism) appears to be very easy to dismiss.

Chris's view is quite interesting:

It [archaeology] is important because of what we can discover about [society's] process and methods and motives, the weighing of evidence and the construction of a plausible narrative that can be acted upon.

But the above doesn't appear to be what archaeologists do (if you believe that the above might define the potential value of undertaking archaeological research): Unless I haven't understood what they do, the consideration of methods and motives appear to be a relatively trivial add-on to the study of objects (for example landscapes as objects).

All a bit of a mystery. Nobody has an answer so gave up asking a while back.


Jon

TonyH said...

Jon, I would recommend you obtain a subscription to "British Archaeology", there is plenty in there to make you ponder further on what clearly fascinates you. Archaeologist Mike Pitts, whom I think you know about through his Blogsite, edits British Archaeology. It is quite a cerebral journal, befitting the gentleman on the right, rather than the one on the left in the frontispiece illustration.

Jon Morris said...

Hi Tony

Jon, I would recommend you obtain a subscription to "British Archaeology", there is plenty in there to make you ponder further on what clearly fascinates you.

I'm fascinated by the idea that a profession can exist without having defined its social role. One of the joys of my job is that it is interesting: I even get paid to do it! It also has some superficial similarities to archaeology: I investigate structures, usually older ones, with a view to finding out their history, what they are, how (and sometimes why) they were constructed and what can be done to economically modify them to make them useful. If it were not for the last piece of that sentence, the job description might sound a little like 'archaeologist': We even use some of the same kit (or, more precisely, they often use kit that was originally developed for us).

However, my discipline defines what benefit/value it has to society so that its proposals have a social context. For younger members, it is especially important to understand the basis of what they are doing: (Example)

It does not seem to be the same with archaeology: The amount of readily available information on the value/purpose of the discipline [in a social context] seems to be roughly on a par with that provided by hairdressers and/or telephone sanitizers (and I'm probably being seriously unfair to hairdressers).

Perhaps this is a hangover of the Victorian era? It seems to me that, long ago, the profession was more of a hobby reserved for those with independent financial means. Perhaps that side of things has never really gone?

Myris of Alexandria said...

Look up post processualism archaeology.
There is more than enough clap trap about archaeology it's role it's purpose, wether Grooved ware potters were left handed, why white middle class intellectuals are the curse of the multiverse etc etc.
Archaeology has long 'flown past the pigeon holes of form'.
Someone even writes ppist-style book reviews.
M

Myris of Alexandria said...

In America archaeology is a sub discipline of anthropology.
They would justify themselves differently ultimately as palaeo-sociologists.
I think the best natural scientists were Victorian divines and an independent income is required.The good old days, loupe in hand, reams of blank paper, pots or rocks to classify, God secured in his heaven,and the housekeeper to ensure lots of hot tea.
M

chris johnson said...

Jon, you ask an interesting question about Archaeology although one might equally well challenge other academic disciplines, such as the history of art, literature studies, or theology. Life would be a lot less colourful were the only acceptable studies to become those with a tangible deliverable.

What needs challenging on the Rhosyfelin dig is the question that is being asked. MPP has been quite consistent in dismissing transportation as an interesting line of enquiry. So what is he looking for, after 4 years?

TonyH said...

From my distant viewpoint beyond the Universities but closer to the actual mega- monuments, I have noted that there seems to be a trend in U.K. Universities for the academic study of Archaeology to be under the same umbrella or hat as Anthropology. This is the case at Bristol, and possibly also at Manchester, UCL, and Southampton. So there is a tendency to delve into the HUMAN motives and traits of custom when pondering the means by which the so - called Bluestones [and, indeed, their larger cousins, the sarsen stones] reached their eventual destination close to that modern wonder, the A303 bottleneck road close to Amesbury and to a Mesolithic auroch feasting site near a spring.

And so, Colin Richards at Manchester and MPP - first at Sheffield, then at UCL - , are in Departments where anthropology is linked with archaeology, and past human behaviour linked to (especially large - scale) human constructions both in the UK and around the world is pondered, and explanations attempted.

Also, I think that "what makes humans tick?" is at the heart of the use of archaeology, and in that sense it goes back to a very fundamental human need - why am I here? How can I explain the meaning of my life on Earth? To me, these are very worthwhile questions to pursue during the limited lifespan of each of us.

I got my enthusiasm for archaeology very very early from (a) a natural curiosity and an enquiring mind and being born into a family who knew the benefits of fresh air, exercise, and pondering local history, including PREhistory; (b) living on the edge of a Steel Town but within walking/bus/car distance of the Peak District National Park and (c) having a school History teacher at age 13 who, along with his father, was a respected amateur archaeologist in his day. Together, they had excavated a Bronze Age landscape near their Peak home, and created their own Museum, at Birchover, open to the public, including schoolchildren.

myris of alexandria said...

I did not know that the stones were being exiled to Australia.
M
Sad news of fellow Alexandrian's all too soon death. Sing on Demis.

Jon Morris said...

Hello Myris

There is more than enough clap trap about archaeology it's role it's purpose,

The debate about post processional versus processional seems to me to be a 'in' argument significant only to the debaters. It talks about method but not about purpose.


This paper gives it a go and seems to come to similar conclusions to Chris: https://www.academia.edu/412741/The_discipline_of_archaeology

"The objective is likewise twofold: to reconstruct past life-worlds in order to understand and explain the historical conditions that governed people’s life as it unfolded, both in their local settings and on a larger historical scale of prehistoric and historic societies; and to preserve the archaeological record in the landscape and in museums for future study and use"

Both of these objectives hint at potential underlying purposes (which would fit with the potential for a deliverable benefit such as that which Chris defined but could equally fit with the idea that archaeology's deliverables are a "technical support service" for tourism). The author does not appear to go on to explain what he believes that purpose to be.


Hi Chris

Jon, you ask an interesting question about Archaeology although one might equally well challenge other academic disciplines, such as the history of art, literature studies, or theology. Life would be a lot less colourful were the only acceptable studies to become those with a tangible deliverable.

I think I see what you mean: Some disciplines contain expressions of meaning and belief that are unquantifiable (being personal to individuals): Sciences are the study of nature and behaviour and the subsequent formulation of laws (deliverables) to describe facts discovered. Are there really no tangible deliverables expected from archaeology?


Hi Tony

Also, I think that "what makes humans tick?" is at the heart of the use of archaeology, and in that sense it goes back to a very fundamental human need - why am I here? How can I explain the meaning of my life on Earth? To me, these are very worthwhile questions to pursue during the limited lifespan of each of us.

I think I agree with you on this Tony. But I am having a hard time quantifying what potential benefits come from these 'deliverables': The higher the potential benefit resulting from deliverables, the easier it is to argue that the discipline provides value to society. Given the recent drive to quantify the social purpose of investment in this sort of thing, I guess I expected the discipline to have their position already written up and laid out in plain English.

chris johnson said...

Interesting link Jon, although I confess to not reading the whole piece.

Archaeologists need to be careful not to succumb to the temptation to become historians, anthropologists, or dare I say geomorphologists.

I was quite impressed by MPP at Rhos telling me about the pioneering work he was doing in analysing the site, which he felt might rewrite the textbook. Now I am easily impressed, but it did emphasise the scientific method employed to fingerprint a site and maintain the evidence for future generations.

I just wish he would publish the evidence quicker, even if not 100% final, so that other specialists can start to include in their thinking.

Jon Morris said...

Hi Chris. MPP seems to have a solid approach. Can't say I liked the Channel 5 doco that they did, but other than that the quality of the output has been very good.

"I just wish he would publish the evidence quicker, even if not 100% final, so that other specialists can start to include in their thinking."

Not so sure Chris. Based on everything we've discussed above, I don't see any rush to any of this. I wish it were otherwise.

Jon

BRIAN JOHN said...

"Scientific method"?? "Solid approach" ??? "The quality of the output has been very good"? What output? Answer: A few popular talks for non-specialists, and a few mentions in popular archaeo journals. No interim reports and nothing, in four years, in a peer-reviewed journal.

Excuse me, chaps, but have we all forgotten what science is? What we have seen at Rhosyfelin is methodical and meticulous recording, and the application of modern technology, but that does NOT make the dig scientific. That makes the dig technically competent -- we hope. Over and again on this blog I have tried to uphold respect for good science -- and a good scientist does not announce his results as soon as a project starts and then spend the next 4 years desperately trying to confirm a ruling hypothesis while refusing to even consider alternative explanations of the "evidence" being turned up...... that is not the way to rewrite text books.

The principles of good science apply whether you are in the field or in the lab.

Jon Morris said...

"Excuse me, chaps, but have we all forgotten what science is? What we have seen at Rhosyfelin is methodical and meticulous recording, and the application of modern technology, but that does NOT make the dig scientific. That makes the dig technically competent -

Wasn't thinking of Rhosyfelin Brian. I have to admit that the site doesn't interest me that much. But, so far, what's been published by MPP in other areas has been very good. Exception was the doco but I guess that you can't control how TV people put stuff over.

Wait to see what happens I guess. But as far as archaeology is concerned, there would be no reason to rush even if he had something special to show us: There isn't sufficient interest in the topic to justify the costs.