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Friday, 21 October 2016

Archaeology and the fog of corporate delusion



Over the past week or so there has been vast coverage in the media for the latest big archaeology story -- namely the decision to axe Archaeology as an A level subject.  Tweets galore from the great and the good, TV personalities up in arms, petitions, letters of protest, and statements from professors galore to the press and the broadcasters.   Of course it is an absurd move by the government and the one examination board that was offering an Archaeology A level exam course --  but a part of me thinks that archaeology has had it coming, since it clearly does not know what sort of subject it really is. 

There are hordes of excellent archaeologists out there, doing meticulous and highly specialised work -- but the obsession with the media that we see in some quarters, and the propensity of senior archaeologists (those who are featured heavily on this blog) to be more concerned with storytelling than with careful evidence-based science has really brought into question the academic standards of archeology departments in our universities.  Over and again on this blog I have asked the question "Whatever happened to scholarship, and whatever happened to the scientific method?"  One can argue that both have gone down the drain because of the activities of a few very high profile individuals whose fantasies seem to get more colourful with every year that passes. Too many wild goose chases and too little quiet, systematic fieldwork.

The spat over the so-called "bluestone quarries" is a case in point, and over the past six years we have seen one fantastical story after another thrown into the public domain, on the basis of "evidence" which simply does not withstand scrutiny.  Not only does the quarrying hypothesis fail to stand up under pressure, but those who are proposing it and selling it to the media completely refuse to admit that there are alternative explanations for the things which they consider to be "engineering features".  By all accounts, Prof MPP does not even mention the glacial transport theory, or the criticisms of the quarrying theory, when he gives his "bluestone quarry" talks.  That is disrespectful and unscientific -- and I am frankly surprised that he gets away with it as often as he does.  The whole world knows that there are two theories about bluestone transport, but MPP apparently does not............

If I was a Government minister responsible for education, I think I might well consider that the version of archaeology apparently being practised and promoted by these senior academics (with the aid of substantial research grants) is not really worth bothering about, since it seems to have more to do with fairy tales, myths and creative writing than it does with scholarship and education.  It's all very well for the members of the archaeology establishment (and thousands of professional archaeologists) to rage against a short-sighted government and a philistine examination board, but until they call certain senior figures into line and stop all this storytelling nonsense, and all the premature ejaculations, their subject will not get much respect from anybody.

Another of the problems faced by Archaeology is that its high-profile individuals are lauded not just by the media but by local authorities including the Pembs Coast National Park Authority (PCNPA).  Every year MPP tells his wonderful tales to an adoring audience at the annual Archaeology Day lectures -- and he is doing it again this year on 26th Nov, with the title "Stonehenge's bluestone quarries at Craig Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog."  I wouldn't mind betting that he won't even mention the glacial transport theory, let alone consder the detailed criticisms made by John, Dyfed and me in the peer-reviewed literature.  PCNPA knows perfectly well that there is a dispute going on, but it prefers to ignore it too, since it is intent on flagging up the message that Pembrokeshire's prehistoric heritage is second to none.  It's called destination marketing...........

It's all a right old mess.  So here's my message to the Education Minister -- please bring back Archaeology as an A level subject, but not before its most prominent spokesmen can demonstrate that they have more respect for scholarship than they do for fantastical stories, press releases and media impact.

1 comment:

Jon Morris said...

"but a part of me thinks that archaeology has had it coming, since it clearly does not know what sort of subject it really is"

Aye. One major problem is that does not promote itself as having major social goals. At best the social aims are of minor importance and at worst negative.

For example, the argument that is often cited in support of archaeology is that it helps to increase tourism. Though this might be a reasonable economic argument, from a policy point of view it's not a brilliant idea for your main stated contribution to society to be one that directly encourages higher levels of resource depletion and climate change (via increased travel).

If you only needed cash turnover to justify an activity, some of the more colourful (and currently illegal) professions would all have high street outlets.

To get a good argument for a discipline, the focus should be on social goals followed by economic arguments showing how the profession could contribute. When you don't get your act together, the professional side of an activity becomes vulnerable. For example, A levels in the subject get cut and planning rules are modified to remove your contribution.