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Sunday 23 May 2021

The isotope analysis debate gets vicious


Thanks to Jon for drawing attention to this, published just a few days ago.  

A veritable confusion: use and abuse of isotope analysis in archaeology
Richard Madgwick, Angela Lamb, Hilary Sloane, Alexandra Nederbragt, Umberto Albarella, Mike Parker Pearson & Jane Evans

Archaeological Journal, 18 May 2021

The expansion of isotope analyses has transformed the study of past migration and mobility, sometimes providing unexpected and intriguing results. This has, in turn, led to media attention (and concomitant misrepresentation) and scepticism from some archaeologists. Such scepticism is healthy and not always without foundation. Isotope analysis is yet to reach full maturity and challenging issues remain, concerning diagenesis, biosphere mapping resolution and knowledge of the drivers of variation. Bold and over-simplistic interpretations have been presented, especially when relying on single isotope proxies, and researchers have at times been accused of following specific agendas. It is therefore vital to integrate archaeological and environmental evidence to support interpretation. Most importantly, the use of multiple isotope proxies is key: isotope analysis is an exclusive approach and therefore single analyses provide only limited resolution. The growth in isotope research has led to a growth in rebuttals and counter-narratives. Such rebuttals warrant the same critical appraisal that is applied to original research, both of evidence for their assertions and the potential for underlying agendas. This paper takes a case study-based approach focusing on pig movements to Neolithic henge complexes to explore the dangers encountered in secondary use of isotope data.

The abstract looks innocuous enough, since it does not mention anybody by name, but it is actually a full-on and rather vicious attack on the authors of this paper:
Barclay, G. J., and K. Brophy. 2020. “‘A Veritable Chauvinism of Prehistory’: Nationalist Prehistories and the ‘British’ Late Neolithic Mythos.” Archaeological Journal 1–31. doi:10.1080/00665983.2020.1769399.

.... and a forthright defence of this one:
Madgwick, R., A. L. Lamb, H. Sloane, A. J. Nederbragt, U. Albarella, M. Parker Pearson, and J. A. Evans. 2019a. “Multi-isotope Analysis Reveals that Feasts in the Stonehenge Environs and across Wessex Drew People and Animals from Throughout Britain.” Science Advances 5 (3)

I have read through the new article, and am intrigued.  I guess a "robust defence" of the isotope analysis research was inevitable — and Barclay and Brophy would have expected it.  MPP, Madgwick and Co have clearly worked long and hard on this — but it's far nastier than I anticipated! On a quick reading, it's a classic defence based on a lot of selective citations and much nit-picking on the minor details of phraseology.  It sometimes assumes meanings or intentions that were not necessarily there. It pulls in a lot of additional isotope analytical detail, claiming that it supports the points originally made by Madgwick, Evans and others (and then questioned by Barclay and Brophy) but it is difficult here to see the wood for the trees, and does not invalidate the point made by the Scottish duo that the presented evidence of "feasting connections" did not support the 2019 conclusions.

It is clearly the intention of the authors of this new article to demonstrate that Barclay and Brophy have "abused" the isotope analyses done by Madgwick, Evans, Lamb and others.  In other words, they are accused of not really understanding it.  Well, that's a bit rich, since in my view the actual evidence presented in the "isotope analyses" papers was abused by the researchers themselves when they over-interpreted and misrepresented what it was showing.  They claim that they simply "used" the evidence --  but that's not the way I saw it!

The whole article seems to me rather disingenuous, and fails to properly address the central point of Barclay and Brophy’s paper, which was that the isotope dating specialists have been seeing everything through a Stonehenge-centred lens instead of seeing the island of Great Britain as one with a high-density traffic map, with multiple centres generating and accepting traffic from elsewhere. And I think it’s a bit rich for Madgwick et al to now claim that the media has “inflated” or misinterpreted their ideas and their press releases. One’s heart bleeds for them! They need to get real. They are the ones who write the press releases, designed for maximum media impact and coverage. They manipulate the media and manufacture myths, and know exactly what they are doing…….

Richard Madgwick, the lead author of the new article

As readers of this blog will know, I have had a go at Richard Madgwick and his friends a few years ago,  2017 - 2019:

I found most of the isotope analysis work deeply unsatisfactory and unconvincing, and I was not alone in saying this. I also thought that the points made by Barclay and Brophy (with reference to Scotland) were eminently sensible -- although I was more concerned about some of the dodgy things being said about the "Welsh connection" by the isotope analysis team.  See here:

This one will run and run….


Jon Morris said...

It's a bit unfortunate, this Madgwick paper. It suffers from a major interpretational problem. Several of the people I've chatted to (about that issue) have remarked that they were surprised it got through peer review.

Probably best to see what Barclay and Brophy's response is. But.... Wow!

BRIAN JOHN said...

B+B will certainly be on the warpath. From comments on Twitter, they feel that this is a bit of gratuitous character assassination designed to destroy their academic reputations. I can see where they are coming from.......

Jon Morris said...

They will. Can't see Madgwick surviving this.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Madgwick is not alone -- there are two quite senior figures in the author list -- Parker Pearson and Evans. They have to share joint responsibility for every word in the article. They may live to regret their involvement..........