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Saturday, 4 September 2021

On research standards

Waun Mawn -- this might be an empty stone socket, but then again it might not be.  How usual, or unusual, are the features at Waun Mawn?  Usual equals boring, and there's no money in boring things.....  

Having been intrigued for some time by the research methods of the MPP team of quarry hunters / lost circle hunters, I have been checking on what the requirements may be for "good research" as specified by the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists.  I have been surprised by how loose it all is, leaving excavation teams with something best described as carte blanche to do whatever they like.

There are, however, recommendations / requirements for a Written Scheme of Investigation (WSI) or project design agreed by all relevant parties, as this is the tool against which performance, fitness for purpose, and hence achievement of standards, can be measured.  It's one thing to write a splendid "project design" document, but quite another for field methods or research standards to be properly assessed, especially since there seems to be no requirement for independent and external monitoring of performance.  As far as I can see, all monitoring of research procedures, evidence and interpretations is done internally by the "Stones of Stonehenge" team............... apart from occasional site visits by representatives of the National Park, Cadw and maybe Dyfed Archaeology to take a look at what is going on and to check that excavation pits are being dug in the places where they should be dug.

On the matter of field season reports, the requirements are pretty vague, but there is an expectation that at the end of every excavation season the following should be provided and made available to all interested parties.  Quote:

3.5.2  A post-excavation assessment report will normally contain:

1.  Introduction
a. scope of the project (e.g. sites involved)
b. circumstances and dates of fieldwork and previous work 
c. comments on the organisation of the report

2.  Original research aims

3.  Summary of the documented history of the site(s)

4.  Interim statement on the results of fieldwork

5.  Summary of the site archive and work carried out for assessment
a. site records: quantity, work done on records during post-excavation

b. finds: factual summary of material and records, quantity, range, variety,
preservation, work done during post-excavation assessment

c.  environmental material: factual summary of human and animal bone, shell and each type of sample (e.g. bulk organic, dendrochronological, monolith), quantity, range, variety, preservation, work done on the material during post-excavation assessment

d. documentary records: list of relevant sources discovered, quantity, variety,
intensity of study of sources during post-excavation assessment

6. Potential of the data

a.  a discursive appraisal of the extent to which the site archive might enable the data to meet the research aims of the project. Different classes of data should be discussed in an integrated fashion, sub-divided according to the research aims of the project

b. a statement of the potential of the data in developing new research aims, to contribute to other projects and to advance methodologies

7. A summary of the potential of the data in terms of local, regional, national and international importance.

Have there been any post-excavation field reports from this particular research team?  I haven't seen any, although the research has been going on for a decade.  If there are such reports lurking in dusty cupboards somewhere, why are they not in the public domain, given that peer review is deemed to be a good thing, and that public money has been spent in meeting project costs?

The draft layout for an assessment report is of course very similar to that expected of a research paper submitted to an academic journal.  Here I have to give credit to the geologists Rob Ixer and Richard Bevins, who do at least try to design their papers in a logical and approved fashion in the presentation and discussion of evidence -- even though they almost always spoil things on the final page by plugging the party line on quarrying and lost circles.  But the archaeology papers are something else.  

We can forget about the multiple articles in glossy popular mags like "Current Archaeology" and "British Archaeology" and invited chapters in books -- they are not peer reviewed, and are best seen as components of a marketing exercise.   These are the only three articles that matter -- all published in the journal "Antiquity", which is the journal of choice, for reasons that are all too apparent:

Those three articles are among the worst I have ever read, since they mix up evidence and interpretation in such a manner that it is impossible to unravel opinion from fact.  Further, in each paper the authors (including Ixer and Bevins) refuse to acknowledge that there are alternative explanations for anything, refuse to admit that their ideas are disputed in the literature, and refuse to cite any researchers and papers that say anything inconvenient. In each case the peer review process, if it ever did take place, has clearly been abused.

This brings me to another point.  In the Chartered Institute document referred to above, it says: 

"3.8.2    Subject to the post-excavation project design, the publication report should normally contain sufficient data and references to the project archive to permit interpretations to be challenged."

That guidance is comprehensively ignored, since data are nowhere recorded or presented objectively and impartially in a manner useful to somebody who might wish to consider alternative interpretations of either natural or man-made phenomena.  So the possibility of "challenge" is shut off, which is very handy indeed, for a site in a remote location and a pit that has already been backfilled......

There is one final point that springs to mind.  As I have noted over and again on this blog, it seems to be something of an obsession among archaeology researchers to demonstrate to the world how exceptional, spectacular and "astonishing" their excavated places actually are.  Places that are nondescript and boring don't grab the attention of the media and they don't get your university department higher up the research ranking ladder.  In truth, Rhosyfelin, Carn Goedog and Waun Mawn are all pretty boring locations that have turned up nothing of any great interest, archaeologically, but heaven forbid that anybody should ever admit that!  So in each case a fantastical narrative has to be invented to cope with the wildly inconvenient bits of evidence that have been unearthed.  

In geomorphology, when we find a new site or a sediment exposure we may wish to create a story for it, but the first thing we then do is try to find other sites that build up a regional picture and maybe verify -- or falsify -- our initial story or working hypothesis.   We are not that worried if our hypothesis is falsified -- gradually we work towards the truth.  Site A (like Abermawr) might be our "type locality" but control sites B, C, D and F are crucial in showing us how close we are to reconstructing a sensible sequence of events.  

I was interested to see that in the Chartered Institute advice there is no mention of control digs undertaken in order to show how "normal" or "abnormal" your initially excavated site may be.   So your initial site  -- in this case Rhosyfelin -- is cynically invested with huge artificial significance.  I have always argued that MPP and his colleagues cannot claim that ANYTHING at Rhosyfelin is unusual or important so long as they know nothing of other sites, in similar situations, in the Brynberian Valley.  I know there are funding and other practical constraints on control digs -- but I for one will not believe a word of what MPP and his colleagues say about anything at Carn Goedog, Rhosyfelin or Waun Mawn until they can show that the features they pretend to be so excited about really are significant in an archaeological sense.  

I suspect that they are quite disinterested in actually testing their ruling hypothesis, since they are not actually involved in scientific research but in the creation and promotion of yet another Stonehenge myth.

1 comment:

Tony Hinchliffe said...

I was "obliged" to study Statistics as part of both my Geography Honours Degree and also as part of a subsidiary First Year subject, Psychology. This helped me to understand the importance of statistical significance, which of course is inherent in what Brian writes here on research standards.