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Friday 24 December 2021

Barclay and Brophy fight back..........

Stopping a juggernaut is not easy......

This gets more and more interesting.   It's been building up for the last decade or more -- a growing disquiet about the manner in which the Stonehenge area has been  flagged up as THE great symbol of Neolithic and Bronze Age civilisation in the British Isles.  The place to which everything gravitates, and the place to which tributes are due and homage has to be made.   One of the drivers of this Stonehenge juggernaut is Mike Parker Pearson, aided and abetted by many other senior archaeologists who have contributed to the development of an ever more elaborate Stonehenge / Durrington narrative.  And the Stonehenge team, backed up by the marketing power of English Heritage, have loved it, since the great British public, the media and visitors from abroad always have a soft spot for elaborate and heroic stories.  Stonehenge, one of the wonders of the world!  And the more the visitors pour into Stonehenge and nearby sites like Avebury, the louder becomes the ringing of the cash tills.........

Anyway, here is a brief summary of the lead-up to the latest published article:

Chapter One:

"Four Nations Prehistory": cores and archetypes in the writing of prehistory. Gordon Barclay, September 2019. In book: History, nationhood and the question of Britain (ed) Brocklehurst, Helen & Phillips, Robert'Four_Nations_Prehistory'_cores_and_archetypes_in_the_writing_of_prehistory

My take on it,  as a perfectly reasonable and well-argued paper:

Chapter Two:

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

Evans, J., Parker Pearson, M., Madgwick, R. et al. Strontium and oxygen isotope evidence for the origin and movement of cattle at Late Neolithic Durrington Walls, UK. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 11, 5181–5197 (2019).

My take on the article by Madgwick et al:
........ in addition to which I have made many other posts on the "over-interpretation" of the isotope evidence.

Chapter Three:

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.

My take on the article:

Chapter Four:

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

This was my take on this rather disingenuous, arrogant and insulting article:
I referred to this article as including "gratuitous character assassination", and I stick with that assessment.

Chapter Five:

The ‘omphalos of Britain’: iconic sites and landscapes, methodological nationalism and conceptual conservatism in the writing of ‘British’ prehistory. A reply to Madgwick and collaborators 2021.
December 2021
Publisher: Eligor Publishing
ISBN: ISBN 978-1-7397594-0-7

This is not the most media-friendly or eye-catching of titles for an article, but the contents are pretty explosive, since the authors are obviously very angry, and feel that they have been defamed.  They not only feel that the attack on them by Madgwick et al was unprofessional and unacceptable -- but that they have been "hung out to dry" by the very journal that published their 2020 article.  This is what Gordon Barclay said on his Twitter feed:


Dr Kenny Brophy (@urbanhistory) andI have published a paper on my website, at… .

This responds to an article published by Madgwick et al in May 2021, in the Archaeological Journal. 
The article we are responding to, by Madgwick et al (2021), is available here: […]. 
Madgwick et al (2021) presents itself as a response to an earlier article by Dr Kenny Brophy and myself published in 2020 […]. 
However, the article published by Madgwick et al 2021 avoids dealing with our key points, misrepresents what we had written and puts words in our mouths. It does this in language about us and our work that were astonished to find in a reputable peer-reviewed journal.
Specific accusations by Madgwick et al (2021) are, we are advised by counsel, defamatory. Concern has been expressed that such an ill-judged text got through refereeing and editing into print. 
A promise by @royalarchinst that we could publish a response to Madgwick et al (2021) was broken. Repeated requests by my solicitors that they reconsider this decision were rebuffed. A formal complaint to @tandfnewsroom, publishers of the journal¸ provided no redress. 
Our work has been misrepresented; our reputations have been attacked; our chance to reply to Madgwick et al (2021) has been summarily removed. We spent 3 months incurring significant legal costs to persuade the Royal Archaeological Institute to keep its promise. 
We spent another 3 months trying to get Taylor & Francis to find a solution. We decided that we could not continue to allow this attack on our motivations, ethics and competence to remain unchallenged. We have therefore published less formally. 
Our new article, we believe, also makes a significant contribution to the study of methodological nationalism and conceptual conservatism, and the part they play in the writing of ‘British’ prehistory from within the Wessex echo-chamber. 
We do not expect that it will have any effect on the progress of the ‘Stonehenge juggernaut’ but hope that others will not be put off challenging the ‘intractability of old national narratives of the past’. 

Like Barclay and Brophy, I am mystified by the attitude of the journal editors and publishers, and can only assume that they have been got at by the archaeological establishment in an attempt to maintain the party line on Stonehenge and Durrington, and to eliminate dissent.  There is a big issue here, which we will return to in due course.........

Anyway, this is the Abstract:

This paper in part responds to an article (Madgwick et al 2021) which in turn presented itself as a response to an earlier paper of ours (Barclay and Brophy 2020). But, like our earlier paper, this one has a wider remit. We had explored the presentation of the supposedly 'national' 'unifying' role of monuments in a geographically restricted sector of southwestern England-what we called the '"British" late Neolithic mythos'. Madgwick and his collaborators' response fails to address the key points raised in our paper and, in doing so, in our view, provides further evidence of both methodological nationalism and conceptual conservatism in continuing to present a prehistory written around and prioritising evidence gathered in this restricted area. It does this apparently without any recognition that that research is being carried on within a problematic theoretical framework.

So now we have three things highlighted by the authors:  interpretative inflation, methodological nationalism and conceptual conservatism.    Deep and heavy stuff.......

The new paper starts by listing the misinterpretations / misrepresentations by Madgwick et al (2021) of the main points of the original (2020) Barclay and Brophy article. I agree with them -- the writers of that "Response" were highly selective in their attack, and evaded the most important issues raised.  As B&B  point out:

".....our 2020 essay was a wide- ranging review which directly addressed the erection of the current mythos about the Stonehenge landscape and its supposed centrality in the ‘British’ Neolithic, which has been promulgated over some fifteen years in different media. We also offered a consideration of the problematic but unacknowledged issues caused for the writing of ‘British’ prehistory by some academics’ continued uncritical attachment to a narrative written, and a vision developed, from the narrow perspective of evidence produced from a part of south-western England. It has since been pointed out to us how this unrelenting aggrandisement of the position and significance of this small area may have affected the outcomes of funding applications and research assessment exercises."

There is some discussion of the Scottish Neolithic, which is also relevant to the Welsh Neolithic -- and I agree with the authors that the points made in their original paper were not overtly "nationalistic" but were made in a context of a discussion about the whole of Great Britain and the regional patterns of culture and development.  In the ongoing discussion of the isotope evidence, I agree with Barclay and Brophy that the conclusions drawn on the scantiest of "evidence" are wildly over the top -- and illustrate perfectly the overwhelming desire by Madgwick, Parker Pearson and others to prove their ruling hypothesis, come hell or high water. Their bias in both sampling and interpretation is something I have commented on in this blog over and again. "Conceptual conservatism" is defined as: "the disinclination to relinquish a preferred interpretation in the face of contradictory indications, or in this instance, to sustain and promote a preferred interpretation on slight foundations."  Spot on.

On pp 8-9 of the article there is a very effective demolition of the hypothesis of "the centrality of Wessex".  The authors say: "The promotion of the mythos is not the first time that authors of Wessex-focused prehistory have tried to foist their interpretative model upon the prehistory of the rest of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland on the twin foundations of limited data but strong belief, only for the whole thing to be quietly abandoned once contradictory data appear (Brophy 2015). We have in the first decades of this century emerged from a situation in which there were no known Neolithic houses in Wessex. This misconception was eventually overturned by excavation........"

There is an effective consideration of the way that the unconscious bias works in the "Wessex echo chamber", spilling over into mysticism, mythology, nostalgia, nationalism (and "Englishness") and politics.  

In a discussion of the role of the media, Barclay and Brophy make very similar points to those I have made on this blog over and again.  There is no point in Madgwick et al blaming the media for misrepresenting their ideas.  They are the ones who write the press releases,  promote "spectacular" headlines, and do the media interviews, and they must take full responsibility if there is any "inflation" of their claims. I agree with B&B that inflated and politically-charged lines of interpretation have been advanced by some of the researchers who have promoted the mythos of Stonehenge as the centre of all things.  They talk of "the relentless media boosting of the mythos that has been going on for more than a decade" -- and in my view they are again spot on.

There is an interesting section on Brexit (we can't escape from it) and B&B remind the reader that Madgwick and Parker Pearson have both been complicit in pushing the absurd idea of "a Neolithic Brexit" to the media.

There's more on "Broad Brush Prehistory", with the authors pointing out the dangers of using technological or cultural similarities between widely separated areas in order to reinforce a very dodgy core-periphery myth.

Their conclusion:

The Response (Madgwick et al 2021) avoids dealing with the main thrust of our critique: the ‘elephant in the room’ of English, British and even Irish archaeology. That is, the extent to which an almost mystical attachment to ‘our most precious and sacred’ landscape (Holland 2020) distorts the writing of prehistory across these islands. And the way in which complex and very far-reaching interpretations that happen to coincide with that world view are erected using, we would argue, unsatisfactory, certainly insufficient archaeological and scientific foundations. The Response does not address the neo- colonialist thinking that underpins that narrative and, oblivious, continues to provide examples of it (eg Response, 368, in relation to claims about ‘the whole of Britain’), as well as of vaguely apprehended, broad-brush treatment of prehistories outside the ‘core’. In fact, it seems the most likely legacy of this Response is to act as a warning to those who try to stand in the path of the ‘Stonehenge juggernaut’ – by mounting any challenge, however well-supported by evidence, against the ‘intractability of old national narratives of the past’ (Hanscam 2019, 1). In that respect, we hope that others will not be discouraged.

The Response claims that it is ‘an absurdity’ to link the people of Neolithic Britain to ‘contemporary political debate’, but we have demonstrated that this has in fact been done by at least some of its authors in the promotion of the mythos – the anachronistic idea of a prehistoric ‘British identity’ and ‘Brexit’, for example. Our positions and our arguments have been misrepresented or avoided; replies have been offered to caricatures of our points, rather than their substance; and words have been put in our mouths. In the process we have been accused of behaving dishonestly and unethically, our motivations and our professional standing and competence have been attacked in emotive and personal language we were astonished to find in a reputable academic journal. Indeed, counsel’s opinion is that some of the Response’s accusations are defamatory. Publication in a peer-reviewed journal, however, protects an author from any legal consequences. 

The writers of the Response make our points for us, that this strand of archaeological interpretation focused on Stonehenge, its hinterland, and the Wessex chalkland continues to operate in a theoretical vacuum, in which its wider historiographical, cultural and socio-political context are ignored or disregarded. It avoids any consideration of the impact of those places’ iconic status, the consequent distorting effects on the writing of ‘British’ prehistory, and the enduring appropriation of this manner of writing by the far right in Britain in the 20th and 21st centuries. It continues to see Britain (and in some
measure Ireland) beyond the study area (apart from Orkney of course) as an inadequately- defined, marginal ‘other’ from which to select things that however tenuously tie these ‘peripheries’ to their ‘core’.

Most importantly, the mythos demonstrates the damaging effects over many decades of methodological nationalism and conceptual conservatism, ignoring the effect that this world view has on the selection and interpretation of evidence and the construction of narratives: ‘pan-British centres’, round the ‘omphalos of Britain’, hosting ‘the first united cultural events of our island’ organised by people with ‘societal roles that were “national” in nature’, and promoting identity’ in the context of a ‘Neolithic Brexit’ belong in the time of Fox’s Personality of Britain (1943) and Hawkes’s A Land (1951), not 2021.


So there we are then.  No doubt this is not the end of this affair -- but Barclay and Brophy deserve the thanks of all who are interested in prehistory for tackling head-on -- in the politest possible terms -- the hugely damaging and unreliable mythology swirling around Stonehenge, invented and promoted by people who should know better.


I'm sorry that some of the links on this post do not seem to be working properly.  I'm trying to sort out what the problem may be........


Tony Hinchliffe said...

Shared with those on Facebook, interesting to see if there are any Comments.

Jon Morris said...

I don't know enough about the isotope issues to be able to comment on that. However, there were other fairly significant technical issues with the original Madgwick et al 2019 document.

The Barclay and Brophy paper of 2020 was not received well by Madgwick et al and, to some extent, I can see why they might have been miffed. Their intention, almost certainly, was not to produce a narrative that would be interpreted by others as Nationalist. It was, however, included in Barclay and Brophy's list of papers that might be used, by some, to support nationalist agendas.

However, the subsequent 2020 Madgwick et al paper seemed to double down. Rather than accept the, relatively minor, critique of unintentional effects of the narrative, their 2020 paper attempted both to discredit, and imply bad intent, on the part of Barclay and Brophy.

History is unlikely to look kindly on Madgwick et al.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, I agree with you, Jon. And I completely agree with Barclay and Brophy that those who develop elaborate myths and who seek gigantic headlines relating to "astonishing" discoveries cannot endlessly blame the media for misrepresenting them. They need to front up and accept ownership of the press releases that go out with their names attached to them.