Saturday, 12 July 2014

"Good Read" or Gobbledygook? Deliberate Terminological Wire-Crossing by Coineys

Anas clypeata looks like some bits of
'celtic art'  but is not
As we can all observe, one tactic frequently adopted by artefact hunters, collectors and dealers to deflect attention from no-questions-asked dealings in material of unknown provenance is simply to try to discredit archaeology. This is because they see archaeology (and not general public opinion) as the only enemy of this kind of collecting, and they obviously feel that if they can demonstrate that archaeology is in some way worthless or disreputable, they are off the hook. The rest of us see this as an attempt to apply a two-wrongs argument. Thus it is that they try their best to see ways of achieving this, by accusing all archaeologists of being "artefact thieves", for example. Another tactic is calling them all "grave robbers". Or suggesting that all museum officials are corrupt and failing in the most basic duty of looking after the remains of the past (the 'quis custodiet' argument).

Particularly active in this field is Canadian coin collector John Hooker, who is continually trying to trash archaeologists and archaeology. He writes on "Past Times and Present Tensions" on a blog, where the present tensions are mainly of his own invention. He imagines he knows everything there is to know about both because he knows something about coins and "celtic art" (which he collects), has read a few Google books and half-digested them (the missing pages are a bit of an encumbrance I guess) and then, in long and unfocussed self-gratulatory texts, regurgitates a stream of waffle masquerading as arguments. Metal detectorists love his texts, they think that anything they cannot understand must be "really clever". The rest of us assess them as badly-written and lacking in elementary coherence and logic.  A typical example is his latest effort: The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 3: Influences Friday, 11 July 2014. The title is tacked on to a text which focuses on nothing, there are boars, lunar symbolism, Dr Who, King Arthur, shoveller ducks and a good deal of boasting. Having skipped butterfly-like from flower to flower he admits defeat trying to make sense of any of it:
Well, this post has gone on longer than I imagined it would yesterday. That's the problem with writing things "on the fly" or alla prima. I had thought that I would cover more. So this post is more about the nature of influences, not just in the material, but in the minds of those who look at it. 
Well, actually there is not, most of what he says is "looks like" speculation of no real value. My interest (if you can call it that) in the text is a sentence that is masked as an aside, but with the frequency it occurs in Mr H's writings is a principle leitmotif of his, and is one of the mantras of the no-questions-asked collectors. 
In recent years, artifact studies have been neglected to favour contextual archaeology and the less perceptive have claimed that archaeology is all about the context of objects within a single site. 
He goes on "you will not find much application of this method in archaeological reports and it is mostly seen in broader studies [...]". Working out what he means is pretty difficult as it is clear he has confused several half-understood things.

One of the central tenets of the real contextual archaeology (as defined by Hodder in his seminal 1986 book 'Reading the Past' pp 156-201) was that material culture was meaningfully constituted (a questionable thesis if applied generally to archaeological material I would say). This placed material culture studies at the centre of the study, comprising what has been called the 'material culture turn' (which in turn has attracted much attention here in Polish archaeology which for seventy years at least has been organizationally situated primarily as the study of material culture). Hooker is completely wrong stating "artefact studies have been neglected to favour contextual archaeology". I would rather say that it is the would-be polemicist with well-established archaeological methodology that is the one lacking in perception.

 A few posts back Hooker was banging on about how jolly post-modern he is and all those archaeologists were scientistic retards by comparison to his own homespun jungian polymathism ('In praise of metal detecting. 10. The big picture' Friday, 27 June 2014). So, we found him writing loosely about :
Survivors of the New Archaeology of the seventies when Science was going [to?] save all, have clung to one of it's (sic) last tenets: contextual archaeology. It was a technique (sic), untested and unscientific, that was supposed to deliver an objective "archaeological record"...
Now what's this all about? The term "contextual archaeology" has a specific meaning in methodology, and it seems to me that this is not the sense in which Hooker is using it here, can he mean stratigraphy? Perhaps that is the case, a few weeks earlier he had written ('Rethinking? -- part one', Monday, 18 November 2013), without really thinking it through, a ridiculous analogy which seems to support this idea:
imagine that a lost Da Vinci has been discovered in an attic. For a contextual archaeologist the only important thing to be studied is where, exactly, the painting was lying relative to the box of old Christmas decorations; the hideous vase from aunt Maude given as a wedding present; and some lumber scraps from a home renovation project that might come in useful one day.
Or there is this, referring to an item he added to his collection in Canada (Monday, 14 October 2013 Losing it: the myth of archaeological context in British early Celtic art). The "blogger" mentioned is myself, I really see why the inveterate name-dropper that Hooker is cannot bring himself to mention it:
one archaeology blogger [...] said: "a piece of datable metalwork as part of a specific site assemblage may have yielded information if that findspot was noted." While there is a very small chance that the comment was based on ignorance, I think it more likely to be part of a modern created myth. [...] Contextual archaeology has gained mythic status in recent years - far beyond its practical usefulness, but that might be a subject for some future post. For now, though, I want to focus on the real nature of context in British early Celtic art.
My comments on that, including pointing out then that Hooker was misusing (accidentally or deliberately) the term "contextual archaeology" can be found here: 'Context in Archaeology: A Collector Loses the Thread ' (Tuesday, 15 October 2013 ). For my earlier comments on the object from 29th July 2010 which he is still belly-aching about - and seems no nearer to publishing as promised see: 'Plastic Monsters and Death on a Collector's Unprovenanced Finial (part two)' and 'So that's what collectors do...', the latter also expressing reservations about the methodology behind speculative gobbledygook fantasising presented as an "artefactual" (art-history) approach. Hooker never addressed these reservations and never really discussed that "context" of his art-speculations (because there is none except in his own head).

Coming back to his original comment, Hooker claims that it is only my "ignorance" of something or other that makes me say that in archaeology context of deposition and context of discovery of archaeological evidence are important. He says that context is a "modern myth". No doubt this is why it's axiomatic in every single textbook of archaeology that he's never read. I have asked coin fondlers to tell us about the methodology of the '-ology' of heaps of decontextualised coins on a table apart from looking at the pictures and writing on them. No such '-ology' is ever described.

It is Hooker himself that is guilty here of myth-making in a futile attempt to trash the thinking behind the questioning of no-questions-asked collecting of unprovenanced archaeological artefacts. What he is doing is attempting to come to the aid of those who were doing the same thing on the Biblical Archaeology Society website ('Wayne' reckons archaeologists don't know how to do archaeology, 'John [Hooker]' likewise).* But in doing so, he gets hopelessly muddled, or perhaps his intent in reality is to introduce a hopeless muddle into the discussion to deflect attention away from the core issues.

* Note the appearance in this comment thread of the mysterious term "contextual objects" on the lips of a coin-dealer-in-denial (June 23, 2014, 4:26 pm) which I questioned, and now Mr Hooker attempts to fog the issue by introducing it into one of his own posts (to mean what the rest of us would call 'a site').   

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