Saturday, 12 July 2014

Hookerian Junk Science (part two)


To continue the discussion of a coiney writer's concept of what archaeological context is and is not, we need to refer back to Friday's post on the Past Times and present tensions (sic) blog:'The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 3: Influences' Friday, 11 July 2014. Mr Hooker does most of his reading on the internet, but I suspect he has a paper copy of two books, which he cites (the same bits of) over and over again, and he's been doing it now for fifteen years, one is Colin Haselgrove's 'Iron Age Coinage in South-East England: The Archaeological Context', Oxford, 1987 and the other is Haselgrove's 'Iron Age coinage and archaeology', [in] Celtic Coinage Britain and Beyond, BAR British Series 222, 1992). So these pop up repeatedly in his blog. The post under discussion is no exception. Hooker says that Haselgrove proposes a method whereby one can "dig up a thought" (actually that's not what the cited author says at all). So he launches off into the text:
"On their own, a collection of Iron Age coins from a particular site can only tell us so much It is commonplace among numismatists that to interpret particular features of a given collection, we need a knowledge of the normal pattern of coin losses found on sites in the region. Many questions will be better phrased in relative terms, specifically, what kind of similarities and differences do we find in the coin lists from different types of sites in a given circulation area or with sites occupied at different times? When we find a case of marked departure from the normal pattern, this gives us something on which to base our interpretation of the material [...]"
Hooker suggests that "the same method can be used, equally as effectively, for other objects. Essentially, we designate an archaeological site as an object, and then compare this object with similar objects [...]". Hooker says that it is only "the less perceptive [who] have claimed that archaeology is all about the context of objects within a single site".

Obviously his intent is to trash the arguments raised that looting to supply the antiquities market is trashing sites and destroying context, which in turn is damaging our ability to use the finds as archaeological evidence.  Wayne Sayles attempts (June 23, 2014, 4:26 pm) to lecture archaeologists on "how to do archaeology" and on it being suggested that he really ought to try and find out more about what archaeology actually is about before basing his remonstrations on a totally inaccurate picture retorts that he's in his "50th year as a numismatist" and thus the suggestion that he is mistaken in his thinking about stratigraphic analysis "is rather humorous" (June 24, 2014, 3:30 pm). In the same way, his collecting pal Hooker is arguing that context within a site is unimportant, what archaeology "should" he says (quoting Haselgrove out-of-context as his guru) be studying is the differences between whole (loose) site assemblages.

The first point is that most finds (even in the UK) which "surface" (from "underground"?) on the no-questions-asked market are without a provenance any more detailed than the name of a country - if that. Look at V-coins for example. Even dealers such as Timelines give at best a county. There really is no sense at all Hooker banging on about how allegedly 'superior' inter-site comarisons of whole assemblages are over stratigraphically analysed assemblages if the very market he intends to justify routinely discards even that information as part of its current business practices.

Now actually I think Hooker is totally wrong. Take two Roman sites I've worked extensively in, Wroxeter and Colchester. One of them has pre-[Roman] Conquest activity with lots of lovely imported pottery, both of them had mid first century military phases, then one became a colonia and cult centre, the other developed as a town, both had their economic ups and downs, both had quarters which differed from each other in function and  opulence (Wroxeter more than Colchester) and extramural areas of different character, the ends of both towns was a complex process, and the subsequent fate in the 'Dark Ages' was different. Its just a total nonsense to take a skip of loose Roman finds from the west end of the Hight Street in Colchester and attempt to compare them with anything else, let alone a skip of loose finds from the west side of Wroxeter - down by the river. Yes, there will be similarities (the same terra sigillata and Spanish amphoras no doubt, and coins of the same periods in much the same quantities and with the same range of mintmarks) and differences (the fabric of the roof tiles and the  cooking pots, and the earlier mortarium suppliers will differ, but there will be Oxford products as well). Take it from me, none of this will make any sense until you use their stratigraphic and spatial context to work out which finds are related to the second century activities and layers (and what they are, and how the finds assemblage within them is composed) and which those of the 360s. As an archaeologist with several decades of experience behind me analysing precisely such relationships, experience which Mr Hooker lacks, I cannot see on what grounds the polemicist could dispute that.

In the same way comparing the finds from two Late Bronze Age "objects" (sites) with each other in the way Hooker suggests makes absolutely no sense without taking into account the internal context of the finds. For example the fact that one of them produces 634 iron nail fragments would produce some rather odd interpretations of the "significance of the site" if it ignores the fact that the site also produced 35 kg of pegtile fragments and 14th century pottery from the same features as the nails.

Even the coin assemblages Hooker insists on basing all his general interpretations on are not at all that simple. Anomalies like this have been studied in Roman numismatics in Britain since the 1970s (much of the work done by Richard Reece and now see Philippa Walton's work). These site profiles cannot be interpreted 'blind' (or if they are, they are next to useless as archaeological information), one has to know something about context of deposition (and discovery) to base any kind of interpretation of a coin list. The more detailed that information is, the more cognitive possibilities are offered. Even here, destruction of context is destruction of knowledge. That is what the PAS is all about.
  
 Flat denial of the importance of context for the interpretation of archaeological finds assemblages (when really we should be talking, anyway of the importance of stratified finds assemblages in the interpretation of archaeological sites) in the way Hooker attempts here is another example of the Flat Earth Attitudes David Knell perceives in the collecting community. Debating with people with those sort of attitudes is not going to get anyone anywhere (ever tried debating 'Creationism'?).

[Once again Hooker returns to his leitmotif of the dating of a brooch from the Ferrybridge chariot burial presenting it as the prime evidence that he is cleverer than all the world's archaeologists put together see here. Pathetic.]
 

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