Friday, 7 December 2018

Losing the 'Idea of Archaeology' II: The Foucault of Baz Thugwit?

George I shilling 1723 
with a story (Chards)
Yesterday, I commented on the manner in which an employee of the PAS was, instead of using archaeological finds as archaeological evidence, narrativising one of them (a misidentified George I shilling) as he would if he were a coin collector. The loose coin was used to illustrate history rather than as an independent piece of evidence from its own physical context and associations (undocumented it seems). In his use of the coin, the FLO was duplicating and reinforcing the collectors's treatment of archaeological artefacts as a vehicle for the emotional experience of holding 'a piece of the past in your hands' - making something that for those 'challenged by formal education' is an abstract concept tangible, graspable. In this, the whole notion of how we use archaeological data is lost, and I think this should be a matter of concern and discussion.

I likened this approach (relating trophy items from the past to a 'kings and battles' scenario) to the concept - coined years ago by R.G. Collingwood - of 'scissors and paste history', which is what this is. This is what the FLO was doing with that artefact (and habitually does with others in his recent social media outreach, such as here last night). As such, I think this is part of the phenomenon of  how we as archaeologists currently go about projecting archaeological values to the public, and that is a topic I think needs constant review and should be the topic of wider and more intense discussion.

The FLO in question merely saw this as the opportiunity to continue the irrational vendetta he has against this blog and, it seems, this blogger. So instead of talking bout public archaeological outreach he first tries an ad hominem, saying that my post is the product of:
...or 'archaeologist' with a processual 1970 mindset uses Culture History to accuse PAS/FLO of Antiquarianism....
(see the update to my earlier post for my brief discussion of that attempt to brush aside the question). He seems to think that a habit identified by a historian seventy years ago will have ceased to be relevant today (sadly people are still writing in the way Collingwood noted). What is more interesting, however, is the long twitter development of that attempt to insultingly label me as some kind of conceptul dinosaur, where the Durham FLO apparently tries to establish his own credentials as a 'post-processualist' by quoting 1960s Foucault (!) and then adding his own FLO mumbo-jumbo. This is quite interesting as a specimen of text where a PAS attempts to rationalise what they do in collaboration with artefact hunters. Such texts are in fact rare in the literature, so it is worth attention.

This is what he wrote, together with a chunk screenprinted from Chapter 3 of an English translation of Foucault's 'Archaeology (sic) of knowledge'  (p. 49 here talking of the formation of objects of knowledge).This is compiled verbatim from four Friday evening tweets on (here, here , here and here) - punctuation as in the original, I have only added an inline link to Deckers et al:
love this bit of the 'archaeology of knowledge' particularly: [The object] "... does not pre-exist itself..." etc., Strikes me that this can be contextualised within the 'zero-gain'/cultural damage arguments of Deckers, Lewis et al in that it is only by applying to these liminal objects, and understanding them through the prism of, the complex of relationships that comprise the 'discursive formation' of Archaeology (of which PAS is in this sense a facilitatory element): 'zero-gain' is thus a potentiality of persistant liminality; cultural damage occurring only through cognisant dispossession of objects of their physical context, and thus consequent failure to become a discursive component or archaeological 'find' Speaking very personally, I'm not sure i completely concur, as while failure to report to the PAS, to enable that discursive transition, may not always be an abrogation it is arguably at least, a derogation of that liminal potentiality
Now I sincerly doubt (a) that the FLO would get anywhere at all speaking to the average member of the British public about archaeology (and non-recording) in such an utterly uncommunicative way, and (b) that the FLO actually believes what he himself wrote here. I  (c) would also question whether he has actually understood Foucault at all (which to save space here, I'll not go into in any detail as it is marginal to the question the FLO raised about Deckers et al.).

It should however be noted that the Durham FLO, Benjamin Westwood, confusingly conflates above the philosophical concept of 'object of knowledge' (used throughout Foucault's work of this period using clinical psychology as an example) with the physical things the FLO himself works with ('objects'). So it is either a play with words or just complete confusion that leads him to use the quote from chapter three as an excuse for not seeing collection-driven exploitation of the archeological record as a destructive activity.

Westwood's approach (like that of many of the FLOs as well as supporters of the private collection of archaeological artefacts like postage stamps) is 'object centred' [which I term 'antiquitism']. But the whole point is the 'object of knowledge' for archaeology - as in clinical psychology - is not merely the description of the symptoms, but the attempt to describe the underlying causes. The coin is a symptom, and not a past process in itself.

And it is indeed true in archaeology (as in clinical psychology) that the object of knowledge "does not pre-exist itself..." and is constructed - but the artefacts which are part of the basis of the evidence used to create a picture of that object do, of course. In the case of the loose collectables that have been hoiked by a collector from the archaeological record, by the time they reach their personal artefact stash, they have lost their ability to be part of the evidence on the basis of which that object [of knowledge] can be attained. That is the problem of artefact hunting that is discussed, among other places, in this blog.

To label a loose random artefact hoiked from the patterning of its physical asocitions in the archaeological record a 'liminal object of knowledge' seems to me to be a perverse twisting by the FLO, attempting to rationalise his (own and institutional) partnership with exploitive and destructive collectors, of the nature of the object of knowledge that archaeological methodology strives for. Getting artefacts themselves out of the ground may be the rationale in the 'let's see wot I kin find today'  ideology of the artefact hunt, but the goal of archaeoological use of the record is - always, surely - somethng else.

The Ixelles Six/Helsinki Gang ('Deckers, Lewis et al') argued that artefact hunting that does not report what has been taken is not 'cultural damage' as the rest of us think (and indeed was the rationale for setting up a PAS in the first place) but that it is merely 'zero-gain' (sic). They do not see it as a depletion of the archaeological record. I find that in itself pretty inexplicable. To take a simple pattern (like this closed deposit - right) , I do not think (would hope) there is not anyone reading this blog that is unaware of the information value at many levels of the proper documentation of the context of deposition of the individual artefacts in that deposit and in relation to other phenomena in that deposit. That is archaeological evidence and its methodological dissection, observation and recording is what differentiates archaeology from mere relic-hunting. On the left of the figure is the deposit, on the right the two boxes show what happens to it in Collection-Driven Exploitation. First the actual deposit is damaged by detectorist Baz Thugwit's removal and pocketing of those artefacts to which he took a fancy for his collection. The deposit is riddled by holes (which may or may not be entirely visible upon any excavatione artefacts) and what is left behind is not only depleted of random pieces of associated evidence, but also the deposit itself is damaged by this clumsy disturbance. This makes it impossible to read - the object of knowledge cannot be attained. But over in Baz's home is an (unlabelled) box of 'stuff'.  That's the box on the far left. There's a bit of skull (he calls it "skully the skelly" when he pulls it out of its box with a flourish to impress his mates and scare the little kids he invites upstairs to see it. There are some copper alloy finds (top row). But most detectorists have their machines set to filter out iron signals, and many when they find the brownish lumps of corroded crud throw them into the hedge and do not take them home even, so some of the metal objects that were in that context (bottom row) may not be in Baz's box. Metal detectors detect metal, and not bone, stone or glass (two middle rows). If Baz had grubbed around a bit he might have hoiked out some, or more of the glass beads, the 'cool' bone/antler comb or whatever.

I think however that you get the picture, Baz's box tells us very little about the  context of deposition (obliterated by the nature of the context of discovery) of that archaeological assemblage, and the actual remains of that archaeological assemblage are rendered illegible. (I've used a grave here as a readily understandable example to make the point, but the same goes for removing randonm finds from a patterned surface scatter.) I do not see that as in any way 'zero gain', I see that as wanton destruction, just the same as if someone had cut up a thousand-year old illuminated manuscript ('boring prayers') for the sake of the coloured pictures in some of the initials to display on the wall. Destruction, and nothing else. To be frank, I really cannot see how one could convince oneself that from the point of view of the object of knowledge implicit in 'doing archaeology' that it can honestly be seen as anything else.

That is why I would characterise the FLO's attempt to dismiss these concerns as largely mumbo-jumbo that misses the point (apart from the fact that as I noted above, he misconstrues what was meant in the source text he uses by the word 'object'). Here he attempts to 'foucaultise' the position of Deckers et al. on 'zero-gain':
"it is only by applying to these liminal objects , and understanding them through the prism of, the complex of relationships that comprise the 'discursive formation' of Archaeology (of which PAS is in this sense a facilitatory element): 'zero-gain' is thus a potentiality of persistant liminality; cultural damage occurring only through cognisant dispossession of objects of their physical context, and thus consequent failure to become a discursive component or archaeological 'find'[.]"
I would question whether the object-focussed approach of the PAS as it exists today actually is anywhere near a 'facilitatory element' that brings its audience (the public) to an understanding of even the basic elements of archaeological discourse (especially if it is going to express itself in such wording as Westwood uses above). The cultural damage caused by artefact hunting (Collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record) is not (pace Deckers et al and now FLO Westwood) merely the 'potentiality of persistant liminality' (ie, in normal language, non-recording), but precisely in the very cognisance of not only the 'dispossession of objects of their physical context' and their 'consequent failure to become a discursive component or archaeological 'find'. Above all, the problem with what the rest of the world (both archaeologists and the public) has no qualms calling looting (and its cognate terms such as 'Raubgrabung') is that it  is the deliberate (cognisant if you like) 'dispossession of the physical context of its integrity, and some of its elements' - and whether or not the physical objects (finds) resulting from that destruction are in some sketchy database divorced from unobserved information about their original physical context, they consequently have been deliberately prevented from being any kind of 'a discursive component' in any but the most simplistic archaeological analysis of the deposit and site they came from.

Mr Westwood then goes on, he says, to disagree with the position of Deckers et al.
while failure to report to the PAS, to enable that discursive transition, may not always be an abrogation it is arguably at least, a derogation of that liminal potentiality
But in fact, it seems to me that - using different words - Mr Westwood is saying more or less the same as the Ixelles Six did. So I really do not know how he thinks he does not 'completely concur', when his version is the same as theirs. But anyway, let us turn to what he says, he claims that pocketing of random collectable artefacts by artefact hunters is somehow a derogation of 'their' 'liminal potentiality'. To do what? At a detecting club meeting ner Durham, Baz Thugwit shows his mates and the visiting FLO a tenth century strapend he found when detecting one weekend with his mate 'Scotty' near the latter's distant island home a few weeks earlier. It was once in the place marked '10' on the figure above, we have a location accurate to a metre square  ('X marks the spot'). I'd like to know the FLO's view on what archaeological 'potentiality' that loose find has. Maybe Mr Westwood will take up the archaeological discourse he's started and now finish taking us through how that 'liminal potentiality' of the little piece of corroded metal proffered in Baz's outstretched hand can now be in real archaeological terms. Can he?

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