Sunday, 30 December 2018

The Archaeological Values of the PAS Database (VII): 'Being Old and Being There', it's Enough

The FLOs continue their predictable artefactual dumbdown in the post-Christmas social media as we head towards a new year. The Durham incumbent follows suit with a twitter post joyfully showcasing an artefact temporarily on his desk:  'A ferry token issued by the River Wear Commissioners in c.1900. The ferry crossed the River Wear at Sunderland, between Bodlewell Lane (pictured below) an Monkwearmouth for over 250 years until the closure of the route in 1957'. So we have a picture of a round disc with writing on it and an historical engraving showing some waterfront lane with steps and some folk history taken from a local website. To my mind this is another example of how the PAS presents to the public loose artefacts as illustrations of history, ignoring their function as components of archaeological evidence. So, I wrote that. I asked for clarification: is this archaeological outreach, or using objects to illustrate history? In what way can the object recorded here on a database be used for proper archaeological research?'

The FLO glibly replied 'this token is material evidence of past human activity recovered from an archaeological context, from a historical period for which we also have documentary and pictorial evidence to complement the archaeological record'. But no archaeological record is represented anywhere in the social media post or database record. Both are typical examples of 'scissors and paste' show-and-tell. As I said, the artefact is used as a passive illustration, rather than actively used as a source. We are shown a piece of metal found loose in a field 100 km away from the ferry crossing. How and when it got there are unknown, what it can tell us about that ferry, or anything else is negligible. But it can be used so the finds volunteer can entertain herself by looking it up in the existing literature and telling us what she found out. Show-and-tell.

As for my comment about it being used as an illustration, we got a tantalising glimpse into the FLO mindset and approach to archaeological inference in the next comment:

But don't all archaeological finds have that dual purpose, both illustrating the archaeological record and being sources in their own right? I don't necessarily see a conflict here.
Archaeological finds comprise part of the archaeological record, they do not 'illustrate' it. It is the job of the PAS to turn loose objects into a component of the archaeological record, not merely illustrate it. The latter is what coin collectors do. And indeed if you search eBay or coin collecting websites, you'll find more of these tokens with exactly the same kind of narrativisation about what they were, where they were used as the Durham FLO offers us. Here the PAS merely duplicates what is already online on coiney websites. Again, that is not the function the PAS was set up to serve. 

The FLO says he sees 'no conflict' between the collection-driven approach and the archaeological one to artefacts. I do. What he says begs the question of what for an FLO 'the archaeological record' actually is? What constitutes it? And when is a pile of loose things not archaeology? Is the George Ortiz Collection (or Christian Levett's private museum in Mougins) 'archaeology' for the FLO? Addressing that gets him even deeper into the object-centred swamp.

For me personally, the archaeological record is everything that has gone before, whether a bronze age burnt mound or a 1960s concrete park bench, 1970s plastic cotton reel or Neolithic flint scraper (Not to say I don't find some things more interesting than others)
When  I said that he'd not answered the question posed, was just talking of 'things' and pressed further I asked: 'What makes a record a record? Just "being old and there"? Is an antique shop or car boot sale also 'the archaeological record', the subject of archaeological research and conservation protection?' I got a rather surprising reply:
'Being old and being there' is a pretty good description of the archaeological record. And yes, it's possible (but not always the case) that boot sales and antique shops may be part of that record. Context, as ever, is key.
'Being old and being there' is William Camden and Jonathan Oldbuck. Frankly, I do not see a box of loose metal items in a car boot as any kind of context that would allow the use of those items (the box, its contents and the vehicle) as any meaningful  'archaeological record' at all that would tell us about the sites those artefacts were randomly ripped from and mixed in that box. I doubt (hope) that the Durham FLO does not either and that he's not entering data onto the database with that kind of pseudo-context. 

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.