Wednesday 25 July 2012

The BST Archaeology of the PAS

It probably is pretty uncontroversial to state that British archaeology is among the most developed and dynamic forms of the discipline in the world, even compared with those that at various times have led the field in previous decades. In the past half century, we have gone from a discipline with its own strong traditions of fieldwork through the theoretical developments associated first with the debates around Processualism, and especially Post-Processualism and beyond. These are among the factors that give British archaeology its strength, dynamism and identity. It would not be unjustified therefore to expect to see that reflected in the way Britain's biggest archaeological outreach project presents the discipline to the public. The public whose past it is, and who pay for archaeologists to do archaeology with it. So what kind of "archaeology" was presented to the British public in seven hours of prime-time TV by the British Museum's Portable Antiquities Scheme?

It has to be said a rather antiquated form, a retro-archaeology, whose forays beyond the artefact-centric normative empiricism consisted mainly of wild speculative "what if" narratives unsupported by any presentation of the inferences (if any) behind them. An 'anything goes' approach which almost might be said takes the discipline right back to William Stukely. Making the presenters strut about the forecourt of the columned old BM a befitting place to present such an atavistic vision of the discipline.

The objects very clearly were being used throughout the programme to provide illustrations for a "what it was like in those days" history, a history already derived from the written records, rather than in many cases as a source of historical knowledge in their own rights. In the cases when an attempt was made to present the latter, it was where the object involved (the Kentish stater, the Domitianus II coin) had writing on it. Furthermore the "history" being presented was very much a "kings and battles" version; object after object was linked with the name of a king, prince or saint. Hoards were interpreted as buried as a result of military activity, it was "soldiers" who dropped or deposited many things, the "here's another picture of grown men playing Roman/Dark Age/Medieval soldiers" motif was ever-present.

The PAS is very fond of applying ethnic labels to finds in a manner that would have warmed the cockles of the heart of Gustav Kossinna and is still the basis for provincial museum displays in Germany. But this totally ignores a whole load of discussions that have been going on since at least the 1960s (1950s over here) about the material correlates of identity. A piece of metalwork with scrollwork ornament of a certain style does not  make the person who used it and deposited it in the ground a "Viking", yet this is the sort of labelling that goes on all the time in the PAS records, and it was glibly trotted out in the discussion of portable antiquity after portable antiquity.

A lot of the information (I use the term loosely) provided in the discussion of the items shown on the programme was at best what Polish theoretician of historical source Jerzy Topolski called "extra-source information", at worst mere speculation. At no point of the programme was anything presented which showed the process of archaeological inference, or the testing of hypotheses, the manner in which the discipline goes about building a picture of the past. Just the glib presentation of "this is what the experts say" story. At times this was presented by an invited celebrity as "this is what I've discovered" [archaeology for all, anyone can do this] - the Brian Blessed sequence springs to mind here, which confused the issue even more I feel. 

Another fave technique of the PAS (which it also shares with Gustav Kossinna and his school) is the dot distribution map. Sadly we saw none of them in the programme. The distribution of 'celtic coins' is a frequently cited and easily legible example (and the BST presentation of the Hallaton finds for example would have been an ideal vehicle for using this) - though sceattas or "Viking" metalwork would work equally well. But we know from their annual reports that the PAS has been doing a lot of work with fieldwalking flint collectors (in Wales in particular) and it is a shame that nobody thought of using as a "treasure" a well-recorded assemblage of finds from an area recovered by gridded fieldwalking to show the extent and activity areas within sites recovered through systematic collection of data from surface contexts. We saw none of that, not even when the blokes were hoiking finds assemblages out at Piercebridge did we see anyone documenting where the material was coming from. Surely the whole point of the PAS is awakening the attention of "finders" to the importance of findspot and associations, and how is this to be done by just showing hoiked out stuff with no attention paid to spatial context? This only serves to reinforce the picture the programme already established that archaeology is just about getting 'interesting things' out of the soil, to look at and narrativise in their own right.

The Scheme also seems to be firmly embedded in a positivist mindset, the quality of data is not as important as their sheer quantity (parodied on this blog by the phrase: "wotta lotta stuff"). According to such a world-view, the 'truth' will be revealed by accumulating vast numbers of repetitive data, irrespective of the manner in which they are collected, irrespective of the aims of those producing these data through their exploitation of the archaeological resource. The assumption is made that all people producing these data are in it 'for the love of history' which provides a 'common ground' which should reduce the need for any discussion of methodological issues. That this is not so has been manifest for the last dozen years or so, yet only recently has the PAS decided to actually take a look (through two post graduate research projects) at the aspirations and working methods of artefact hunters whose activities are responsible for producing the data they extract. This is despite the fact that the question of sampling strategies and data gathering and retention as well as source interpretation have long been topics of discussion and debate in British archaeology (and in a different form central European archaeology for much longer). 

Finally, and this is something that might be more apparent from the outside than to those sitting in the middle of it all, I was dismayed at the amount of jingoistic nationalist sentiments inserted into some of the narratives. Those who claim themselves to be "cultural property internationalists" decry this sort of thing, and hold up as an example the "enlightened approach of the British" (sic) to the issue of artefact hunting and collecting, which their preferred world-view opposes to all those nations trying harder to preserve their archaeological record (which are, by that fact condemned as 'nationalist'). It therefore might surprise them to see exactly the same sort of insularism and exceptionalism reflected in the wafflings  that the script-writers have put into the mouths of the BST presenters. 

I think it very odd that the PAS apparently does not pay more attention to the extensive debates taking place right across our continent (and not just in archaeology) which are leading to far more sophisticated appreciation of the complex relationships between culture and things, but are merely chugging along churning out for public consumption (and at their expense) of an "archaeology" which differs in few respects from that done ninety to a hundred years ago.

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