Thursday, 20 March 2014

Archaeology's Alleged "Double Standards" and the Oreo

I never had the opportunity to go to technical college (my A levels got in the way). Despite that, I might take it into my head to start writing about a "commonsense everyman approach" to the processes involved in sheet metal working in the same way as a metal detectorist is writing about archaeological methodology. I could write that sheet metal workers have "obviously" got it all wrong about all this annealing and degreasing and all that stuff, and all  we really need to do to shape metal components from sheet metal is to have unskilled members of the public bashing it with trowels (God's own tool). I imagine people who've actually trained in the area of sheet metalworking  and done a bit of it would have a few words to say about that.

In the same way, if after seventeen years of highly expensive outreach and (due to the efforts of many colleagues) the accessibility of loads and loads of information in a form that is easy to understand, it is extremely galling to find a karaoke approach to archaeology being trotted out in the UK, apparently in all seriousness by feather-brain metal detectorists who've obviously not only not understood the issues involved, but obviously have not the slightest intention of trying to find out for themselves. That is simply annoying.

Intact cake (Alan Dart)
A bizarre discussion is currently, for some reason, going on over on several UK metal detecting blogs about the alleged "double standards" of archaeology. This is used to justify artefact hunting - note again this is another attempt to construct the tekkie favourite, a 'Two-wrongs-make-a-right' argument.

The PAS of course is sitting by and not getting involved. It seems they are either oblivious to the fact that self-proclaimed responsible detectorists are using social media to pump out junk science to the rest of the PAS-audience, or they are quite happy to see this happen. Who knows? What is clear is they have a policy of not reacting to anything like this. They have no time for any outreach for those sixteen million quid they get to do it, and it scares away the punters (those who hoik stuff and then show them). So it's up to the rest of us to do their job for them. Let's try to explain it to the layman in simple terms.

Wedding cake being consumed (William Lorenz)
 An archaeological site is "like a cake" the PAS once infamously said (they never got much beyond that). The cake has icing with decoration, little bits of candied angelica or cherries on the top. In its intact form the cake has a function on a table - at a party for example. It is a focus of attention, maybe rituals. It can only fulfil those functions while it is intact, so aunt Jolanta brings the cake she made for your birthday in a box, gingerly carrying it from her car. If on her way up the garden path she trips over the sleeping dog and the cake box drops to the concrete and the icing cracks and flakes off, or little Tomek sneaks into the kitchen before the party and pulls off all the cherries and gobbles them up, the cake cannot fulfil one of its functions, though is in itself perfectly edible. Once you decide to cut the intact cake though, what it looks like on the surface is a secondary concern.

Oreo biscuit
In more simple terms an archaeological site or artefact scatter could be envisaged as like an Oreo biscuit.  The Oreo can be studied by an Oreo aficionado in two ways. You can look at the top, where there is a design and inscription, then you know what kind of biscuit it is. The design on the upper surface of a plateful of biscuits has an important function in establishing the identity of the food offered to a guest.

If somebody (a metal detectorist for example) scraped off that design, then the biscuit would no longer be in a form suitable for such use. Indeed, many people would not want that Oreo after some grubby handed tekkie has been mauling it and they'd probably discard it rather than eat it. Still more so if the design was missing because a domestic pet had been licking the plateful of biscuits on the table. In the same way the surface evidence on a site is damaged by cherry-picking elements of that surface evidence away by artefact hunting.  The finds and their distribution across the surface of the site are like the design on a cake or biscuit. That seems a pretty simple thing to understand. A site depleted by unregulated artefact hunting is like the dog-licked biscuit - rendered useless.   

The 'spider in an Oreo' urban legend.
But suppose one does not want just to study the Oreo from the surface but wants to find out what is inside, the surface appearance has to be sacrificed. The decision to dismantle the biscuit however may pay other dividends. What is inside may reveal a lot about that Oreo, but only at the expense of changing its surface aspect. 

  That's like an excavation, take off the top, to study more closely what is inside. In this kind of research (or perhaps at this stage of the research) the formerly-intact surface decoration is a secondary consideration. One may try to remove the top of the biscuit intact (so that would be the equivalent of a metal detecting survey and gridded collection of sieve-retrieved artefacts of  the topsoil of a site), but in order to get at the evidence of what is in the stratigraphy, the research design may decide tp dispense with that.

There is no "one way" for an archaeologists to investigate an archaeological site. Excavation is one of many methodological tools and just because its the one which popular opinion associates most frequently with archaeologists, it does not mean that there can be no archaeology done without excavation, and no other use to which the archaeological record can be put (by archaeologists)  other than by digging it up. Also it is a popular mistake that archaeology is all about just digging "things" (finds) up. 

I suggest that metal detectorists who wait in vain for the PAS to actually come up with the goods and use social media and other venues to explain it to them, but at the same time cannot be bothered to read any books on the topic might find it helpful to go out and buy a packet of biscuits, custard creams work equally well, and contemplate the mysteries of why archaeological sites have spoil heaps. If they still cannot work it out, they can just stop mouthing off about how "wrong" archaeologists are, admit they are no wiser, and just eat the biscuits.

They might also like to look into the actual identity of this "Sock-puppet Steve" who's been raising these provocative points (and piquing the interest of self-appointed 'responsible detectorists'). When they've done that, they can consider just what contribution this "Steve" intends to make in general to the discussion of "responsible detecting" (or whether his intent is instead to disrupt any such attempts at discussion). I think they'll find that this "Steve" is as false as the spider in the Oreo, and they've been had by one of their own. Tolerance of this kind of disruptive behaviour is another reason why attempts to discuss things with this milieu are a total waste of time and effort.


Detectorbloke said...

Ty for the link Paul. Just to make it clear that on my blog I am not justifying anything and am only reflecting on the different allegations and seeing for myself what if any weight they hold. I tried to make it clear that I know these aren't new issues but they are for me.

I can see why the discussion may seem bizarre for those who have already considered it before but I am personally trying to read and understand more before I can come to a conclusion which may be that its bizarre!

Paul Barford said...

Mr Baines, I am not publishing that comment either - off topic.

Since you do not seem to be able to profit from the information I put up for your benefit about the identity of the bloke who's leading you by the nose and deliberately exposing you to ridicule, I'll not clutter up my archaeological blog with it. You're on your own.

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