Saturday 1 May 2021

Is Discussing Archaeological Epistemology 'Harmful'?

 Dr Catherine Frieman editor of the European Journal of Archaeology posted a light-hearted meme about "types of archaeological publications" and I added a brief comment to it to the effect that she'd missed out one type (thinking here about PAS supporters, Helsinki school, pro-detecting archaeologists [mostly engaed in work on Roman-period Barbaricum, and numismatists] here in central Europe that would fall into the group of "painstaking description of a newly discovered artefact [found by metal detectorists]". This type of article does exist, we even have had a postulated "return to things" emanating mainly from Northern European centres. It seems like a valid general point to make, and I would have thought relatively uncontroversial. It seems to have touched a nerve with one British archaeologist, director of the community archaeology project Dig Ventures. For some reason, she decided to take that general point and make it personal:
Lisa Westcott Wilkins @LisaWWilkins 20 g.
W odpowiedzi do @PortantIssues i @CJFrieman
There is no need to constantly make this point couched in the detriment of others. It does not help the situation to consistently engineer conflict and promote a zero sum situation. I didn’t make that statement as a platform for you to criticise others.
This is a very telling response and even though it was directed at me, I think raises an important general question. "Couched in the detriment" is odd English, but I assume she is using the noun to mean 'as a cause of harm or damage of others'. I am not sure why (and Ms Westcott Wilkins neglected to expand on this) pointing out that a substantial group of archaeologists (in general) indulge in object-centric discourse, to the detriment of the wider view, involving contexts of deposition and discovery is considered harmful "to others". It's not something that will get one chucked out of the Society of Antiquaries (possibly on the contrary), the European Archaeologists' Association, the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, the Archaelogical Institute of America, or a job as a planning archaeologist at Barsettshire County Council. Ms Westcott Wilkins suggests it is in some way 'harmful' to challenge (or in this case, comment on) this way of looking at archaeology, seeing it as the study of the meanings of loose objects. This brings to mind the comments of Brodie (2020) on the entanglements of the PAS and the effect they have on the tenor of curent debate. This verges more on an emotional response (and indeed ad personam/ad hominem attacks) than objective reasoned discussion. To my mind, what makes archaeology the scholarly discipline that it aspires to be is the ability to transcend the emotional kneejerk reactions to something that challenges what we do, and actually discuss them and differences of opinion. Does the fact that Ms Westcott Wilkins or anyone else might have a different opinion about what archaeology is (or might be) mean that nobody else has the right to express an opinion about how archaeology is seen and done? I think a lot of the discussion in certain areas of our discipline is object-centred and losing sight of what archaeology is, I suspect there are others who are capable of making the same observations and reaching the same conclusions. Why would talking about it (especially as here, in general terms and not the basis of any particular case-study) necessarily "engineer conflict"? Why would making a point about the ontology of the discipline seen in a transnational context be "divisive"? Should we not, actually, as we move forward be constantly debating what our subject is and how we should study the past? Who would British gate-keepers exclude from such a discussion, and why?


Hougenai said...

Perhaps worth noting is the relationship Dig Ventures has with PAS. Certainly in my region they have had 'community excavations' based on metal detected finds declared to PAS.
I found it quite ironic that a detectorist gains by finding, to have interested individuals(budding archaeologists) fork out for the privelege to dig the findspot.

I never did find out what a 'Pop up museum' on Morecambe prom actually was, but doubted it was a secure, controlled environment that most think of when considering museums.

Paul Barford said...

It's really quite weird, over on Twitter yesterday, in a thread discussing metal detecting practice, the lady suddenly posted this:

"I have absolutely no desire to have myself or my organisation unfairly targeted as a result of frustrations around this topic. Please take me and @TheDigVenturers off of this thread. Thank you."

It seems she's not worked out where the "mute conversation" button is for herself (I hope somebody explained it to her).

Since as far as I can see, she was not once mentioned in that thread, I can only assume that she was miffed that she spotted that I answered the point she made in a totally different thread (!) in the post above.

Look at the notion of "unfairly targeted"... She was the one that started using "you" in a discussion on "they (some archaeologists)".
All I am doing is answer a point that she had addressed to me personally. My responding somehow for her is "unfair". I don't get it. I really don't.

I suspect that part of the problem is that I'm looking at archaeology from a central European perspective (where discussions of method and methodology and the nature of the archaeological source and how we use it are fundamental and ubiquitous - at least in the circles within which I move). Perhaps it just does not work like that any more in the UK? Perhaps the only place the average British archaeologist would expect to find any kind of methodological discussions is at TAG and the rest of the time can safely avoid even thinking about it?? I don't know.

Certainly no "targeting" on my part, she said something, I responded. Somehow she seems to see the fact that a bloke actually replied to her off-topic scolding some kind of an affront. Bonkers.

I have no idea, nor interest in, what "Dig Ventures" do. But perhaps the problem is something else, in the phrase "pay to dig" applied to commercial detecting rallies in that thread?

Still, I think it's better to talk about these things than simply walk off taking offence.

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