Friday, 29 November 2013

Rethinking? -- part ten (final)

Frustrated man at a desk
Photo: LaurMG Wikimedia Commons
This critique of Chris Gosden and J. D. Hill, Introduction: re-integrating 'Celtic' Art in Rethinking Celtic Art, Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2008, at about ten thousand words, seems to be about the same length as the chapter, itself. Like most of my posts, It has been written "on the fly", one post each morning, and with minimal editing.

I can usually write a glowing review of an entire book in 500-1,000 words. My article on Celtic Coinage for John Koch, (ed) Celtic Culture : A Historical Encyclopedia (Five Volume Set) was 2,000 words. So why was this so long? If you are instructing someone on how to cross a farmer's field a sentence or two will suffice, but if it is also a mine-field then the directions will probably take several pages.

The book, itself, has a few excellent articles -- I really enjoyed those of the Megaws and the one by Fraser Hunter. Others, too, were quite good. Some had a flaw or two -- but doesn't everything? Others were of not so much interest to me, personally, but I'm sure would be valuable to those with strong interests in their subject matter. Some were not so good at all. I was not at all happy with the theme -- the idea that one approach to a subject should replace, and not just augment all of the others is, at the very least, misguided. It can also be sinister. The same could be said for the decision not to include articles presented at the original workshop that dealt with manufacturing methods -- actually I would likely have found those far more useful than what was included. The title was deliberately misleading as it suggests severe flaws in the established methods. I assume that it was a typical and crass advertising ploy and was not intended to be accurate. It worked, and it got my seventy bucks. All of this sort of thing is typical for books containing collections of papers. Sometimes, one very good paper can be worth the whole book and will serve as the standard text on a topic.

Whenever I see scare quotes being used in the title of an academic article my hackles rise, and the subsequent dismissal of the methods of the giants in the subject as "notions" is beyond The Pale. The chapter takes a theory and turns it into propaganda thus. I hope that what I have presented in this series is more like directions through a mine-field than just a tirade. For anyone familiar with the subjects the book could be useful, but for a beginner it would be poison.

I have no way of determining which of the statements in the chapter were unknowing memes; which of them were memes deliberately and knowingly selected; which were based on memes accidentally; and which were an academic version of what Phil Agre designated as The New Jargon. I have a few suspicions, though.

Some archaeologist think of themselves as scientists. In some cases, this can be true -- true specialists in archaeometallurgy, C14 testing etc. certainly are scientists. Coming down from those heights are the technicians who properly use the methods invented and/or refined by the scientists. Some field archaeologist might well fall into the latter category, but only within their excavating and plotting activities -- never in their creation of an extended history from archaeological remains -- that belongs more with art. The absolute scientific method is difficult to follow within archaeology as it requires experimentation, but a lot of quantum physics cannot do this either and has to rely on model building enhanced with mathematics. Quantum physics is still science, though. Archaeological interpretation can emulate hard science, to a degree, also by model building -- but it must clearly compare its new models with what have already been presented and demonstrate, with evidence, the flaws in the other models. This is what I have attempted to do in this series. The subject of my critique, however, did not do so at all.

I can give an example which does not occur in Rethinking Celtic Art. Only today I came across the following statement attributed to someone: "once antiquities are taken from the ground, they instantly lose 90 per cent of their scientific value" This, of course, is pure bunk. I have seen variations of the same statement for years -- sometimes the given percentage varies. These sort of statements fall into the same category of jargon that I mention above. Again, it is always difficult to disentangle memes from propaganda. The statement implies that scientific value is quantified in units and is not a subjective observation. There is never any attempt to justify this sort of statement, and no comparisons are made with the arguments of those who give different percentages. Ironically, opinionated would be a better term for such a statement than scientific.

On Monday I will be starting a new series about another important example of British early Celtic art. It is sitting on my desk as I write this. It is not as important as the first one I covered in this blog, nor is it as important as the seal of Alexander the Great. It is a strap junction -- the finest known of its type (which is extremely rare in any case) and exhibits details that are not visible in the only other example of the exact design -- a fragment from Camulodunum housed in what used to be called the Colchester and Essex Museum and published in Jope and more thoroughly in R. J. Taylor and J. W. Brailsford, British Iron Age Strap-Unions in Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 51, 1985, p. 249, No 4, Fig 2.4. As there is much for me to do with this research, and as the nomenclature varies -- "strap-junctions"; "strap-unions" and even more within the PAS database (and other sources), which appears not to use standardized nomenclature at all and even has such things included as "harness mounts" -- finding as many examples similar (within the broader type) as possible and reconstructing the details which would have been visible on the object when it was new will take some time and it will thus be an intermittent series -- there might be a few consecutive posts, though.

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