Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Holographic archaeology -- preamble

Photo: Epzcaw

English is a bastard language, and in more than one sense at that. So, I was really struggling, this morning, to come up with a suitable title for this new series. I settled on holographic archaeology. The term has been used before, but its usage has belied its definition by adding specific subjects that it embraces.

If I had wanted to emulate academic postmodernism, I could have started this post with something like "'English is a bastard language' says Foucault" (in the manner of the pomo generator), but Foucault never said such a thing. Being French, if he had said that it would have given the statement a completely different slant! Yet, Foucault is instrumental in my formulation of this subject. In particular, his The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, which is about viewpoints, the way we arrange things, and our history of such. Unlike academic postmodernism, I came about these things honestly: when I was in business, if someone asked me if I could do some specific job for them my answer was usually "Yes" -- then I would set to work on the how part.

With my own research projects, I would start with a hypothesis that was always based upon an observation of the primary material, and how this observation might be useful for a specific task that was related to that observation. This was what I did in my initial work on the coinage of the Celtic Coriosolite tribe from Côtes-d'Armor in Brittany. I observed that the variations in their coinage were so numerous that they might show some sort of design evolution. If this was true, then I might be able to establish the chronology of the dies. This was necessary as their coins had been only partially researched through typology and die-linking and the original coins used for this study had been stolen and never recovered, and their photographs were only partially published. In any case, die-linking is all about the order in which dies were used, not created. This conventional method had resulted in a very crude, arbitrary and faulty typology. The only possible solution was to use existing die reconstructions of vanished and poorly recorded coins and then start, properly, from that point. Without the reconstructions, all of the knowledge would have remained lost.

Next comes method. The only valid method is designed for a specific task. If it is successful, it might add something to the way we look at other things, but all of these other things must also have their methods designed especially for them. Any cross-over is merely contributory. Blindly applying a method from one thing to another is academic and lazy. Current archaeology is so theory-laden it is often next to useless if any sort of external reality is what one is going for. Metaphorically speaking, it should be AC, but its most often DC. To do things right, you have to keep alternating inductive and deductive reasoning, and in that initial order. Too much archaeology is deductive and barely addresses the inductive at all. It should, thus, never be called a science.

Very few people have understood what I did with the Coriosolite coinage by applying my method. An exception is David MacDonald, a numismatic author and emeritus professor of history, but he is also very independently minded in his own interests -- not a  follower, by any stretch of the imagination. He gave me this to use:
"I am a great admirer of your work on Armorican coins.  It sets new standards and methods for investigating Celtic coins, and its results are so much more sophisticated than previous work as to allow no comparison.  Reading it gave me the first comprehensible, though quite complex, overview of a Celtic coinage that left me feeling I really understood more about it than when I began. Until I read your work I tended to dismiss most minor variations as meaningless.  Your careful compilation and analysis of variations taught me to be much more careful, exact, and open to possible meaning in what initially might appear to be arbitrary variations."

In 1996, I made some attempt to teach my method, but this was before I read Foucault. This series will improve on that and attempt to apply some of its principles to broader archaeological matters.

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