Friday, 20 June 2014

In praise of metal detecting. 5. Antagonistic cooperation

William Hogarth, Scholars at a Lecture
In 1999, I was invited by Andrew Selkirk to speak at two archaeological conferences in England. It was the first time that I had been back to England since my family had emigrated to Canada in 1966 and I allowed some extra time to take care of some other matters including my plan to put Oxford's Celtic Coin Index on line, meet up with some acquaintances, and to visit Hengistbury. At the first conference (the annual meeting of the Council for Independent Archaeology at Sheffield University) I was to give a talk on the construction of expert systems in archaeology. Not long before that I had assisted a Ph.D student studying artificial intelligence at Hofstra University on the same subject.

As I rode the train to Sheffield, I was not only nervous about the talk, having had only a little experience with lecturing, but I also knew that Sheffield University had been centre in the Celtoscepticism fad of a few years earlier. It turned out that my worries were ill-founded and everyone I met there was not only very friendly, but also very passionate and knowledgeable about their particular interests. I felt quite at home. I was shown a book manuscript about an excavation of a Roman site by one member of the Council and it impressed me deeply. Not only was it informative and interesting to read, but as an object, it was nothing short of a work of art. It was quite different from any archaeological report that I had ever seen. The passion came through on its pages. It was not written to impress a professor or advance someone's career. It had been a labor of love. You cannot fake such a work.

I sat listening to the speakers and waiting for my turn at the podium with my paper in hand. Only one speaker had read from his paper, as I had planned to do, but I noticed that by reading, it was difficult for him to engage with his audience and having had some acting experience with a two month experimental theatre in the round/haunted house production: The Black Castle designed and directed, and with makeup and special effects by Charles Porlier, I knew how important that was. Accordingly, I left my paper talk on the chair and ad-libbed the whole thing, instead. It worked very well. After the dinner that evening, Andrew had invited me to stay at his house in North London that night before I was to head off to Norfolk the following morning and in the car ride back to London, he told me about his interests in Libertarianism, which I found quite fascinating. It was all a very pleasant experience.

Being catholic in one's interests is a distinct advantage in the twenty first century: subjects have become connected and intertwined in ways we had never expected and I look at transdisciplinarity as a new renaissance.

Metal detectorists have a wide range of backgrounds and their cultural frames combined often with a deep understanding of the landscape in which they work enable them to be aware of things that a visiting archaeologist might miss. In Wednesday's post, it was the metal-detectorist who had seen significance in the amount of animal bone remains at the site. There is more to that site than what is revealed in the paper, and I wonder if the detectorist had noticed it too. Some of what had appeared to the excavators as a "plough-scattered hoard" might well be something quite different, but the explanation of that will have to wait for some other time. It connects with a few other sites I have been studying for a few years, but there is more research to be done. Let me just say that it was a multi-functional site where a festival to the Celtic god Esus had also taken place.

The biggest problem with a discipline as an isolated entity is not just that it lacks the association of other disciplines, but that it's intellectual environment is largely kept within academia which is another cultural frame with its own ways of doing things. The repeated use of the same methods sets up neural pathways in the brain and also allows for an easier transmission of memetic contamination. The problem is not just eliminated by having people from diverse backgrounds within an academic environment as Aaron Lynch envisions to increase the chances of original ideas, but that the environment, itself, will have the same leveling effect. If one person has an idea, it is not going to be terribly difficult to dislodge it, If it is shared by one or two other people, the difficulty increases exponentially. If the idea spans an entire cultural frame, it becomes a "reality" which even warfare cannot resolve.

Antagonistic cooperation is defined as "the suppression of minor differences by two or more persons or groups to achieve a major common interest." However, achieving such an "ecosystem" can take a very long time.

My second talk was at the meeting of the European Archaeology Association at Bournemouth. I was told that it would be round-table discussion about Unidroit, but what I found were discrete talks in a largely hostile environment. I doubt that anyone left it with modified ideas at all. Its sterility was palpable.

On Monday, ways to move forward instead of backwards.

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