Monday, 8 December 2014

The thrill of the hunt: addendum

In a comment to Friday's post, John Howland mentioned some topics That I felt would be better discussed as an addendum rather than just a response to the comment. He wondered if the delays in producing archaeological excavation reports could be connected to cultural lag. While I think it might have a minor effect, I believe that such delays mainly point to the extent of "the thrill of the hunt" and indicates that archaeologists are just as susceptible to that phenomenon as anyone else.  There is more enthusiasm to dig than to report. If an archaeologist excavates a site with the hope of uncovering not just remains of the past, but of discovering something new about that past, and that hope is fully realized, then it seems likely to me that the archaeologist would pursue publishing that information with great enthusiasm. It might be for reasons of professional advancement, or it might be to share that knowledge with the world. Imagine, though, if the archaeologist's hopes become dashed and the site did not live up to its expectations. Having to write up what might be seen as a disappointment is likely to lead to delays at the very least.  If, however, the site does lead to important new information about the time, then the archaeologist's enthusiasm can sometimes be so great that details are published before enough study is done. Amateur studies have no time limitations and it took me a number of years to find the last piece of evidence I needed to write up my discovery of the design of Alexander the Great's seal. There is a huge difference in what I produce as an alla prima hypothesis about something thought up the very morning I write the blog entry, and a series of blog entries summing up months or even years of work.

I maintain that there is no such thing as an archaeological record. There is only archaeological evidence and that evidence is not just fragmentary but it really depends on the archaeologists' beliefs and interests as to what attention is given to what details of that evidence. Here is a (1999) Britarch post that sums up the problems quite well. The writer refers to online discussion groups to sort out problems. Britarch has since had a number of such discussions about various questions and various collector/metal detecting groups do the same sort of thing, only far more frequently. Perhaps there is something to what the the writer says in his last sentence. I also think that the value of archaeological context is greatly exaggerated. While the connections between parts of the site might yield very valuable information, such potential information is only rarely realized. It has become a mythology and this can contribute to publication delays because expectations can be so easily dashed if one holds on to that mythology. We also see it touted by anti-collecting bloggers who seem to be trying to get across an idea that just below the depth of the plough lies intact and complete remains that are going to explain much about the time. Most often, information from archaeological sites is valuable only in a cumulative manner: many similar sites adding to the evidence of the single site.

I picked the gear animation at the top pf the page to express what I think about the nature of cultural lag. Imagine an individual idea as the small cogwheel and the discipline as the large cogwheel. It takes a few revolutions of the small wheel to get much movement in the larger wheel. I came about this example after seeing how Coriosolite coin design elements and motifs reflected far earlier examples from Saarland, Germany, while the workshops in the main centres of Celtic art evolved their designs far more rapidly. Generally, Armorican design elements were longer lasting, but used in different ways (to affect a Greek/Celtic fusion necessary for the coin design to act as a symbol). In the Armorican hinterland, there were very few "small cogwheels" contributing, and the big wheel moved very slowly. In important centres and along busy trade routes, communication is faster and new ideas are encountered more frequently. Evolution is driven by change and events.

The individual, thus, often has little effect on large and rigid systems, but it usually an individual or a very small group of individuals (such as Crick, Watson, Wilkins, and Franklin) who come up with almost all, if not all, of our most important discoveries. Furthermore, such discoveries are pretty well all made because of the researcher's personal passions and not because of funding or assigned projects. All of the big discoveries have essentially been made by amateurs.

So when you see criticism of the amateur by the professional, just ask yourself what that particular professional has discovered and published. If the answer is "nothing" then thoughts about conservatism, sour grapes and even jealousy should enter the picture, even if the example is not typical of the "group think" of the academy where the wheel is so large that individuals can have little effect on it in the short term. Remember, too, that the "academy" consist mostly of followers. The people at the top of the "academy" are usually amateurs in the true sense of the word who have risen to the point of being able to express the same autonomy enjoyed by the humblest hobbyist and whenever they see the same sort of passion, they see like minds who have just chosen a different route.

I am not convinced that any better performance in publishing archaeological reports could be achieved through any sort of force. There might be more reports, but their quality would be poorer and the archaeologist's own passion for the subject might diminish, too. It's all a bit of a "Catch 22".


  1. Excavation reports are a can of worms few archaeologists want opened, or indeed openly debated. Failure to to do a follow-up excavation report is vandalism of the worst kind. Sadly for society, those representative archaeological bodies obviously lack any credible oversight or the ability to enforce standards equally lacking. Unfit for purpose is a phrase that springs to my mind.

    I agree too, with your sentiments that:- "So when you see criticism of the amateur by the professional, just ask yourself what that particular professional has discovered and published. If the answer is "nothing" then thoughts about conservatism, sour grapes and even jealousy should enter the picture,..."

    ...which certainly deals with one undistinguished archaeo-blogger of our mutual acquaintance and I look forward to his yap, yapping, ad hominen abuse.

    Very best regards

    John Howland

    1. Hi John,

      In my opinion, the sort of personality that is most likely to be best at interpreting an archaeological site is also the sort of personality that dislikes report writing. A corollary is that the sort of person who is best at report writing is also the sort of person least likely to be an innovator. Whose name appears at the top of the paper is most often based on their status rather than their ability to write concise reports.

      As archaeological excavation is a destructive process, the absence of an excavation report equates to complete destruction. Vandalism, indeed. Perhaps a lot of the criticism against collectors and detectorists is unconsciously guilt-based. The use of lying and ad hominem attacks certainly points in that direction. A common Black PR technique is to accuse an opponent of what the accuser is doing to deflect suspicion, and every conscious act can also be found as an unconscious act in some others. Nothing that a couple of hundred hours of Jungian analysis couldn't fix though ;-)