Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Viewpoints 6: Seeing is believing

The familiar optical illusion of two faces in profile forming the sides of a chalice finds no better expository depiction than this public domain image by "John smithson 2007". The message of "chalice" is strongest in the left side image as it contains more information about the chalice itself. Even though we know that two faces make up the shape of its sides, the chalice image forces itself on our perception. In the right side image, the two profiles present less strength because the top and bottom of the chalice image has no reality correspondence to the faces, thus the two types of depictions compete for our attention but the problem is never resolved.

When I learned that Trefor was going to undertake a study of the recent Jersey hoard, and that he had previously been a police forensic scientist, I was overjoyed because at all stages of the criminal justice system, proof is sought that is "beyond reasonable doubt", and great care is taken with all the procedures from investigation right through to the final verdict. Civil law suites require far less proof and are subject to far less regulation. Something my wife said about archaeology really stuck with me: she said that archaeology is like investigating a crime where all of the witnesses are long dead. This makes for some interesting contrasts between the criminal justice system and archaeological research.

Take a few moments to read The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony, a talk by Barbara Tversky, Professor of Psychology and George Fisher, Professor of Law by Laura Engelhardt (Stanford Journal of Legal Studies). Try to ignore the irony of an eye witness account of a talk about eye witness accounts, and try to imagine that sort of attention brought to bear upon archaeological interpretation. For example, think about potential biases of the archaeologist witness to a site, or how previously heard things could influence what is observed. We can take this comparison further than the problem of witnesses and look at the process of jury selection in the legal system compared with the jury selection for an academic paper. Can you imagine the reaction that an author would get if he asked to be legally represented at such a selection? Yet bias is one of the main considerations in criminal case jury selection and the prosecution and the defense both might decide to reject any juror because of it. I think that, once the dust settles, you will see that archaeological evidence is treated more cavalierly than even the details of a civil law suit.

The essence of postmodernism is that everything is text, and texts reflect a great deal of their author and their time. Archaeologist should have no problems with this concept because they do claim that context is everything. Context, however, is not naturally exempt from examination and sometimes we find that even a single word can  have many viewpoints. It is actually rather rare for context to leave the archaeological site in archaeology. To that degree, it has become a meme of the activity and is not as clearly understood in its general definition by archaeologists as it would be by most members of the public. The focused influence of the word in archaeology detracts from its other meanings in the same way that the left side illustration of the optical illusion's focus on the chalice lessens the observation of the profile faces.

Journalism is where most archaeology reaches the public, and there we frequently read "Experts say that..." with rarely a reason given for the expert opinion. I suppose that some members of the public like to be told what to believe by experts, one of them once said to me that it would be good to have everything recorded so that we don't have to think about everything. I hope that such people are in a minority, and I hope even more that they do not influence the justice system. Imagine reading in the paper, one day, that experts decided that someone was guilty so there was no need for a trial.

Tomorrow, skating on the thin ice of Celtic iconography.

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