Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Business of Archaeology: its product, clientele and social utility in the age of nano-digging: Review

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I am delighted to welcome back Rena Maguire to the blog. Rena is an undergraduate student at QUB, in her second year. She is currently working on her undergraduate thesis: Iron Age horse harness Y pieces: function, manufacture and typologies. This sounds like a fascinating lecture, and I'm sorry that I missed it. Unfortunately, I cannot agree with Carver's denigration of the Harris Matrix. For my part, I am of the opinion that Edward Harris' Principles of Archaeological Stratigraphy is the single most important archaeological book ever published. I do agree with his point that a thorough knowledge of its workings does not make an archaeologist, but it was never intended to! The Harris Matrix was only ever conceived of as one of a variety of research and recording tools. That point aside, Carver has some excellent points that are worth serious thought and consideration by all working in and around archaeology.
Robert M Chapple

Some years ago, before my mature student days, I read ‘The Cross Goes North’ (Carver 2006), and was reminded how much I had wanted to do archaeological research as a child and teen. Life conspires in funny ways to get you where you want to be, and here I am, approaching the next phase of academic life. When it was announced that Prof Carver was speaking as part of this year’s Oliver Davis Lecture of the Ulster Archaeology Society (23 April 2012) I was extremely interested to hear the views of this senior statesman of archaeology.

In recent years, Prof Carver has questioned much of the canon archaeology has built up for itself, such as the dogmatic use of the Harris matrix system of context recording, and the use of technology not usually applied in conventional archaeological practice. His theme on this night was obviously not intended to shy from any of these issues, being entitled ‘The Business of Archaeology: its product, clientele and social utility in the age of nano-digging’.

Prof Carver gives good lecture – you realise it from the start with his good natured admission that he did not start out in archaeology, having previously worked in other careers. He lost no time in creating an impact with an opening statement that hit raw nerves for many of us who intend to pursue careers in archaeology. He admitted that one of the great worries for students who enter commercial archaeology is how they lose heart because they are not challenged in their work. After years of research , study and continually striving for excellence, the excitement diminishes in the real world as challenges cease. The archaeologist is not a labourer, he said (and we agreed!), it is a profession built on intuitive, creative processes as much as any art. We work with science and soil, past and future all balanced to produce the tantalising glimpses at our pasts which fascinate the layperson.

Learning the Harris matrix system doth not an archaeologist make, he claims. Sensitivity and flexibility to social contexts, unique terrains of sites and a willingness to change the game plan can make the difference between a good site and a great site. He gave examples, such as the Cambodian Iron Age burial site of Bit Meas. The site contained many gold grave goods and artefacts, but the local people had looted the area as a response to their own struggle to survive in conditions of abject poverty. The German archaeology team responsible for the site recruited the looters into the squad of diggers, offering good wages in exchange for their knowledge of their own folklore/history and their skills at knowing where to dig (Carver 2011).

Being aware that terrain and landscapes abroad will be very different from that of the United Kingdom can assist excavations immensely – it sounds painfully obvious, yet it has to be sometimes stated in a profession which holds so many traditional methodologies. From hazardous Siberian permafrost digs to sun-bleached sands in Australia, giving up Mesolithic tipi sites, Prof Carver states eloquently that if you want the earth to talk to you, you must communicate with it in on its terms. This does not always mean a heavy trowelling back of an area. Nor does it mean Schnitt, Box or Pit techniques of excavation. No one way is correct. They all have merits in different terrains and conditions.

When it comes to recording site information, the Harris Matrix often omits a great deal of the complexity of major sites. Carver suggested a model similar to that which he used on Portahomack, the 8th century Pictish monastery in Northern Scotland (Carver 2008). Instead of recording contexts in a linear fashion, one should create a model of interactions between features and contexts. The overall picture which emerges, he claims, offers more intensity of understanding and a richer image of how people once interacted within a given site. The day after this lecture, we attended another lecture by Prof Carver about Portahomack, where he demonstrated the model system, and to be honest, I personally found it more simple and intuitive to follow than the conventional Harris system.

The idea of changing how we record site information led to the next reassessment of archaeological dogma. Demonstrating with a chart, Carver correctly said that once we associated excavation with large items and artefacts – jewellery, weapons, tools and buildings. As technology has progressed, the idea of excavating has entered a nano phase, of lipids, mitochondrial DNA and microscopic assemblages of pollens and foraminifera. As the focus on detail gets smaller, expectations of accurate dating and ever more information increases - as does the cost.

This was the part of the lecture I found incredibly exciting. Prof Carver detailed new technologies such as chemical mapping, pioneered by Karen Milek (Carver 2011, 50). Using the chemical profile of decayed matter, such as Burial Mound 2 at Sutton Hoo, or the longhouse at Hofstadir, Iceland, habitation details can be recreated with no actual remaining structures. Likewise the archaeomagnetic techniques being pioneered in Australia by Andy Herries offer much to confirm Palaeolithic and Mesolithic settlements which are often almost unidentifiable by conventional analysis of stratification and artefact typologies (Herries & Latham 2003).

These are all research-led disciplines, from specialists excited to be doing what they wanted to train to do. Many in commercial archaeology, feeling unfulfilled would jump at the chance to redeploy the skills they honed in university and apply them to the commercial sector. Yet techniques such as these ‘nano’ research areas are simply not costed in. We live in an economic climate of competitive tender, and the sad fact of life is that you often get exactly what you pay for. Putting heritage to contract to the cheapest bidder is a folly our own society really cannot afford.

Yet it can be so very different when archaeology is respected and well covered financially, such as the current Crossrail project in Great Britain, where archaeologists, engineers, contractors and everyone else involved has representation in the boardroom, in a fully integrative approach to building and excavating. Prof Carver asked point blank then, ‘Does mitigation then mean research?’ His opinion is that it cannot be – Research and mitigation are under two different Government bodies, but it would solve a great deal of misunderstandings even within archaeology itself if they were equated. Academics, he said, often don’t appreciate the frustrations of the commercial sectors limitations.

In conclusion, Prof Carver asked for a radical rethink of everything within excavation, and for us to examine our profession for its own survival and regeneration. He proposed a system of integration, from the universities, the engineering sector who have skills we need to learn, to researchers in the newest and most dynamic areas of all areas - including societies of passionate and enthusiastic laypersons, just like many of the Ulster Archaeology Society. His view that we have been too insular and stagnant for too long is radical, and challenging, but perhaps what is needed to energise the discipline.

Prof Carver understands the ‘real world’ as well as he understands academia. For someone like myself, who has worked in the competitive private sector for many years before joining archaeology, I found much of what he said good basic common sense. Any area of research needs to keep abreast of new developments in other areas of study apart from their own. This was a controversial speech, but by the applause from the audience of lecturer, student and enthusiastic amateur, it was appreciated and timely.


Carver, M. 2011 Making Archaeology Happen: Design versus Dogma. Left Coast Press. San Francisco.

Carver, M. 2008 Portahomack: Monastery of the Picts. Edinburgh University Press. Edinburgh.

Carver, M. 2006 The Cross goes North. Boydell Press. London.

Herries, A. & Latham, A. G. 2003. `Environmental archaeomagnetism: Evidence for climatic change during the later Stone Age using the magnetic susceptibility of cave sediments from Rose Cottage Cave, South Africa’ in Mitchell, P., Haour, A. & Hobart, J. (eds), Researching Africa’s past: New contributions from British archaeologists. School of Archaeology Monograph 57. Oxford, 25-35.

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  1. Interesting stuff... some bits I wouldn't agree with though. I don't think there is as big an obsession with Harris Matrices as is being made out. In my experience most people running sites use them as and when they are useful, not as some matter of routine. I do remember an office in Dunshaughlin filled with site supervisors tying them up for months on end and nobody really knowing why they were doing it... Oh might tiger, how we miss your extravagant expenditure!
    The other bit is the rather Utopian stuff about improving the profession. There has been so very little progress in this regard in either Ireland or Britain that these type of statements tend to just annoy me. Personally i think both the IAI and the IFA, having utterly failed to acheive anything much over the last 15 years should be disbanded as I now feel they are playing a role in actively blocking the development of the profession. But that's a rant for another day (and a few more beers!) Again I'm not sure about this need to make digging more complicated. proper excavation is a delicate and skilful process, even when done with a mattock and pick, and it is quite enjoyable way to spend your time. I could have gone into the specialisms if I'd wanted, but I just love digging too much. I think all it really needs for most diggers to feel very content is for them to have a decent site that's being well run, enough time to do a quality job on it, a wage packet that provides a respectable standard of living and, if at all possible, a decent run of weather.
    Will definitely be checking out this stuff from Portahomack though, as I always like picking up new tricks.

  2. Also interesting that he used the post ex shot of Roestown 2 in Meath for the front cover of his Making Archaeology Happen book. Shoot, if I was Rob O' Harra I would be really chuffed about that. Then again, I'm always pleased that I'm not Rob O' Harra...