Thursday, July 12, 2012

The archaeology of an archaeologist: a reassessment of the Transit Van excavation

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Like it or not, archaeology is one of those professions that seems designed to feature in the ‘and finally’ slot on the news, or help round out a couple of column-inches in the tabloids: ‘Boffins say boat find is older than Stonehenge’ – that kind of thing. In today’s world of instant global communications and huge volume of interesting and stimulating discoveries, this can often be the first way that even professional archaeologists find out about important discoveries – either reading it directly from the paper/website, or being told about it by a non-archaeologist friend or acquaintance. I have lost count of the number of times I have been introduced to someone as an archaeologist to be greeted with ‘have you heard about the amazing discovery in X – it was in the paper only last week’. In these situations you can be pretty much guaranteed that if the journalist didn’t misunderstand or misrepresent the story, then the person retelling it did. I remember clearly that I was working on an excavation in the middle of a construction site in 2006/7 when one of the digger drivers came to tell me about the archaeology story he had read in the paper. Those wacky archaeologists had only gone and dug up a Ford Transit van! I was pretty sure that something had gone awry in the communication of this tale … perhaps they had found a chariot and compared it to a modern Transit Van? No – apparently not! As anyone who has worked in commercial archaeology can attest, we’re not always the most popular sight to developers and brickies. As this story made the rounds it appeared to only confirm our reputation as a bunch of tree-hugging nutters, determined to prevent good, honest companies from making their rightful profit on the building boom that was going to last forever.

Due to whatever quirk of fate, I managed to keep hearing this story for quite some time without ever encountering the actual facts behind it. I’m sure that I could have done a bit of searching on the internet and quickly come up with an answer, but I did not. Perhaps I didn’t want to give credence to this preposterous tale – perhaps I was even afraid that it was true! In any case, I did not read the full facts of the case until I got my copy of British Archaeology (Newland et al. 2007). For anyone not familiar with the case, archaeologists from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol decided to apply archaeological techniques to the dismantling/excavation of a 1991 Ford Transit Van. From the first, I admit, I was conflicted by this story. On one hand, when I was an undergraduate, my old head of department (the late Etienne Rynne) would regularly inform us that ‘archaeology ended yesterday’ – humanity in its entirety, from the Palaeolithic to the most recent events, came within the remit of archaeology. On the side of the debate was the fact that field archaeologists have enough of a hard time being taken seriously without this further stumbling block being placed in our way. At the time I remember feeling that the authors reasoning and logic were impeccable, but I just wished that they had not chosen to turn what could have been an interesting and rewarding thought-experiment into a reality. I felt like the Bishop’s wife in the apocryphal story about the reaction to Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection’: “My dear, we will hope it is not true. But if it is, let us pray that it may not become generally known”. Over the intervening years I have seen this story dragged out (with far too great a frequency) by non-archaeologists (chiefly developers and their agents who don’t want to pay for excavations) as evidence that the entire profession is ‘wired to the moon’. I’ve also seen the story wheeled out by field archaeologists as further evidence (if it were necessary) that ‘the theory lot’ had finally overstepped the mark. The feeling among some of the more hard-core prehistorians was that this was the inevitable consequence of dabbling in such recent fields as the Iron Age and Medieval periods. In the interests of openness and honesty, I should put on record that at that time in my life I was a committed field archaeologist and had only ever read one book on theory. The book was Johnson’s Archaeological Theory: An Introduction and that was for a bet. From this, the reader can easily guess that I eventually came down on the ‘anti’ side of the argument. All things considered, I felt that Newland et al. should have been had up for bringing the profession into disrepute. While I know that I am not alone in this assessment, I realise too that there are others firmly in favour of ‘contemporary archaeology’. The one thing we can all agree on is that this excavation touched a nerve within the profession as over 5 years later it is a regular topic of scorn/debate (see, for example, Stuart Rathbone’s excellent Facebook Page: Campaign for Sensible Archaeology, where the topic has been debated on a number of occasions).

Skip ahead to 2012 … in March of this year I brought my faithful battle wagon, a 1998 Nissan Terrano with 135 thousand miles on the clock, in for its annual pre-MOT service. Having made much money off me over the years, keeping it on the road, my local mechanic informed me with great sadness that it just wasn’t feasible to keep on repairing it. Basically, I would need to throw over a grand at it just to have a chance of getting it to pass the MOT. Realising that the inevitable was about to happen, I prepared myself for the loss of my dear driving companion and veteran of many an excavation. As fate would have it, around the same time I was browsing about on the web when I came across one of the reports on the Transit Van excavation on the Archaeolog website. I probably would never have made a connection between the two circumstances, had it not been for one line in the Archaeolog post: “We are not planning on repeating this exercise, but welcome any comments on what we have done, and where this might lead.” It occurred to me that I was in a position to recreate a version of this experiment and apply an archaeological methodology to recording the contents of the Terrano and attempt to use my skills to interpret the data. I describe the project as a ‘version’ of the Ford Transit experiment as I was not going as far as to strip out seats and examine the contents of the engine and filters – after all, I was hoping to get something for it as a trade-in, if only for the scrap value! After a bit of thought, and weighing up the feasibility of various recording schemes, I settled on a photographic survey as the best combination of swift and affordable documentation, while still retaining a relatively high level of detail.

Below is a brief photographic catalogue of the ‘recovered artefacts’, followed by a few thoughts on the experience.

Views of the Terrano (front and rear) in its usual position, outside my house

After a bad experience with a previous car, I always parked facing downhill. Thus, this was my usual view from the driver’s seat before I left the house.

On the dashboard we have Indiana Jones (left) in Egyptian costume from Raiders of the Lost Ark and ‘buddy Christ’ (right) from Dogma.

Tray underneath handbrake: various pens, pencils (mostly 2H), eraser, asthma inhaler. Coins are mostly euros, for the tolls, going south. Barbed & tanged arrowhead is a modern reproduction, given to me by a former colleague. It is wrapped in a red (Royal Mail) rubber band as I was bored in the car on day.

Lidded box behind handbrake: more pens, batteries, decorative horse brass, night light, strong mints tin (holding more euro change), line level, various name badges from conferences, Kung Fu Panda figurine, air fresheners, & assorted kids toys.

Rear seat with the children’s car seats and a copy of Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow (mine, not theirs). Hidden behind one of the seats is a Wordsworth Edition of Kipling’s collected verse.

Three pairs of glasses, unevenly distributed over three classes cases.

An edited children’s edition of Edgar Allen Poe. This was a gift from my parents in the early 1980s. My mother found it and gave it back to me a couple of years ago, but it never made it out of the car. It remains the only version of Poe’s writings I’ve ever read. Super glue is for attaching the rear-view mirror – it had a habit of being head butted and falling off.

Glove compartment: jammed full of just about anything I could fit in it.

Contents of the glove compartment included various road maps and an instruction manual for a radio I never quite managed to get around to installing.

Gum, Calpol, tomato ketchup, lip balm & a model of the Ark of the Covenant.

Yet another line level.

A shell, a plastic toy gun, a 5cm scale, a lone AA battery and a dirty kitchen knife.

A large quantity of repair bills – the Terrano was never cheap to keep on the road.

A collection of Vehicle Test Certs, Tax discs etc. – all useless things that I never got around to getting rid of.

In the side pocket of the driver’s door: the front portion of the radio I never got around to installing.

Hanging from the rear view mirror: a replica arrow head, bought in an airport with my last few Canadian dollars, before I headed home.

Another arrowhead, in obsidian, but I’m not quite sure where it came from.

A bag of natural, water-rolled flint and a clay pipe stem from a forgotten day monitoring.

Appropriately messy boot space.

Finds from the boot: spade, viz-vest, gloves, fire extinguisher, and a first aid kit.

Detail of a broken speaker cover. Damage caused when a former colleague helped load up the car with long tail shovels and then closed the door a little too energetically.

The Terrano in Newtownards, just prior to handing over the keys to the dealer.

Finally: me! The archaeologist at the centre of all this!


I started taking the photographs for this post in April 2012. It is now July and I’m only now getting around to putting this piece together. Obviously, this is partly to do with the fact that I’m pretty lazy and it often takes me long periods of time to complete simple tasks. Beyond that, part of the reason it has taken me this long is that, in my own head, these matters are still unresolved. I am still unsure what this whole endeavour tells me. It has led me to some serious introspection about my career in archaeology, as well as made me think about the nature of archaeology and what we’re doing in the field, what we’re finding, what we’re recording, and how we’re thinking about it. None of this was expected, and the process is ongoing. All I can present for now are some initial thoughts and tentative conclusions about what all of this means.

In the first instance, this process has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m pretty lazy when it comes to cleaning and tidying my car – this is, perhaps, not a surprise to anyone who has worked with me. Beyond this, I wonder how ‘reliable’ this is as evidence about what I am like and what my interests are. For example, there are books in the collection (Poe and Kipling) but they in no way define my literary interests. The movie memorabilia (Dogma, Indiana Jones, & Kung Fu Panda) are, arguably, closer to my personal tastes, but do not reflect them exactly. For the record, I believe that the four greatest movies ever made are Citizen Kane, The Deer Hunter, Casablanca, and The Princess Bride ( feel free not to tell me why you think I’m wrong). The serious archaeological point behind these rather trivial observations is that they make me question the reliability of the evidence we excavate. Can we ever know how reliable our data are as a proxy of the real thoughts and concerns of people in the distant past? Can we reliably link the artefacts we excavate to genuine interests of these long deceased people? In my instance, I don’t generally collect movie-related toys, but my wife gave me a gift of the Dogma ‘Buddy Christ’ when I passed my driving test. The panda was a toy in a ‘Happy Meal’, lost or discarded by my children. As I appeared to be forming a collection of figures blu-tacked to the dash board, the purchase of the Indiana Jones stuff from a bargain-bin seemed somewhat inevitable. Now that I’ve explained it, it (hopefully) makes some sense. However, the archaeologist of the future could be readily excused for not jumping to the correct conclusion. If they’re not representative of my favourite movies, could they not have been my ritual deposit of protective travelling deities? Similarly, what am I doing with three arrowheads? How would this be explained by the future archaeologist? Am I a warrior like the Amesbury Archer, or could these anachronistic pieces also be considered to be a ritual collection?

In all honesty, I’m probably not the best person to study me – being the analyst and the analysed is probably an academic conflict of interest. However, all through writing this piece, I’ve been thinking of a collection of essays called The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History by the American historian, Robert Darnton (and influenced by the work of anthropologist Clifford J. Geertz). The central essay in the collection concerns the ‘massacre’ of cats by a group of printer’s apprentices in 1730s Paris. While the killings were intended as a means of revenge towards their masters (who fed the cats better than they did the apprentices), there were some unusual features to the protest. In particular, after an initial beating, the cats were put on trial by the apprentices. In this mock court-room battle the felines where they were found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death. Darnton’s methodology throughout the volume is to examine such apparently aberrant behaviour (to our modern eyes). His intent is to first break down our beliefs that these people were ‘just like us’, and then, through examining these apparently discordant episodes, to get a deeper insight into what the people of 18th century France were really like. Darnton’s key point is these people – who lived only 280ish years ago – are culturally alien to us and cannot be lightly thought of as being too similar to our modern ways of seeing the world. They are not our contemporaries. They are not us in fancy dress. A key thought that I, as an archaeologist, took away from this book is that, considering the significant difficulties in understanding the worldviews of the (archaeologically) recent – how much more open to misinterpretation are those much more distant ancestors of the Bronze Age, Neolithic and Mesolithic? In the same way, the collection of contents of my old car may be thought of as providing a series of insights into my life, lifestyle, and (maybe even) worldview. While the collection of line levels etc., combined with a viz-vest from a commercial excavation company, may be correctly used to identify me as a field archaeologist, other interpretations of the assemblage may be well off the mark.

If we are unable to reliably interpret the distant past and we are unable to reliably interpret the archaeology of the present, what are we to do? Should we burn our context sheets and smash our trowels, secure in the knowledge that all possible interpretations of the past are ultimately wrong? It’s probably not a surprise that I would argue the, no, we should not give up on the enterprise of archaeology. However, we must go forward into our excavations and our interpretations knowing that all our carefully thought-out theories and explanations are, in the final analysis, in error and are failures. If there is to be hope to be had in this conundrum, maybe it is to be found in the words of Samuel Beckett: “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”.

Newland, C., Bailey, G., Schofield, J. & Nilson, A. 2007 ‘Sic transit gloria mundiBritish Archaeology 92, 16-21.

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  1. This was lovely. Thanks! This sort of thing is likely why one of my professors was so adamant that archaeology of the individual is a worthless enterprise. Even if it is, though, I think most of us (archaeologists) are looking to understand more general trends (think Hari Seldon) rather than the kind of information we could glean from a personal diary (as entertaining as THAT would be!).

    1. You're perfectly correct, Kristina - there is a huge difference between my attempt at the archaeology of an individual and what archaeologists actually do! I found it difficult enough to examine myself in this way, much less attempt to see myself as a component part of my society! In some respects, this reminds me of an excavation I directed at Castle Hill, Dungannon, Co. Tyrone. Historical records only ever mention the important folk who lived there: O'Neills, Chichesters & Knox-Hannyngtons. There is no mention in the historical sources to anyone else ever having lived there, but the majority of the pottery was pretty course and would never have been placed before the big shots. The nicest single fine we recovered was a simple animal bone with a single piercing through it. It looked like someone had made themselves a very simple toggle - again nothing that would ever have been used by the nobility. When I have spoken publicly about the site, I have had a wonderful response to this piece - I tell people that I may never be able to give you their name, but this is a powerful artefact that may well be all that survives of the life of one person. Their bones may lie elsewhere, but this simple toggle can be used as a means of seeing into their life - even just a little!

      I wouldn't say that it was a worthless enterprise ... just one that was exceptionally unlikely to succeed, but still worth keeping an open mind for the opportunity!

  2. Hey interesting read and thanks for the plug! Good to see you used your field skills to look at this, possibly a more productive approach than mine. You seem to conclude there wasn't much point in the exercise. I still wonder what the motive behind that project was. And I've read the article over and over and spoke to the author at length (the charming and only slightly (?) offended Greg Bailey)and I still don't really get it. Pushed on one of the more bizarre parts he suggested that he was being ironic... that just makes it even harder to evaluate if you ask me, do we really need ironic archaeology? Isn't this stuff hard enough as it is?
    Also if you think you're winning the messy archaeology car contest, I've a Fiat Multipla that wants to have a word with you!

  3. Great posts and replies. I've a lot to comment but I'll start by saying that the writing's obviously influenced by theory, all good writing has to be. The question is, which one? I was very interested in the Ford Transit story and went over to have a look on one of the few days when there was nobody about, which was fair enough.
    @ Stuart I'd reckoned that the project may have started with the auteurs' own questioning of their theoretical assumptions, which was reasonably and intelligently transformed into a research project, albeit one which posed some more, perhaps, fundamental questions regarding ourselves as archaeologists and, ahem... our public. Most brickies and developer types I talked to were actually engaged with the project as they could easily make the connection between archaeology and their 'own' archaeology. Others thought it was a load of wank! Agree though with 'ironic archaeology'.
    @ Bob I'd often heard that quote attributed to Etienne, but that seems to be from the horse's mouth!
    We share a shovel btw, the blue plastic handle, great for carrying around on the bike for the odd hasty assessment or stand-in monitoring stint.
    Loved the flints in the car! That'd be a head-fuck in years to come!
    Get a second-hand Subaru Legacy station wagon. There's a guy up in the hills (Red Brae) behind Carrick who's very good. Our's is 2000, with the same on the clock as your motor. Still going strong with hardly any attention over the years.

  4. @ anarchaeologist
    One if the problems I still have with the project is that although they do seem to have done a proper excavation, and a unique one at that, the published article hardly deals with that side of things. The interesting methods designed (hybrid of molas and Hayes manal etc) are described, but the results of the 'stratigraphic' excavation are not really presented. This misses an opurtunity to really explore a technical challenge. Instead there is some really loose and poorly supported stuff about finds distribution and use of the vehicle by different drivers (the stuff about the "culture of waste" of the maintenance crew is particularly grating) and then a lengthy and rather incomprehensible discussion about the meaning of it all. As presented in the published account the excavation results barely matter and the whole exercise comes across as an excuse to produce a lengthy and rather odd discussion about something or other... I continue to feel there were a lot of missed oppurtunities to present and validate this work that were skipped over in order to dive into a complex theoretical discussion. Also as Robert alludes to in his piece much of the information was actually found through interviewing the people who used the vehicle, not from the results of the excavation, which rather negates and undermines the justification of the excavation.

    1. @Stuart,
      My attempt to recreate some simulation of the original experiment was initially about trying to reconcile my conflicted emotions about the original Transit Van excavation. My feeling was that much had been said both for and against the original project, but perhaps I would gain a better understanding of Newland et al's mindset if I walked a mile in their shoes. It has (so far) led me to ponder my own theoretical approach to archaeology (even if only in terms of the number and types of assumptions we make in assessing a site or assemblage). I think that my conclusions are slightly depressing, but I would hold back from describing it as a pointless exercise.

      I'm glad that you mentioned the lack of a 'proper' excavation report ... I spent a bit of time on that site looking for the 'meat' of the project, but failed to find it - as you say, plenty of discussion around the topic, but not the core data itself!

      I read the exchange on your page that resulted in the 'irony defence', but I just don't buy it! I agree - it's a challenging enough project both for archaeologists and the interested public, without introducing ironic elements!

      I'm glad that you've come across some folks within the construction industry that see it in a positive light - unfortunately my experience on this front has been wholly negative!

      Just to confirm: yes, 'Archaeology Ended Yesterday' is a genuine Rynneism ... for a man that was often ridiculed for his allegedly old-fashioned ideas, he certainly had plenty of progressive ones too!

  5. It got a small mention in two News from the Net columns in Archaeology Ireland a generation ago. Spring 2007 (where the link has long disappeared) to Southampton University itself, and in Autumn of that year - a link to the Archaeology Channel. Keep up the good work. Eoin

  6. Read a great quote yesterday which your 'excavation' brought to mind again . David Clarke 1973 archaeology is a discipline with theory and practice for the recovery of unobservable hominid behaviour from indirect traces in bad samples’.

  7. I agree with anarchaeologist that this post shows familiarity with theory (you have no use for archaeological theory but bound around with Richard Dawkins in your back seat?). On the other hand, this is a terrific illustration of how little archaeology accomplishes *without* theory. The result is a comparison of messy cars and mileage, a photo-essay. Interestingly I think the Transit dig at Bristol resulted in a short film, the "meat" of it if you will, and not much else. It was a performance too.

  8. Speaking as someone who helped to initiate the Transit Van project (I donated the Van), I have found this post particularly fascinating. I do think that you (and your commenters) should look at the article in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal (19.1, 1-27) which goes into the project in much more detail.

    I have some (many) issues with so-called 'contemporary archaeology', and I am grateful that you have found the time to articulate those concerns better than I ever could. Thanks!

  9. Fascinating stuff, I live here in Canada. Over here most peoples experience is gleaned from appaulingly dreadful American television documentaries. It is nice to encounter some serious work no matter how esoteric. I have not read any of the reports on this project bar what is immediate on this site. However, it strikes me that all sorts of information on the tafonomic process could be gleaned from eperimental archaeology connected with burying motor vehicles of all makes in a variety of soil conditions.