Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Archaeologists know nothing! It's true - the OPW said so!


I was recently part of an online conversation about how archaeology is portrayed in the media. A number of us had somewhat bridled at seeing yet another newspaper headline where ‘archaeologists stumbled upon’ some great find or other. It’s another iteration of the tired ‘baffled boffins’ headline that appears to be almost ubiquitous when the mass media discuss archaeology. You don’t get similar treatment for other professions – no ‘mystified medics promoting a possible cure’ or ‘elated estate agents accidentally sell a house’ … maybe there are instances of these, but it’s the archaeology-related ones that we seem to notice most. In part, this can be traced back to the difficulties of an individual archaeologist (often with precious little experience in dealing with the media) describing the complexities of the planning and mitigation process to a journalist just looking to write a straightforward account for a general readership. True, there may have been no surface indications of a site on a certain piece of land, but the planning process reasoned that monitoring was necessary. But, really, how ‘unexpected’ is this piece of archaeology? Is it also fair to make the archaeologists appear like helpless buffoons, wandering across the landscape literally tripping over significant features before they realised their importance? My take on this is that archaeology has enough to deal with in appearing as a professional organisation, deserving of fair pay and treatment, without additional burdens in the popular imagination. Since then I’ve been attempting to call this sort of sloppy headline writing to both media outlets and individual journalists, in the hope (possibly forlorn) that it will influence how the view and report future stories.


Fast forward a week or two to the Chapple Family annual tour of The Republic (aka the Traditional Middle Class Exodus From Belfast for the Week of the Twelfth). On the afternoon of July 11 we rocked up at the Boyne Valley Visitor Centre and attempted to book tickets. Unfortunately, our schedule and the tour availability meant that we could only see the site at Knowth, and not both it and Newgrange as we had hoped (Pro Tip: book online to avoid disappointment!). Not a problem, thinks I – Knowth is a treat & it has been far too long since I was last there (Quick fact check confirms 2001 as my last visit). The change in terms of access to the site and its presentations is stunning – you can now go around the western face of the tomb, as well as slightly into the eastern passage, not to mention that you’re able to get to the top of the mound and take in a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. Go see it! You’ll love it … it’s really brilliant!

However … you might consider giving the Official OPW Guide a wide berth. Let me tell you why. Our designated tour guide met us off the bus and, after a few words about site rules (mostly no climbing on the satellite tombs and no photography of the guide) we were brought first to the eastern passage entrance and then to the little room excavated just inside the entrance. This was all fine and lovely, but my issue was with what he said. First, there was the assertion that ‘no one knows what these megalithic tombs were for’. Then we had the claim that ‘no one knows what megalithic art was for’. We were even told that ‘no one knows what souterrains were for’ … my problem here is that these statements mean different things to archaeologists and the non-specialist public. I would read these as indicators that academics hold a number of competing theories as to the exact function and emphasis of how the tombs functioned – were the ‘just’ tombs or did they have a calendrical function too? How do we account for their impact on people’s lives in the past? – there are complexities of nuance and meaning to be drawn out from a prehistoric site with no contemporary written records. The same statement to a non-archaeologist would appear to be take much more literally – archaeologists really have no idea what’s going on! When it comes to souterrains, yes, we can’t be certain exactly which function any individual example held (again no explicit written accounts of their function survive), but there are only two main theories – storage and refuge. The argument isn’t about which of these is correct, but where the emphasis lies for any particular one and the understanding that both functions could have been (and probably were) incorporated at the design and build phases. Unfortunately, the impression given to the multiplicity of tourists in our group was that archaeologists – although excavating this site for over 40 years and the best part of a century of wider research – haven’t a baldy clue as to what’s going on here. I was particularly aggrieved when our guide explained that those archaeologists have no idea what megalithic art was for. Again, it’s fair to say that there are several competing theories, but we’re at quite a bit better state than ‘Sorry, no idea mate! Your guess is as good as mine.’ He trotted out some of the better know ones – it’s an alphabet (nope!), it’s derived from drug-induced states (quite possibly), they’re calendars or star charts (mmm … ok, I suppose), down to it might just be Stone Age Graffiti (WTActualF?). This final zinger got a laugh out of the assembled group … yep! It could be all of these, but let’s just dismiss it all with a joke. Here we have evidence of a huge engineering and religious undertaking, but someone somewhere dropped the ball and allowed some bunch of likely lads in one evening and they graffitied the place – such a bunch of Neolithic Banksys! Don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe that we have to be so terribly po-faced about our heritage that we can’t crack so much as a smile over it. I’m proud of the archaeology on this island and I’m keen that visitors to these shores are exposed to the best we can offer and take away some inkling as to how magnificent and cool it actually is. But … really? … Stone Age Graffiti? Are we not better than this? Does the corpus of megalithic art in the Boyne Valley (and Western Europe generally) not deserve better than this? I would also add that our guide explained how the decorated kerb stones had become covered over owing to mound slippage and noted that all but three of the kerbstones existed in their original positions. As for how those three went missing? Apparently, the best available answer is erosion! Yep! They were eroded away. Shure, if those archaeologists aren’t clear about so much on the site, we may as well suggest that three incredibly specific and well-defined spots of erosion just wore these boulders away.

Those of you who know me in real life and not just my online presence will be aware that I am buddha-like in my calm and balanced nature. No! Quieten down. Stop laughing! OK … I think my blood pressure might have increased just a jot and I may have been heard to mutter ‘bullsh*t’ on more than one occasion. But, otherwise, I was perfectly well behaved.

You may ask: 'What’s the harm in a little joke?' Think about it this way: What’s the harm in dumbing down the presentation so that we portray professional archaeologists as little more than a well-meaning but eternally flummoxed group, staring uncomprehendingly at the evidence with no clue as to what they’re seeing? Archaeology in Ireland – and elsewhere too – has struggled to emerge as a professional body and achieve the levels of pay, conditions, and simple respect that other professions appear to take for granted. Indeed, this perception of archaeology as a profession not requiring skills or qualifications was one of the issues surrounding the non-implementation of the Sectoral Employment Order (SEO). We need to confront these stereotypes when we see them in the media, but we really need to confront them when why’re being promulgated by a representative of the Office Of Public Works (OPW). As for the harm in a joke or two … probably not too much in itself, but if it allows visitors to leave the site with the impression that any idea they could come up with is of equal value to the carefully researched, rebutted, and defended arguments and counter arguments by academics and others who’ve dedicated their lives to the field, they are sorely mistaken. In the free time after the formal tour ended I overheard the conversation in one group run to ‘I think this art was for love letters – him telling her how much he cared’ and receiving non-ironic responses of ‘Yeah, totally could be that!’ … well, if the archaeologists have no idea why shouldn’t we adopt your theory?

Here’s the thing - I don’t know if this is just one young man who has either gone off-script or has an agenda of his own (I heard him say to other folks on our tour that he has no background in archaeology … that much, sir, was obvious!), but he’s out there representing the OPW and the heritage of this island. If a journalist, trying to get a simple, coherent story into print, manages to mangle some of the subtleties, that’s one thing. This is the official representative of the OPW – the government body charged with preserving and presenting our shared heritage to the wider world. The OPW have a duty of care to present that heritage in a factual and respectful way and to ensure the quality and consistency of the message that their tour guides deliver. Their failure to do this belittles both these amazing passage tombs in the Boyne Valley and the professionalism, dedication, and commitment of the whole of the archaeological profession.


OK … that feels better! Blow off a little steam … have a bit of a rant … it’s good for the system! But how do we change anything? Some (but not all) media outlets are going to run articles about ‘accidental’ finds by archaeologists who just happened to wander onto a building site. Inevitably, we are going to be baffled and stunned by these discoveries and have no clue what they're about. Some (but not all) tour guides will continue to spread the idea that archaeologists have no idea what they’re up to and that decades of study and scholarship count for nothing in the face of whatever ill-defined, half-baked fantasy you may devise for yourself. How do we as professionals and dedicated non-specialists counter these narratives? I think that the first step is to be aware that these narratives exist and that they have real impacts on how the profession, and the value of archaeology as a whole, is seen by the public. They may not be intended to demean and belittle the profession, but they do. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all in favour of a good laugh, but when the eventual punchline is a poor pay and conditions for dedicated professionals and the erosion of the respect for the work they do, the joke wears a little thin. Beyond this, I do honestly believe that there is validity in identifying and calling out when archaeological thought and practice are characterised in this way. This too, should be carried out with respect – both journalists and tour guides can have difficult jobs and aggressive hectoring will achieve much less than honest discussion. But the first steps must be taken by archaeologists ourselves – we need to examine how we communicate to non-archaeologists and realise that the same message to different audiences can have markedly different sets of meanings. At its simplest level, we need to avoid the ‘nobody knows’ narrative and replace it with ‘there are a couple of main theories’ or ‘although there are no written records, the archaeological evidence indicates’. We should challenge the ease and effortlessness of the sites that were ‘stumbled upon’ and instead tell the stories of excavations ‘carried out as part of the planning process’. True, these are more difficult narratives to get behind and sell, and require more effort to tell. But just as the penalties and pitfalls of continuing to undersell the profession are real, so too are the potential rewards. Who doesn’t want an archaeological profession that’s better understood, more respected, and with appropriate pay and conditions?