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Overall conclusions: The functions of publication

Historically, one of the principal reasons for full print publication was the tenet of preservation by record. The concept then shifted to the idea of the archival record, and a full archival report. However, it is now widely understood, if not yet universally accepted, that excavation does not 'preserve' by substituting written observations for deposits that have been destroyed. For one thing, the complexity and potential of a given deposit will nearly always exceed scientific capacity for its exhaustive interrogation. For another, the idea that archaeological recording can be value-free is a delusion. And for yet another, serendipity aside, it is difficult to collect data in response to questions which have not yet been asked.

Notwithstanding widespread agreement that 'preservation by record' is fallacious, the concomitant idea that it should be possible to reconstruct and reinterpret a site from the published record nevertheless exerts considerable inertial influence. The survey also found a majority who look for enough information to make an informed judgement about the author's interpretation. On the other hand, in practice only a quarter of respondents always, or even usually, reinterrogate an author's data and arguments in detail, and most concede that to do so comprehensively would be unrealistic on the basis of the publication alone. It is generally accepted that full analysis will require consultation of the archive. Posing new questions of older results a process that experience shows is often fruitful, and sometimes revelatory calls for the development of aids to the more effective navigation of accessible archives.

The survey was reasonably conclusive in its finding that a majority consider the primary purpose of publication to be the provision of information to facilitate research, and the dissemination of knowledge for public benefit. The present pattern of publication is arguably falling short on both counts.

Half of all respondents feel that the relationship between fieldwork projects and publications concerned with the synthesis of archaeological knowledge is inadequate. A breakdown by constituency highlights dissatisfaction among consultants, contractors, specialists, scientists, university staff and those working in local government. Over a third favour more exploratory writing, and see publications that combine and discuss results from a number of fieldwork projects as a means of achieving it. About a third would like to see fieldwork publications themselves carrying more synthetic, narrative histories. However, only a fifth considered fieldwork publication as an effective vehicle for public explanation. Interviewees emphasised that other media such as popular publications, television and radio do this better.

Most respondents are concerned that fieldwork publications should provide information they need for their own work. Overall, two thirds of all respondents generally find the information they seek. However, many of those constituencies traditionally regarded as being central to the broader synthesis and dissemination of archaeological knowledge, such as scientists, specialists, museum archaeologists and university staff and teachers, express much greater dissatisfaction.

As far as decision-making is concerned, rightly or wrongly there is widespread suspicion that decisions on what should or should not go into print are being shaped less by scholarly principle than by financial expediency. Many of those interviewed also identified a discrepancy between the amount of information that is published about site structures, deposits and features, and the space allowed for detail in specialist reports. Many specialists now take it for granted that much of their material will not be published, whereas site-structural evidence is, in general, still being published to a much finer degree of particularity. This is anomalous.


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Last updated: Tue Oct 21 2003