2 Continuous Survey and the Archaeology of Routine Practice

Survey archaeology, it seems, has come of age. More and more of the 'New Wave' of intensive, systematic survey projects are now reaching publication. Even better, after some two decades of methodological strife, there is some agreement about the range of approaches that are appropriate in different landscapes and for different research aims (Alcock and Cherry 2004; Galaty 2005, 295; Mattingly 2000).

Yet it is clear that the product of these labour-intensive and high-tech projects is all too often yet another scatter of dots on maps (Bintliff 2000, 3; Cherry 2003, 147). What is worse, these dots are set out according to a modern Cartesian grid, whose 'God's eye view' denies any real viewpoint to a situated human viewer (Ingold 1993, 154-5). What use is geodesic quantification for understanding past human lives and people's experience of places? 'You can ask what a landscape is like, but not how much of it there is' (Hind 2004, 39).

The comparability of survey data at the regional level is clearly one major challenge facing the successors of the New Wave (Alcock and Cherry 2004). But even more pressing is the analysis of survey data in humanly meaningful terms, whether locally or regionally. Survey fieldwork is almost invariably a profoundly processual operation. It is replete with sampling strategies, statistical analyses, tables of data, and correlations between sites and natural resources. This is exacerbated by the power of GIS to produce showy maps which turn out to be descriptive and empiricist or else downright determinist (Blanton 2001, 629; Cherry 2003, 147; Given 2004, 167-8).

This problem is not just specific to survey archaeology. It is even found in the landscape archaeology of the British Neolithic, which compared to Mediterranean survey archaeology has a high level of theoretical sophistication. For all the rich and innovative analyses of sacred landscape and monuments, the traces of mundane and everyday life just receive banal description (Edmonds 1999, 8). Lithics scatters, to use the inevitable metaphor, end up being 'dots on maps', far removed from human lives and practices (Stuart 2003, 104).


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Last updated: Thur July 5 2007