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Publication and archiving

There is a tension in the publication of archaeological fieldwork results between a synthetic readable account, accessible to the intelligent layperson which 'tells a story', and the scientific presentation of interpretation backed up by supporting data. One school of thought, often credited to Pitt-Rivers and described as the Cranborne Chase tradition, believes that the published excavation report is the factual and complete record of a site:

'A discovery dates only from the time of the record of it, and not from the time of its being found in the soil' (Pitt-Rivers, cited in Wheeler 1954, 182).

For Pitt Rivers, publication provided an objective record of what had been discovered and it was the archaeologist's duty to publish in tremendous detail, as demonstrated by his own four massive volumes on the excavations he conducted on his estate (Pitt-Rivers 1887-98).

On the other hand a different emphasis is visible in Flinders Petrie:

'To empty the contents of notebooks on a reader's head is not publication. A mass of statements which have no point, and do not appear to lead to any conclusion or generalisation, cannot be regarded as efficient publication' (Petrie 1904).

Notwithstanding this early plea for synthetic publication it was the Cranborne Chase tradition that was to have the greatest influence on publication trends, although the tension between brief synthetic publication and full data presentation has periodically re-emerged. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, publication was seen as an integral part of the excavation process. In much of the literature there was little mention of archiving: the only record considered effective was full publication — the published report and the archive were regarded as one and the same thing (Jones et al. 2001, Section 2).

During the 1960s and 1970s, however, British archaeology had to face up to a growing publication crisis. Against a background of massive growth in public spending on archaeology there was increasing archaeological activity and rescue excavation, a growing post-excavation and publication backlog, and soaring publication costs. The Frere Report (1975) attempted to address the crisis. It endorsed the traditional view that archaeologists are under an obligation to produce a full record of their excavations but accepted that, given the crisis, publication in printed form of all the details of a large modern excavation is no longer practicable (Frere 1975, 2). The Frere Report advocated a rationalisation of recording and publication. Four levels of recording were held to characterise the successful completion of an excavation (Frere 1975, 3):

Hitherto, full Level III publication had been the norm, at least in theory, but refined publication at Level IV was now recommended, on condition that a Level III report was produced for archiving and was readily available on request. It was recognised that selectivity at Level IV would require a higher standard of archiving than was often practised, with all excavation records being properly organised, curated and accessibly housed. Consideration was also given to other, cheaper, forms of dissemination at Level III on request. In essence, the Frere Report responded to the publication crisis by advising a reduction in the amount of material that would go into print in monographs and journals, coupled with an improvement in the organisation and curation of archives.

The Frere Report was the first attempt by a state heritage body to address systematically the principles and methods of publication. With hindsight, it can be argued that Frere did not constitute a radical departure from traditional practices. All that the Report advocated was an uncoupling of an accepted standard of record (known as the Level III report) from the process of formal publication (Level IV). It was a pragmatic response to the costs of formal publication and the pressures on publication outlets (Jones et al. 2001). Theoretical doubts were expressed which challenged some of the assumptions underlying Frere, including the idea of preservation by record:

'there is no way whereby a reader can assess and verify the skill of the excavator in recognising, dissecting and recording the primary data. It is the inevitable limitation of excavation as a means of recovering evidence that what is destroyed unnoticed is gone for ever. In simple logic we can never know what the excavator has failed to recognise, or what he fails to tell us about' (Alcock 1978, 3).

Although Frere's recommendations were very influential on archaeological practice it is arguable whether they had much impact upon the backlog brought about by increasing numbers of large projects. Indeed, the high standard of preparation required by Level III meant that in many cases more time was required for post-excavation work than had been allocated before. The continued publication crisis led Tom Hassall to suggest that the balance between publication and archive might shift totally in favour of the archive:

'...professional advancement and success in the future ... may depend on non-publication, but deliberate non-publication backed up by a total and readily accessible archive...' (Hassall 1984, 151).

The backlog problem refused to go away, and a joint working party of the Council for British Archaeology and the Department the Environment was convened under the chairmanship of Barry Cunliffe. With an emphasis on the importance of an accessible archive, and on targeted research and publication, the Report (1983) marked a departure both from the traditional model, with its ideal of full excavation and full publication, and the Frere Report, which had confined the latter to Level III. The detailed description of the evidence was to be reduced to a summary, with detail confined to microfiche. The report had considerable impact but its implementation was problematic and was rejected by the CBA's own Council. With the benefit of hindsight it seems that one of the main problems was practical and stemmed from difficulties with the technology of the 1980s. At that time no archive could truly be accessible, and the use of microfiche was universally loathed. Another difficulty was increasing theoretical debate about whether the full report actually represented a complete factual account of the site. Barrett (1987) argued that the publication crisis extended beyond report production to the ways in which archives and reports could be used and re-used. Although it may be impossible to judge an excavator's general competence from a published report, it is possible:

'for the reader to undertake a critical analysis of the internal logic of the report, examining the linkages between the assumptions employed, the stated record of observations, and the interpretative account.'

Hodder (1989) regretted that reports had become impersonal objective accounts of data. He argued that since the excavation process is interpretative from start to finish, personal factors which lead to the interpretation should, as far as possible, be written into the report rather than kept out of it. In other words, there should be greater integration between description and interpretation. Another perspective, criticising the use of synthetic reports as the main format of dissemination of archaeological knowledge was provided by Shanks and Tilley (1987). They argued that such reports represented exercises in domination and control by individuals seeking to impose their view of the past on their readers. It was therefore crucial to find ways to make data available to give a wider audience the opportunity to create their own interpretations.

One further Committee, convened under the auspices of the Society of Antiquaries, tried to address the publication/archives problem. Archaeological Publication, Archives and Collections: Towards a National Policy (Carver et al. 1992) was written within the context of the introduction of developer-funding. It was becoming apparent that the majority of small-scale archaeological interventions conducted under PPG16 did not warrant publication, although they might at some stage contribute to broader syntheses, so long as there was some provision for the significance of their results to enter the public and academic domains (Darvill and Russell 2002). The Society of Antiquaries Report also took account of those developments in theoretical thinking which reflected a move away from the Cranborne Chase tradition and away from preservation by record:

'since the record is selective and therefore incomplete and post-excavation analysis must also, of necessity, be selective, the excavation report can only be a contemporary statement reflecting on aspects of the site: it cannot be an immutable and complete truth.' (Carver et al. 1992, 2.2.1).

The Committee took the Cunliffe Report one stage further and recommended that dissemination should normally be in the form of a published summary report and an accessible site archive. Once more, however, technology lagged behind and lacked the means of providing access to an archive with links between it and the summary publication. The report was effectively shelved.

Meanwhile, the publication crisis also became an archiving crisis as museums were expected to receive the physical archives from the backlog projects. There was a growing feeling that archives were important, but that their content and accessibility required reassessment (McAdam 1999). However, a survey conducted on behalf of English Heritage and the Museums and Galleries Commission revealed that museums had also reached breaking point; most were running out of storage space, few could provide facilities for access, and almost all reported low levels of usage (Merriman and Swain 1999, 259-60).

In 1998 the CBA was commissioned to carry out a wide ranging survey of publication. This ran in parallel to the Digital Data Survey conducted by ADS, and also focussed on user needs. Its recommendations reflect the fact that technology has moved on, and whilst they again focus on reducing the scale of conventional publication the PUNS Report recommends alternative means of electronic publication and the dissemination of archival and specialist material in electronic format as a means round the practical problems. The introduction of digital technology provides an opportunity to shift away from pure synthesis towards making archaeological data accessible digitally (Gaffney and Exon 1999). Three recommendations (Jones et al. 2001, Section 6) are of particular relevance in the context of this article.

Simultaneously, English Heritage published a follow-up report to the original English Heritage/Museums and Galleries Commission archives survey, making a number of recommendations to take things forward (Perrin 2002). The report recognises 'the potential of digital information to open up archaeology' (Perrin 2002, 6). One immediate result has been the establishment of an Archaeological Archives Forum with respresentives from all the key stake-holders. The Museum of London has demonstrated what is possible with the opening in February 2002 of its London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre.

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Last updated: Wed 28 Jan 2004