2. World-wide Issues

Recovery from economic slump after World War II took the form of an economic boom in many parts of the world. This may have affected different places at different times, and appeared in diverse forms. Yet, one way or another, it brought into being rescue archaeology in its various guises around the world (See Rahtz 1974, and Wilson and Loyola 1982; Wilson 1987 for each side of the Atlantic), generating data on a scale different from anything that went before (Bradley 2006b; Roskams 2001). Hence it is not just the UK that has found itself 'drowning in data' (Thomas 1991). A qualitative change in the character of the available archaeological record is acknowledged in nearly every country, even those such as Denmark where documentation has been generated over an extended period of time, there going back to the work of Ole Worm in the 1620s (Hansen 1993).

This development is considered in a positive light by archaeologists in most countries, and rightly so as it gives us access to a much greater evidential base, access which has been enhanced by computerisation in the last few decades. In theory, then, archaeological analyses and report writing are now able to draw on a new world of data, in terms of the volume of material available, its complexity and, arguably, its quality. In practice, however, this potential has yet to be realised. For example, this proliferation has not made serious inroads into the fundamental structure of excavation reports (Bradley 2006a). One reason may be that the archaeological community is cautious about using such sources, another that the conceptual and technical apparatus may not have been created to allow, for example, fully integrated discussion of artefactual/ecofactual and structural/stratigraphic elements of excavated sites. However, each of these explanations poses further questions: why the caution? Why the failure to create appropriate analytical tools? We believe that the problems might run rather deeper.

Twenty-five years ago, when the impact of rescue work was not so obvious, such silence is perhaps understandable. Thus the papers in Cleere's (1984) resumé of approaches to heritage management across various countries had little to say about the structure of archives and their accessibility. Those that did – for example Nigeria and Italy – were concerned only with administrative aspects. A decade later, when the UK at least found itself in the middle of a boom in commercial work, the contributors to Cooper et al. (1995) also make no mention of archives per se. Even more recent standard works are equally unforthcoming, for example Cleere's (2000) edited volume. Carman (2002), in a publication aiming to become a student text book, acknowledges that archives are a product of site activity (table 1.3) but sees the move from fieldwork to presentation as the end of the matter (table 1.6).

Looking beyond the UK, a similar picture emerges. Issues of principle abound, for example whether we should favour preservation over investigation, or assess cultural resources in relation to their significance (i.e. significance to some group of society) or their value (i.e. implying an inherent quality) (MacManamon and Hatton 2000; Mathers et al. 2005). Beyond this, the perceived role of existing data is portrayed in quite limited ways. Thus King (2002) bemoans the quality of the inventory available to us, but sees its role simply as informing the heritage professional. The necessity of servicing the needs of local audiences may be increasingly accepted within that profession, but underlying principles die hard. Hence the Arkansas Archaeological Survey seems to be doing sterling service there in publishing results, and involving and educating their public. However, access to their sophisticated archive mechanisms is still allowed only on a 'need to know' basis (Green and Davis 2000, 147).

The one sphere where such issues are acknowledged as being of fundamental importance is in relation to information technology, especially as we look forward to an era of international data exchange. It is in the various proceedings of Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA) conferences that solutions are being searched out, rather than in mainstream Heritage Management. Beyond the idea that 'these things take time', there are two factors which, we feel, have influenced our relative failure to take on board fully the explosion of data. One is intellectual, the other technical and organisational.

Recent theorising of the fieldwork process has emphasised the complex relationship between gathering data in excavation and its interpretation. This has led to a call for a more reflexive approach to the whole fieldwork process, partly based on Hodder's work at Catalhoyuk (Hodder 2005) but also taken up in a number of other contexts (Chadwick 2000; Edgeworth 2006; Lucas 2001). This process has sought to question a series of conceptual divides which underpinned fieldwork in the last decades: between data gathering and data analysis; between that analysis and wider interpretation; and between interpretation in relation to the particular research objectives of the project and any subsequent interpretations of the material in terms of other, perhaps wider, research interests. This casts doubt on the whole concept of a truly independent archive, making energies devoted to its wider dissemination somewhat pointless.

The second factor, for us probably of greater real significance at the moment, relates to the changes noted at the outset concerning the divorce of curation from fieldwork. Such a dichotomy was always embedded in archaeological structures to some extent, at least from the 1970s, but it has been given an extra push by the increasing privatisation of the fieldwork process during the last decade or so. This development is part of a wider series of liberalisation measures across the world economy, involving an attempt to reduce the role of the state in controlling commercial, and other, activity. For archaeology, the process has taken different forms in different parts of the world, not least because of the ways in which it was resisted, to a greater or lesser extent, by the archaeological community, for example in France (Demoule 2002). Nonetheless, its impact has been considerable throughout.

Under the 'polluter pays' principle that underpins European, and most other, environmental legislation, modern development must attempt to nullify, or at least minimise, the adverse impact which any proposed project might have on the natural and cultural environment. With archaeology now seen as part of this system, it becomes a problem to be solved within the planning system, not as a potential to be grasped for the benefit of the wider community. For the UK, privatisation means that field units gather data on a commercial basis and produce site reports accordingly for submission to a separate curatorial system. The aim throughout is to facilitate development control, rather than create a research output. At a practical level, such reports may go no further than the commercial developer and the planning authority.

Furthermore, finds generated in this fieldwork represent a second problem area, rather than a contribution to an archive with educational value. The usual solution is to pass these assemblages to a local museum, often one with insufficient storage space. Paradoxically, this is happening at just the time when museums are being encouraged to move from being not merely repositories of evidence, places which store material and display a small proportion of it to the public, to institutions which can facilitate people's active engagement with their past (Merriman and Swain 1999, 253). Divorcing museums from the commercial and curatorial loop will not help them take on this role.

This question of how we are to give wider audiences access to the results of commercial fieldwork is the archaeological version of much broader concerns with the generation of what has become known as grey literature i.e. 'that which is produced on all levels of government, academics, business, and industry in print and electronic formats, but which is not controlled by commercial publishers' (the definition employed after the Third International Conference on Grey Literature in the 1997, the Luxemburg Convention – the fact that such conferences are held regularly shows how important the subject is well beyond our own discipline, as the keynote address in 1997 made clear: Farace 1998).

Some of the challenges here are technical in character, and solutions are starting to emerge (Bradley 2006b). Scotland, for example, allows access to some commercially generated data-sets through their SAIR project, and something of a different sort is being attempted in France covering a wide range of archaeological and architectural evidence. The National Documentation Project in Norway included archaeology as a sub-project (Holmen and Uleberg 1996), with the aim of facilitating inter-disciplinary research. The ARENA project, including contributions from Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Poland, Romania and the UK, has attempted to bring the idea of a common European heritage web resource closer to reality, under the umbrella of the European Heritage Network (see the various papers in Internet Archaeology 18. Indeed, Internet Archaeology could itself be seen as another contribution to the process, allowing data to be presented in a concisely mapped form – another methodology for probing the structure of the archaeological record in detail). Finally, Falkingham (2005) discusses the potential of XML technology to facilitate dissemination of such literature.

As significant as problems related to the mechanics of access and dissemination are the intellectual challenges that arise in employing commercially generated data. Recent work in Japan provides a good example of the difficulties involved and one attempt at a solution. Over two decades from 1973, rescue excavations here increased from less than 1,000 per annum to over 8,000 (Habu 2004, figure 1.8: in the same timeframe, research projects stayed fairly constant at about 300). Consequently, annual spending at the turn of the last millennium, still derived from various levels of government in Japan, rather than the private developer (Chamura 2000), rose to over 110 billion yen per annum (approximately £500 million or $1 billion). Habu has attempted to digest the 'overflow of archaeological data' (2004, 23) that resulted from this influx of resources. Her synthesis on the Jomon period of Japan's past represents one response to the challenge. In the UK, the recent publication by Bradley (2007) represents another dedicated attempt to deal with such data systematically. Interestingly, in the process, he calls into question conventional chronological categories in prehistory, much along the lines discussed later: his thematic chapters bridge Mesolithic/Neolithic, Neolithic/Bronze Age, and Bronze Age/Iron Age.

Perhaps, then, we are finally taking the first steps along a road which will lead us to respond to one of the fundamental problems facing archaeologists world-wide: how to organise, within a coherent research framework, rapidly accumulating masses of data, and thus forge a stronger relationship between academic and curator, and between them and the rest of society. The work described below represents a further move in that direction: attempting to construct a coherent, wide-ranging account of social and economic trends that is, at the same time, sensitive to the peculiarities of a material record comprising abundant and diverse, but disparate and often fragmented, sets of data of varying chronological and spatial resolution. In this way, we hope to contest some present theoretical preconceptions, to generate new questions, and to contribute to the design and implementation of fresh approaches to data recovery in the field.


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Last updated: Mon Nov 26 2007