Design vs Dogma: Reflections on Field Archaeology

The Rhind Lectures presented by Professor Martin Carver, University of York,
Friday 23rd April to Sunday 25th April 2010

Design vs Dogma: Reflections on Field Archaeology

The purposes of archaeological investigation in the field, its methods and the circumstances in which it is deployed, have diversified radically in recent years. Half a century has passed since Mortimer Wheeler gave his Rhind Lectures on ‘Archaeology from the Earth,' so it seems a good moment to reflect on what the international academy, the profession, government and society want from archaeological fieldwork, and how their diverse agendas might be addressed to the mutual benefit of all.

Martin Carver is emeritus professor of archaeology at the University of York, Editor of Antiquity and the author of Archaeological Investigation (Routledge, 2009). He has undertaken or advised on field projects in England, Scotland, Sweden, France, Italy and Algeria, including numerous commercial projects and major research campaigns at Sutton Hoo (Suffolk) and Portmahomack (Easter Ross).

The 2010 Rhind Lectures were presented in the Royal Society of Edinburgh Wolfson Lecture Theatre and recorded by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland using Camtasia software, and produced as MP4 files available to view and download from Screencast below:

Lecture Outlines

FRIDAY 23rd April 2010

Introduction by Barbara Crawford, President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

6pm Lecture 1: Confessions of a free-lance
Followed by a reception

The relationship between what we want to know and what we do in the field is a fascinating one and, like many another relationships, is always changing. I look back at some of the big names in archaeological investigation - Kidder, Petrie, Willey, Wheeler - and reflect on how things have developed since I came into the business (rather late in life and from another profession). I find that in both the research and commercial sectors we have got ourselves locked into traditional practice - much of it uncreative. For me archaeological investigation is about enlarging the experience of the planet, and so needs that partnership of science and imagination we call design. There are lots of attractions in standard methods, applied routinely, but it's time to liberate archaeological talents with a robust design procedure that matches objectives (what we want to know) with the terrain (what survives from the past) and the social context (what the ethical and economic framework allows). In the next two days, I scrutinise these factors and arrive at a solution (Saturday), and then follow its implications, world wide and in Scotland (Sunday).

SATURDAY 24th April 2010

11am Lecture 2: The wonderful world of Willie the Worm

Archaeological remains, like our friends, are multi-conceptual: they have unmistakeable but unclassifiable faces made up of many million scientifically defined components. We use our historical knowledge and human intuition to give character to monuments, landscapes, structures and features - and we need these interpretations to write history. At the same time, our targets in the field are no longer just macro-entities (walls) and micro-assemblages (seeds) but nano-samples from the invisible domain of molecules - for example cations, proteins, DNA and electrical properties. Our potential methods of inquiry now go far beyond shovel, trowel and spatula, and our records too must go well beyond the simple ‘context', both technically and conceptually. We deal with a shifting resource and require it to tell stories rather than storing it as a cultural asset. On site, and in a landscape, we are more CSI than SSI. The archaeologist is not just an observer but - like other researchers - is engaged in a responsive dialogue of ever-increasing sophistication. This has major implications for conservation, access, time and price in the commercial and research sectors.

Lecture 2 Discussion

2pm Lecture 3: Out on the street

Archaeology involves land and citizens, and if only for that reason is a socially embedded subject. Land is the focus of multiple interests and the investigation of land changes its character and affects social allegiance. Citizens have expectations where they don't have rights, so are participants in what happen to their past. Field archaeology is therefore not an isolated research activity, a lonely dialogue between a theorist and a clod of earth; it is done in public: a publically sanctioned reduction of a part of a common resource in exchange for accurately anticipated scientific benefits. For this reason the correct intellectual location for archaeological investigation is within a social contract. This is also the root cause of our need for multiple modes of communication, in publication, exhibition and site presentation.

3.30pm Lecture 4: A Road Map

If survey, excavation, building recording - all brands of field archaeology - are at the same time scientific, creative and socially embedded, how can a theory of practice integrate and reconcile them? In each case the task is to match what has survived, and our powers of detection, to the desires of research and the demands of ethical factors: what we want to know, out of what we can know, out of what we are permitted to seek. The solution presented here - value-led archaeology -champions a staged itinerary gated by evaluation and design. It is compared with other procedures in operation in France, USA and England, showing that the key variable in archaeological quality is not technique, but purpose. I will also attempt to convince the audience that my approach can accommodate any theory and any political system, provided we are sufficiently vocal about what we value.

Lecture 4 Discussion

SUNDAY 25th April 2010

2pm Lecture 5: Design on tour

As befits a Sunday afternoon, we will relax by taking a tour of archaeological projects around the world. The emphasis will be to show how archaeologists have used design to confront diverse objectives in diverse terrain within diverse social situations. The corollary will be to show how dogmatic approaches - such as Wheeler boxes or context-only recording - diminish research potential, even though they are easier to administer. The message for our time is that standardised procedures, while welcomed by the profession, actually lower standards, and with them, expectations and yields. If we stand up for creative design, and if society makes room for it, we should be able to maximise research opportunity every time.

3.30pm Lecture 6: High road and low road in Scotland

We come back home and look at the implications of this kind of thinking for archaeological procedures in this country. Scotland in many ways has an advanced form of archaeological management, and a high level of practice, as well as one of the world's most exciting prehistories and multi-period landscapes. It has an opportunity to lead Europe and attract attention across the Atlantic by applying new approaches and procedures. Our aim could be and should be to design archaeology into the life of society, rather than designing it out.

Final Discussion

Vote of Thanks by Professor Ian Ralston, Vice President of the Society


If archaeological investigation is what I think it is, society will need to look at it in an entirely new way. The reconnaissance of archaeological assets is a continuous process of learning and doing: every country needs its Royal Commission. Every deposit is worthy of evaluation before it is destroyed: we have won that battle in most, but by no means every country. Our task is not to preserve a deposit by record, but to extract its contribution to knowledge. This doesn't mean taking it apart using standard methods of excavation. It means studying it, with any methods that can make it mean more. It means that our best brains, in and out of the university, should be focussed on design.

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