Chapple, R. M. 2012 'The archaeology of an archaeologist: a reassessment of the Transit Van excavation' Blogspot post


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Chapple, R. M. 2012 'The archaeology of an archaeologist: a reassessment of the Transit Van excavation' Blogspot post

  1. 1. The archaeology of an archaeologist: a reassessment of the Transit Van excavation Originally posted online on July 12th 2012 at ( it or not, archaeology is one of those professions that seems designed to featurein the ‘and finally’ slot on the news, or help round out a couple of column-inches inthe tabloids: ‘Boffins say boat find is older than Stonehenge’ – that kind of thing. Intoday’s world of instant global communications and huge volume of interesting andstimulating discoveries, this can often be the first way that even professionalarchaeologists find out about important discoveries – either reading it directly fromthe paper/website, or being told about it by a non-archaeologist friend oracquaintance. I have lost count of the number of times I have been introduced tosomeone as an archaeologist to be greeted with ‘have you heard about the amazingdiscovery in X – it was in the paper only last week’. In these situations you can bepretty much guaranteed that if the journalist didn’t misunderstand or misrepresentthe story, then the person retelling it did. I remember clearly that I was working onan excavation in the middle of a construction site in 2006/7 when one of the diggerdrivers came to tell me about the archaeology story he had read in the paper. Thosewacky archaeologists had only gone and dug up a Ford Transit van! I was pretty surethat something had gone awry in the communication of this tale … perhaps they hadfound a chariot and compared it to a modern Transit Van? No – apparently not! Asanyone who has worked in commercial archaeology can attest, we’re not always themost popular sight to developers and brickies. As this story made the rounds itappeared to only confirm our reputation as a bunch of tree-hugging nutters,determined to prevent good, honest companies from making their rightful profit onthe building boom that was going to last forever.Due to whatever quirk of fate, I managed to keep hearing this story for quite sometime without ever encountering the actual facts behind it. I’m sure that I could havedone a bit of searching on the internet and quickly come up with an answer, but I didnot. Perhaps I didn’t want to give credence to this preposterous tale – perhaps I waseven afraid that it was true! In any case, I did not read the full facts of the case until Igot my copy of British Archaeology (Newland et al. 2007). For anyone not familiarwith the case, archaeologists from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropologyat the University of Bristol decided to apply archaeological techniques to thedismantling/excavation of a 1991 Ford Transit Van. From the first, I admit, I wasconflicted by this story. On one hand, when I was an undergraduate, my old head ofdepartment (the late Etienne Rynne) would regularly inform us that ‘archaeologyended yesterday’ – humanity in its entirety, from the Palaeolithic to the most recentevents, came within the remit of archaeology. On the side of the debate was the factthat field archaeologists have enough of a hard time being taken seriously withoutthis further stumbling block being placed in our way. At the time I remember feelingthat the authors reasoning and logic were impeccable, but I just wished that they hadnot chosen to turn what could have been an interesting and rewarding thought-experiment into a reality. I felt like the Bishop’s wife in the apocryphal story aboutthe reaction to Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection’:“My dear, we will hope it is not true. But if it is, let us pray that it may not becomegenerally known”. Over the intervening years I have seen this story dragged out (withfar too great a frequency) by non-archaeologists (chiefly developers and their agents
  2. 2. who don’t want to pay for excavations) as evidence that the entire profession is ‘wiredto the moon’. I’ve also seen the story wheeled out by field archaeologists as furtherevidence (if it were necessary) that ‘the theory lot’ had finally overstepped the mark.The feeling among some of the more hard-core prehistorians was that this was theinevitable consequence of dabbling in such recent fields as the Iron Age and Medievalperiods. In the interests of openness and honesty, I should put on record that at thattime in my life I was a committed field archaeologist and had only ever read one bookon theory. The book was Johnson’s Archaeological Theory: An Introduction andthat was for a bet. From this, the reader can easily guess that I eventually came downon the ‘anti’ side of the argument. All things considered, I felt that Newland etal. should have been had up for bringing the profession into disrepute. While I knowthat I am not alone in this assessment, I realise too that there are others firmly infavour of ‘contemporary archaeology’. The one thing we can all agree on is that thisexcavation touched a nerve within the profession as over 5 years later it is a regulartopic of scorn/debate (see, for example, Stuart Rathbone’s excellent FacebookPage: Campaign for Sensible Archaeology, where the topic has been debated on anumber of occasions).Skip ahead to 2012 … in March of this year I brought my faithful battle wagon, a 1998Nissan Terrano with 135 thousand miles on the clock, in for its annual pre-MOTservice. Having made much money off me over the years, keeping it on the road, mylocal mechanic informed me with great sadness that it just wasn’t feasible to keep onrepairing it. Basically, I would need to throw over a grand at it just to have a chanceof getting it to pass the MOT. Realising that the inevitable was about to happen, Iprepared myself for the loss of my dear driving companion and veteran of many anexcavation. As fate would have it, around the same time I was browsing about on theweb when I came across one of the reports on the Transit Van excavation onthe Archaeolog website. I probably would never have made a connection between thetwo circumstances, had it not been for one line in the Archaeolog post: “We are notplanning on repeating this exercise, but welcome any comments on what we havedone, and where this might lead.” It occurred to me that I was in a position torecreate a version of this experiment and apply an archaeological methodology torecording the contents of the Terrano and attempt to use my skills to interpret thedata. I describe the project as a ‘version’ of the Ford Transit experiment as I was notgoing as far as to strip out seats and examine the contents of the engine and filters –after all, I was hoping to get something for it as a trade-in, if only for the scrap value!After a bit of thought, and weighing up the feasibility of various recording schemes, Isettled on a photographic survey as the best combination of swift and affordabledocumentation, while still retaining a relatively high level of detail.Below is a brief photographic catalogue of the ‘recovered artefacts’, followed by a fewthoughts on the experience.
  3. 3. Views of the Terrano (front and rear) in its usual position, outside my houseAfter a bad experience with a previous car, I always parked facing downhill. Thus,this was my usual view from the driver’s seat before I left the house.
  4. 4. On the dashboard we have Indiana Jones (left) in Egyptian costume from Raiders ofthe Lost Ark and ‘buddy Christ’ (right) from Dogma.
  5. 5. Tray underneath handbrake: various pens, pencils (mostly 2H), eraser, asthmainhaler. Coins are mostly euros, for the tolls, going south. Barbed & tangedarrowhead is a modern reproduction, given to me by a former colleague. It iswrapped in a red (Royal Mail) rubber band as I was bored in the car on day.
  6. 6. Lidded box behind handbrake: more pens, batteries, decorative horse brass, nightlight, strong mints tin (holding more euro change), line level, various name badgesfrom conferences, Kung Fu Panda figurine, air fresheners, & assorted kids toys.
  7. 7. Rear seat with the children’s car seats and a copy of Dawkins’ Unweaving theRainbow (mine, not theirs). Hidden behind one of the seats is a Wordsworth Editionof Kipling’s collected verse.Three pairs of glasses, unevenly distributed over three classes cases.An edited children’s edition of Edgar Allen Poe. This was a gift from my parents inthe early 1980s. My mother found it and gave it back to me a couple of years ago, butit never made it out of the car. It remains the only version of Poe’s writings I’ve everread. Super glue is for attaching the rear-view mirror – it had a habit of being headbutted and falling off.
  8. 8. Glove compartment: jammed full of just about anything I could fit in it.Contents of the glove compartment included various road maps and an instructionmanual for a radio I never quite managed to get around to installing.
  9. 9. Gum, Calpol, tomato ketchup, lip balm & a model of the Ark of the Covenant.Yet another line level.A shell, a plastic toy gun, a 5cm scale, a lone AA battery and a dirty kitchen knife.
  10. 10. A large quantity of repair bills – the Terrano was never cheap to keep on the road.A collection of Vehicle Test Certs, Tax discs etc. – all useless things that I never gotaround to getting rid of.In the side pocket of the driver’s door: the front portion of the radio I never gotaround to installing.
  11. 11. Hanging from the rear view mirror: a replica arrow head, bought in an airport withmy last few Canadian dollars, before I headed home.Another arrowhead, in obsidian, but I’m not quite sure where it came from.
  12. 12. A bag of natural, water-rolled flint and a clay pipe stem from a forgotten daymonitoring.Appropriately messy boot space.Finds from the boot: spade, viz-vest, gloves, fire extinguisher, and a first aid kit.
  13. 13. Detail of a broken speaker cover. Damage caused when a former colleague helpedload up the car with long tail shovels and then closed the door a little tooenergetically.The Terrano in Newtownards, just prior to handing over the keys to the dealer.Finally: me! The archaeologist at the centre of all this!ConclusionsI started taking the photographs for this post in April 2012. It is now July and I’monly now getting around to putting this piece together. Obviously, this is partly to dowith the fact that I’m pretty lazy and it often takes me long periods of time tocomplete simple tasks. Beyond that, part of the reason it has taken me this long is
  14. 14. that, in my own head, these matters are still unresolved. I am still unsure what thiswhole endeavour tells me. It has led me to some serious introspection about mycareer in archaeology, as well as made me think about the nature of archaeology andwhat we’re doing in the field, what we’re finding, what we’re recording, and howwe’re thinking about it. None of this was expected, and the process is ongoing. All Ican present for now are some initial thoughts and tentative conclusions about whatall of this means.In the first instance, this process has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’mpretty lazy when it comes to cleaning and tidying my car – this is, perhaps, not asurprise to anyone who has worked with me. Beyond this, I wonder how ‘reliable’ thisis as evidence about what I am like and what my interests are. For example, there arebooks in the collection (Poe and Kipling) but they in no way define my literaryinterests. The movie memorabilia (Dogma, Indiana Jones, & Kung Fu Panda) are,arguably, closer to my personal tastes, but do not reflect them exactly. For the record,I believe that the four greatest movies ever made are Citizen Kane, The DeerHunter, Casablanca, and The Princess Bride ( feel free not to tell me why you thinkI’m wrong). The serious archaeological point behind these rather trivial observationsis that they make me question the reliability of the evidence we excavate. Can we everknow how reliable our data are as a proxy of the real thoughts and concerns of peoplein the distant past? Can we reliably link the artefacts we excavate to genuine interestsof these long deceased people? In my instance, I don’t generally collect movie-relatedtoys, but my wife gave me a gift of the Dogma ‘Buddy Christ’ when I passed mydriving test. The panda was a toy in a ‘Happy Meal’, lost or discarded by my children.As I appeared to be forming a collection of figures blu-tacked to the dash board, thepurchase of the Indiana Jones stuff from a bargain-bin seemed somewhat inevitable.Now that I’ve explained it, it (hopefully) makes some sense. However, thearchaeologist of the future could be readily excused for not jumping to the correctconclusion. If they’re not representative of my favourite movies, could they not havebeen my ritual deposit of protective travelling deities? Similarly, what am I doingwith three arrowheads? How would this be explained by the future archaeologist?Am I a warrior like the Amesbury Archer, or could these anachronistic pieces also beconsidered to be a ritual collection?In all honesty, I’m probably not the best person to study me – being the analyst andthe analysed is probably an academic conflict of interest. However, all throughwriting this piece, I’ve been thinking of a collection of essays called The Great CatMassacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History by the Americanhistorian, Robert Darnton (and influenced by the work of anthropologist Clifford J.Geertz). The central essay in the collection concerns the ‘massacre’ of cats by a groupof printer’s apprentices in 1730s Paris. While the killings were intended as a means ofrevenge towards their masters (who fed the cats better than they did theapprentices), there were some unusual features to the protest. In particular, after aninitial beating, the cats were put on trial by the apprentices. In this mock court-roombattle the felines where they were found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death.Darnton’s methodology throughout the volume is to examine such apparentlyaberrant behaviour (to our modern eyes). His intent is to first break down our beliefsthat these people were ‘just like us’, and then, through examining these apparentlydiscordant episodes, to get a deeper insight into what the people of 18th centuryFrance were really like. Darnton’s key point is these people – who lived only 280ishyears ago – are culturally alien to us and cannot be lightly thought of as being too
  15. 15. similar to our modern ways of seeing the world. They are not our contemporaries.They are not us in fancy dress. A key thought that I, as an archaeologist, took awayfrom this book is that, considering the significant difficulties in understanding theworldviews of the (archaeologically) recent – how much more open tomisinterpretation are those much more distant ancestors of the Bronze Age,Neolithic and Mesolithic? In the same way, the collection of contents of my old carmay be thought of as providing a series of insights into my life, lifestyle, and (maybeeven) worldview. While the collection of line levels etc., combined with a viz-vestfrom a commercial excavation company, may be correctly used to identify me as afield archaeologist, other interpretations of the assemblage may be well off the mark.If we are unable to reliably interpret the distant past and we are unable to reliablyinterpret the archaeology of the present, what are we to do? Should we burn ourcontext sheets and smash our trowels, secure in the knowledge that all possibleinterpretations of the past are ultimately wrong? It’s probably not a surprise that Iwould argue the, no, we should not give up on the enterprise of archaeology.However, we must go forward into our excavations and our interpretations knowingthat all our carefully thought-out theories and explanations are, in the final analysis,in error and are failures. If there is to be hope to be had in this conundrum, maybe itis to be found in the words of Samuel Beckett: “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”.Reference:Newland, C., Bailey, G., Schofield, J. & Nilson, A. 2007 ‘Sic transit gloriamundi’ British Archaeology 92, 16-21.