Antiquity Journal



Quick search

Back to Past Antiquity


Antiquity

from The Editorial: ANTIQUITY June 1973 vol. 47: 93-95

We deliberately published Dr David Clarke's article 'Archaeology: the loss of innocence' (Antiquity, 1973, 6-18) knowing that it would cause alarm and despondency among many. We commissioned it as a follow-up to the earlier articles by R. A. Watson (Antiquity, 1972, 210-15) and A. C. Hogarth (Antiquity, 1972, 301-4), and we have invited Professor C. F. C. Hawkes to continue this discussion and hope to publish his views in the September number. We thought it right and proper that the main British exponent of what is tiresomely called in America 'the New Archaeology', as if all archaeology was not moving to newness by discovery and interpretation every decade, should have his say, and set out his views. It was a personal statement and no one who has read Analytical Archaeology would have supposed that it would be written other than in the obscure jargon promoted by the Binfords. But we have been surprised by the violence of the reaction to the article, and print three letters of considerable interest. The first is from Dr Peter Salway who is now a Regional Director of the Open University, written on 9 March:

I have much respect for Dr David Clarke as a practising archaeologist. Hence I am all the more horrified by his article 'Archaeology: the loss of innocence' in the March issue of Antiquity. Much of my own daily working information comes from systems analysts, data processers, social scientists and educational technologists. I find it requires no mental effort at all to write, for example, that in archaeology within certain parameters it is possible by deriving suitable structured questions from a model and translating them into an algorithm for non-subject-sympathetic operators to process survey research field data and allocate it to type cells in a multi-dimensional matrix, provided that by raising coded signals one can retrieve comparative information on file in a suitable data-base system. It is extraordinary that Dr Clarke should complain that specialists are 'unconsciously raising barriers to communication between archaeologists' and continue to write in the way he does. This misuse, not to say wilful disregard, of the English language is far more destructive. Indeed it is potentially fatal to archaeology. Communication between professionals becomes almost impossible. David Clarke's actual points, when one can cut one's way through to them, are valuable and already widely held (some, indeed, are not so new as they may appear wrapped up in this curious dialect). But they could easily be expressed in normal English, and there really is no reason why busy professionals should learn this new language. Indeed there is a real danger of separate (or do I mean discrete?) languages emerging, unintelligible between specialisms. The answer is not a new common jargon, since the worst danger is that the serious amateur with very limited time for his archaeology is likely to be baffled and repelled. This is a split many of us are anxious to avoid. Even worse, public understanding of archaeology is likely to decline into total incomprehension. Rescue and the multitude of local research committees were hardly founded for this.

Dr Clarke would have done better in his second paragraph to talk not of 'craft style' but of 'craft mystery', for this is what it is. Mystification is a time-honoured method of keeping a profession exclusive, but it will do nothing to gain public support and informed participation in all the fields vital to archaeology today, particularly legislation and planning. If I may be permitted one trendy word (now sanctified by Government use), in the end it is not only a matter of saving the raw material of our 'craft', it is also a matter of enabling the public to understand the information they need to judge the issues affecting their own environment - or is it 'quality of life-style'?

The second letter is from the President of the Society of Antiquaries of London. Dr I. N. L. Myres writes:

If David Clarke and his New Archaeologists are no longer Innocent, it follows that they must be Guilty. Guilty of what? Well, clearly of at least one unpardonable sin, an outrageous misuse of their mother tongue. If I understand aright the message of his article (and I have been at some distasteful pains to do so), the meaning behind twelve pages of tortuous gobbledygook can be stated in one simple sentence: Archaeologists now have access to more assistance of many kinds from other disciplines than was formerly the case, and, properly used, these aids are capable of adding greatly to our knowledge. These propositions are self-evident and it is not necessary to lose one's innocence to appreciate their truth. To make a new archaeology out of them apparently requires the use (often the misuse) of three long words wherever one short one will do. So we are expected to live in a 'metaphysical field space', peopled by 'paradigms', 'epistemologies', 'taxa' (what language are they?), 'postdictions' and 'theoretical hatracks'. It seems a great pity that the 'doomed race of disciplinary dinosaurs' (Dr Clarke's one truly memorable phrase) who tried to teach him archaeology, did not use their blue pencils to better effect on his literally unspeakable prose.

We agree with some of Dr Myres's criticisms and believe that epistemologies and postdictions are unnecessary neologisms of the so-called new archaeologists. The word 'paradigm' is a trendy alternative for the perfectly good word 'model'. But surely there is nothing mysterious or unusual about the words 'taxon' and 'taxa', which are back-formations from taxonomy, 'the science, laws, or principles of classification', and both words coming from the Greek taxis, meaning arrangement or order. Here is the definition of taxon in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1969); 'Biology. A group of organisms constituting one of the categories or formal units in taxonomic classification, such as a phylum, order, family, genus or species, and characterized by common characteristics in varying degrees of distinction.' To take an example from megalithic monuments: passage-graves, allées couvertes, entrance-graves, menhirs, portal-chambers, statue-menhirs, are all taxa.

But if we defend some words we do not defend the spate of jargon of the Binford-Clarke school. We are reminded of what A. E. Housman said in his Leslie Stephen Lecture for 1933 entitled The name and nature of poetry: 'When I hear anyone say, with defiant emphasis, that Pope was a poet, I suspect him of calling in ambiguity of language to promote confusion of thought.' Aspiring archaeological Popes should ponder over Housman's wise words.

The third letter was from Dr Graham Webster of the Department of Extramural Studies in the University of Birmingham. He writes:

Having made a serious effort to read David Clarke's article without understanding hardly a word of it, I began to get very worried. As an old fashioned practical excavator, was I beginning to lose my grip, or did I lack the intellectual ability to grasp the modern concept? So I gave it to a young student to read and tell me what it is about. She could not understand it either. So we are baffled. Perhaps it is not written in English at all, but some new kind of scientific language which uses some English words . . . . It is possible that the article applies only to Prehistoric Archaeology. If this is so, it is unfortunate that a gulf is being created between practitioners on the same subject in different periods. This lack of communication could lead to serious consequences, so would it not be desirable for at least a summary of such important papers to be translated into English for the benefit of those concerned with the post-prehistoric periods?

We asked Dr David Clarke if he would like to comment on the letters from Salway, Myres and Webster but he said his comments could be found in his review of the Newell-Vroomans book which we print in this issue (pp.158-60). We wonder whether his critics will be satisfied with this answer, and we sometimes wonder whether the Binfords and Clarkes of this world realize they write in gobbledygook gibberish? The OED tells us that the word 'gobbledygook' was invented by Maury Maverick of Texas and means 'official verbiage or jargon'; the gobble part is, of course, talking turkey, and the gook, we learn elsewhere, may come from the Scottish gowk, a simpleton, or the Middle English gowhe, a cuckoo. Certainly and fortunately the Binford-Clarke jargon is not the official verbiage of archaeology. Let us hope it may never become so. As for us, we have happily put down our blue pencil, said to hell with these gibbering turkeys and cuckoos, and are away across the road for a large stein of Stella Artois.


Back to Top
Back to Past Antiquity


Home | Online Archive | Project Gallery | FAQs
Letters to the Editor | Events and Announcements | Reviews | TAG