I spent yesterday afternoon at the Museum Resource Centre in Hitchin. Located along an industrial road, adjacent to the railway line, it wasn’t the most attractive of settings, but it did however prove very useful. Keith kindly presented me with a selection of (some pretty hefty) archaeological reports to grapple with and grapple I did, leaving with a bit of a head ache two hours later.
One particular report by Graham Clark of the excavations at Star Carr (a Mesolithic site in North Yorkshire) carried out in the 50s, stands, as Keith explained, as a kind of bench mark for subsequent reports because of its style, organisation and also the significance of the site itself. This seemed like a good place for me to start in trying to get a feel for how archaeologists present and communicate to one another in the field. Keith explained that these kind of publications aren’t produced for the general public and as I flicked through I could see his point. A lot of the data seemed impenetrable, presented in endless tables, charts, graphs and symbols that would each require a thorough explanation before I could even attempt to translate what it was actually saying. To anyone outside the field I would guess about 95% is probably pretty meaningless. Keith pointed out that sometimes there can be some little nugget of really significant data that can become lost in the bulk of it. In an attempt to reveal, unmask the hidden, things are reburied, lost in layers of heavy data. How ironic. These publications are the data in the raw form, designed to be understood and interpreted by others specialising in the field who know what they are looking for. They communicate through the abstract language of the objective, measuring to the most minute detail, accumulating endless records of points, variations, anomalies, patterns. But it can’t stop there, what relevance would it have to anything. At some point the scientist must turn storyteller.
A few weeks back I attended a talk by Keith for the Norton Community Archaeology Group, discussing the findings from the dig that took place over the summer at Stapleton’s Field in Letchworth. This particular excavation is part of a bigger investigation taking place over the course of five years and has already uncovered some potentially really significant discoveries, not just for the local area but also in the context of the Neolithic period in a much wider sense. I could sense Keith has laboured long and hard over the findings thus far, hypothesising, questioning and revising initial interpretations. How to not get blinded by expectation, hope and your own excitement in these situations?!
The talk was interesting in itself too, in terms of looking at how the data and findings are presented to a non academic audience. This is a local group with a keen interested in the history of their area. Keith started off giving a little background and explaining the things that emerged during the dig so we could all keep up (but only just, in my case!). Dark patches in the earth, chalk banks, colluvium, inner and outer enclosures, ring ditches and a henge. I’m sure I was probably the only one in the room wanting to shout… ‘but what exactly is it?’ but I felt like I just couldn’t grasp anything tangible, which made me feel quite frustrated. I was really wanting someone to just draw me a picture. Then Keith very kindly did exactly that in the form of a really engaging story. Suddenly I could sit back, relax and imagine a place with a location, somewhere real people could exist and who are driven by familiar human desires…. phew! and with all that expertise and data to give it gusto, I couldn’t help but be enthralled.