Archaeology: Interpreting The Evidence

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#1
I heard a really interesting programme on BBC Radio4, the other day.

Various differing interpretations based on the data retrieved from excavations on ancient sites, in this case the enormous Iron Age site of Maiden Castle. The well known British archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler dug the site, back in the 1930s and built up a convincing narrative of British tribes-people fighting a rearguard action against the invading Romans and being massacred when the troops of Vespasian over ran the fort.

More recent digs and re-evaluations of the available evidence have produced different narratives, more in keeping with the prevailing concerns of the times.

Fascinating stuff.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00qgwcr

The Voices Who Dug Up The Past

[BBC iPlayer Episode 1]

Broadcaster and archaeologist Mike Pitts delves into the question of why different archaeologists can dig the same sites yet reach completely different conclusions.

Mike visits Britain's biggest Iron Age hill fort, Maiden Castle, and, through archive, diary excerpts and interviews, relives two seminal digs that took place there in the 1930s and 1980s. Is it a monument tied up in Roman warfare and invasion, or a structure symbolising power and exclusion from the outside world? Featuring interviews with Niall Sharples, Beatrice de Cardi, Ian Armit and Chris Sparey-Green.

Available since Monday with 4 days left.

1/2. Archaeologist Mike Pitts visits Britain's biggest Iron Age hill fort, Maiden Castle.
 

Cultjunky

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#2
When I was doing my degree I vaguely remember one of my proffs getting all excited about finding a partial stone inscription that suggested a wee bit more complicity from the locals in the Roman invasion than the fans of Boudicca would have you believe.

But that's one of the problems of Archeology, a complete picture is rarely uncovered, and when there is a time span between examinations of the same site of 50 years, very different perpectives are brought into the examinations by the examiners.

Current perpectives around the Roman invasion are a bit more middle of the road so to speak, 'Acculturation' is the watch word, (although the Yanks in Iraq would call it 'winning hearts and minds') and the programme synopsis suggests that they are going to examine the two potential extremes and coming to a middling conclusion, but I'm definately gonna catch it on the iplayer when I won't wake the housemates up
 

Zilch5

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#3
Cultjunky said:
Current perpectives around the Roman invasion are a bit more middle of the road so to speak, 'Acculturation' is the watch word, (although the Yanks in Iraq would call it 'winning hearts and minds')
Quite so!

I am always wary of today's values being imposed on ancient artifacts. Israeli archeology is rather infamous in that respect, as is the Christian-American effort to verify the Bible via digging.
 

Cultjunky

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#4
"Quite so!

I am always wary of today's values being imposed on ancient artifacts. Israeli archeology is rather infamous in that respect, as is the Christian-American effort to verify the Bible via digging."

Well you weren't wrong about current values being imposed when giving an interpretation of this site Zilch5! You could probably make a good guess at when each of the experts recieved their qualifications.

Having now listened to the programme, I would have liked a bit of a deeper exploration of the concept of architectural power and how that can compliment military power and accentuate presumed power. It would certainly have added a bit more ambiguity to the potential dates of conflict at the site, as it does seem to be quite a symbolic site for both the Vespasion conquest and the Boudiccan revolt, for either side this would have been a significant 'prize' in their endevours.

Then again, how much can you say in a 30 min segment aimed at a non specialist audience.

Looking forward to hearing the Sutton Hoo programme next Monday though :)
 

rynner2

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#5
It doesn't help when you have to get rid of the evidence...

Burial law is threatening archaeological research, say experts
Scientists object to Ministry of Justice rules which force them to rebury bones after just two years
Robin McKie The Observer, Sunday 10 October 2010

Severe restrictions on scientists' freedom to study bones and skulls from ancient graves are putting archaeological research in Britain at risk, according to experts.

The growing dispute relates to controversial legislation introduced by the Ministry of Justice in 2008, which decreed that all human remains found during digs in Britain must be reburied within two years.

The decision means that scientists have insufficient time to carry out proper studies of any pieces of ancient skeleton they find. Key information about British history will be lost as a result.

"Suppose one of our palaeontologists found the remains of a million-year-old human," said archaeologist Mike Pitts of the Stonehenge Riverside Project.
"It would be a truly wonderful discovery and would transform our knowledge of our predecessors. But, according to the Ministry of Justice ruling, we would have to take that fossil – when we had only just begun to study it – and put it back in the soil. It is utterly absurd."


Scientists are already facing the prospect of having to rebury a horde of human bone fragments, the remains of more than 50 individuals, that were excavated in 2008 at a site known as Aubrey Hole 7, which is part of the Stonehenge Riverside Project.

Team members, including Pitts, had hoped that they could study these pieces to gain new knowledge about the people who built and used Stonehenge, with a preliminary study of the 50,000 bone fragments being expected to run from 2008 until 2015. Now the team faces the prospect of having to rebury the remains when their research has only just begun.

"We have applied for an extension," added Pitts. "We may get one, but even if we did, it would only be for a couple more years. Then the bones would have be reburied."

The ministry's ruling follows a decision in 2007 to transfer authority for exhumation of human remains from ancient graves from the Home Office to the Ministry of Justice.

Its officials decided that the Burial Act 1857 was the appropriate legislation for controlling archaeological digs at burial grounds. As a result, they dictated that archaeologists could dig up bones and skulls, but insisted that they would have to rebury them within two years "in an accepted place of burial" – a cemetery – while the excavations would have to be screened from the public.

"In fact, that legislation was introduced in the 19th century to deal with the expansion of our cities, which took building development across existing cemeteries," said Pitts.
"Builders were essentially hauling corpses out of the ground in front of living relatives. The Burial Act was introduced to stop that. But it is something completely different from the excavation of prehistoric remains. It is utterly inappropriate to use this law to control archaeology."


In recent years, scientists have developed a number of important tools for interpreting ancient remains.

In one case, a recent project that used high-resolution radiocarbon dating of remains found in the West Kennet barrow – an ancient burial chamber in Wiltshire that was constructed around 3500BC – led to a dramatic re-evaluation of its contents.

"We used to think these ancient barrows were used for many generations to bury their dead," said Dr Duncan Sayer of the University of Central Lancashire. "But these new, highly accurate dating techniques revealed they had been filled up within a single generation."

The discovery is forcing historians to take a completely new look at how humans lived in the period, but it would not have been possible under the Ministry of Justice's rules.

"The bones were dug up at the barrow several decades ago and were kept in museums before researchers redated them," added Sayer.
"But the new rules would have meant that the bones would have had to been reburied long ago and would have been unavailable for research."

The requirement for reburial within two years is not the only issue to vex archaeologists, however. The ministry's requirement that any excavation of human remains must be screened from the public has also caused anger.

"If you dig up old burial grounds and then screen your dig from local people, they become suspicious," added Sayer, who is leading an excavation at a Saxon cemetery at Oakington in Cambridgeshire.
"They think you are doing something sinister. The ironic thing is that the government has insisted on the public being given access to scientific research and for there to be openness between scientists and the public.
"But now they are preventing us from doing that – when we are happy to show people what we are doing and when local folk want to learn about the men and women who used to live in their village or town."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/ ... stonehenge
 
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