Academic journal article
By Chippindale, Christopher
Antiquity , Vol. 67, No. 256
Written from Australia and partly from the field, this editorial addresses matters Australian and must begin -- happily -- in praise of fieldwork. Field study for me at present means work in Kakadu National Park in Arnhem Land, and adjacent regions of the north Australian coast.
The story of science over some centuries now is of a growing knowledge, a growing control, and a progress from the field into the laboratory. In soil mechanics, you don't have to stack stone blocks on a swamp to see how a soft sediment behaves under load; instead you take away a kilo or five as a little sample, zoom it round on a centrifuge, and extrapolate from the mathematics of that controlled and miniature experiment. In meteorology, more abstracted still, data for the parameters that matter are gathered by remote sensors below, in, and above the sky; all the action is now in the abstracted modelling of how the atmosphere behaves in terms the weather forecasters believe they understand.
Seen in this light, archaeology sits as a primitive science, in which we still depend on going out into the field and looking. The experienced and observant eye remains our commonest technical aid; this fact may measure our backwardness, a backwardness which I celebrate rather than regret. Dependence on eye and judgement remains clear in excavation, which constantly obliges you to decide where one deposit ends and another deposit begins, and constantly forces you to ask, 'What is this stuff? Where did it come from? How did it form?' Can this great spread of soft, dusty, grey-blue stuff, a full foot thick, with all its tiny fragments of burnt bone, really be the powdery residues from hundreds or thousands of human cremations, as I thought at the Brockdorff Cricle in Malta (where such a strange deposit would actually match what we know of the Tarxien Cemetery phase in the Maltese prehistoric sequence)?
I was briefly apprenticed to a master-excavator, Brian Hope-Taylor, who never settled for the cynical answer of GOK ('God Only Knows') or its despairing twin, GUK ('God Used to Know'). I remember his teasing out from a mass of medieval tumbled rock in the north bailey of Bamburgh Castle a pattern in a handful of placed stones which over the weeks became first a partial round of laid paving, and then a full and good circle with a small space in the centre: quite suddenly, we had a middle- or late-medieval horse-mill. A previous editorial grumbled about that wrong word data (meaning 'things given') we all use when we should rightly think and say capta (meaning 'things captured'). It is those rather few observations, captured from the many that could be given, which tell and signify -- the pitch of this block, the packing under that block, the surface of the other block -- and make a horse-mill emerge from the tumble. That's where the eye, and the feel under the trowel, come in; excavation is not the thoughtless gathering of a great heap of data from which sense will be made afterwards, but the constant selecting of those fewer capta in which the essence of stratigraphy, sequence and context reside. Justification will be provided by the analytical drawing of the section, showing the significant, not by the uninterpreted photograph which shows all and tells little.
I work mostly on rock-art myself, where all this is even more immediate, because you do not usually have to dig anything up. It's just there to be looked at. When Paul Tacon and I go to a new surface, what we look at is the same as it would have been last year, but what we see is not the same; it is changed by what we saw instead last year and by what we have drawn and thought about in the months between field seasons. An excitement this year was resolving finally -- as we believe -- the old question of the history of the spearthrower in the rock-art of Arnhem Land, in far northern Australia. It is important for the region, and for the continent since the pictures of spears and spear-throwers in old Arnhem Land art practically amount to all the capta ('data' in the conventional word) pertinent to the early history of the spearthrower in Australia. …