Carver, Martin, Antiquity
'The trouble with archaeology' remarked (Lord) Rupert Redesdale at a recent gathering of British academics (at the British Academy) 'is that it has no product'. Without a product, it is difficult to assign the activity a social value or an effective role in the market place, things that matter today. Well, of course archaeology has a product, and it has moreover, an enormous 'client base'. New knowledge about the past allows you to create an historic building, enhance a landscape, respect the environment, understand your origins, enjoy the culture of other countries and come to terms with mortality. Not a bad list. Our clients also include a limitless number of the unborn, whose votes and money are, admittedly, hard to collect. On his recent retirement the great Tam Dalyell, long-term friend of archaeology (see Antiquity 76: 1050-4), pointed out that what was different about the new House of Commons was its large proportion of professional politicians who had never done anything else. The implication was that to make sensible decisions about life, you must have lived it, and he recommended a minimum 5 years of real work before telling other people how to manage. Perhaps archaeology could help here. I would think that a few years of digging and listening, through deep time, to the voices of the people without history is an admirable preparation for government.
The real problem is not that we have no product, but that we have no straightforward way of measuring it. Ranking the performance of archaeological academics has something of the difficulty of ranking furnished burials - and one or two of the same criteria may apply. So, to designate the high esteem of a princely grave, we look for large numbers of objects (=many articles published), artefacts of intricate manufacture (=fond of complex theoretical argument) and imported from far away (=given to long absences abroad). Archaeological research in Britain is now hosted by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and, being a research council, it belongs in the Office of Science and Technology. Here we come face-to-face with a range of managerial prescriptions that scientists have learnt to love, such as the citation index. This scores each published article by the number of times it is cited: the more citations, the more 'important' the article. But arts researchers recognise in themselves a love of irony and critique that can mean that the most cited articles are those that are easiest to disdain. So the citations index might measure high levels of contention rather than esteem.
Next step: to rank the journals so that an article in one journal scores more than an article in another. But there is a caveat in the case of archaeology. There are in our subject no global advances: the hydrogen atom might be the same from China to Peru, but the past isn't, and that's the point. We may once have thought that one interpretation of the past was (theoretically) 'better' than another--but theory itself has put paid to that. Discovering things (i.e. fieldwork) does have a permanent value (if done carefully) because the results will still be usable in a hundred years time (as we have repeatedly found). But it is hard to rank one discovery above another, because its significance for making sense of the past can lie a long way in the future.
It doesn't stop us trying of course. Antiquity is determined to serve the community of archaeological researchers in every way, whatever they are asked to do. On the one hand, we shall aim to be registered with the Humanities, Social Sciences, Anthropological and all the other citation indices. We shall continue to circulate our press releases. Thanks to our referees, outstandingly generous with their time and honest in their opinions, we shall work to make peer reviewing seek out excellence and lasting value. All of this should help to make our authors' work better known and more widely read. On the other hand, we shall continue to appreciate that archaeology is rooted in a local soil, and that every past in every part of the world has contributed to the understanding of human life on earth and so deserves to be better known. …