Interpretation Not Record: The Practice of Archaeology

By Andrews, Gill; Barrett, John C. et al. | Antiquity, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Interpretation Not Record: The Practice of Archaeology


Andrews, Gill, Barrett, John C., Lewis, John S. C., Antiquity


The context

Over the last four years aN archaeological research design has been developed and implemented in the context of British commercial archaeology with the aim of ensuring that historical interpretation occurs on-site during the excavation process and is not deferred to a future programme of synthesis. This research programme has been designed for BAA plc (formerly British Airports Authority) and is intended for application in connection with any future developments at its various airports. The initial research design was drawn up by Gill Andrews and John Barrett (BAA 1998). Its onsite application and development took place at Perry Oaks, Heathrow under the overall direction of John Lewis during a 12-month period commencing November 1998. Each of us works in a different field of British archaeology, but we share responsibility for the final project design whose effectiveness has depended upon the hard work and commitment of a much larger team.(1)

The aim of the programme is to enable the members of the excavation team to undertake historical research, rather than to require them simply to record archaeological deposits prior to their destruction. To this end the programme has adopted an explicitly theorized approach towards historical analysis, and has established procedures of field analysis which interpret the material in the light of that approach. The efficiency with which the programme has worked to date has demonstrated that far from being an add-on `luxury', properly constituted research-based programmes offer benefits not only to archaeologists but also to developers. Clear research objectives facilitate management and can lead to significant cost savings. BAA's requirement for efficient working practices and its commitment to invest in research and development to establish such practices has provided the opportunity to address some of the fundamental problems in the archaeological discipline.

The problem

Archaeological fieldwork should be defined as a working on material conditions to achieve historical knowledge, a definition requiring that excavation objectives are deemed to be those of historical interpretation from the outset. This is not currently the case. Practical and managerial procedures separate excavation recording from post-excavation interpretation, thereby reaffirming the claim that the objectivity of recorded data is the only foundation for valid knowledge.

Obviously all observations involve interpretation, simply because observations become comprehensible when they confront the preexpectations which are held by the observer (cf. Hodder 1999: 30ff). The position is relatively well accepted, and few archaeologists adhere to the naive empiricism which assumes that the material simply reveals its true significance to a passive observer. Nonetheless this acceptance has not challenged the current obsession with the descriptive record as the primary product of fieldwork. The point is that, whilst all observation is interpretation, different levels of interpretation are deemed to operate between firstly recognizing what the material is, along the lines of `is this a post-hole or a root-hole?' (Hodder 1997: 692, quoting Barker), and finally deciding upon the historical implications of such observations. The latter is what most archaeologists would regard as `historical interpretation'.

Even when we accept that archaeology is interpretation all the way down, it is still possible to separate observational interpretations of the material (which most archaeologists hope are relatively secure) and historical interpretations (which most archaeologists would regard as relatively provisional). The point is exemplified in Hodder's recent discussion of these issues where he implies that interpretation at the `trowel's edge' is a matter of identifying the material for what it is as material, be it a post-hole or a root-hole, rather than a confrontation with its historical context.

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