The limits of fiction

Space station

Station V by Les Chatfield

Just over a week ago Sidney Perkowitz sug­ges­ted that film-makers should limit them­selves to one big sci­entific flaw in a film. All sorts of crit­ics have had fun with this. writer­James has pos­ted an inter­est­ing response arguing sci­entific accur­acy can enhance a story. I’m going to go a bit fur­ther and argue that the one BIG flaw idea is a good idea, for a given defin­i­tion of BIG.

It’s not a new idea. Brian Stableford made it one of the key points in Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. He argued good SF intro­duced one new BIG idea, which he called a novum, and explored the con­sequences. That sounds lim­ited, and it’s rare you’ll get big crowds shout­ing for more lim­its on what they can do. Yet Stableford’s reas­on­ing isn’t that it’s good for sci­ence. It’s good for the story. Terry Pratchett came to a sim­ilar con­clu­sion when he even­tu­ally made the map of Ankh-Morpork. Initially he was against pin­ning down places because it lim­ited what he could do. He then real­ised that it’s the lim­it­a­tions that make a story. The Door You Cannot Open. The Path You Cannot Take. It’s the lack of an easy route that makes the story worth telling. Every single murder mys­tery could be speeded up if the lead char­ac­ter had an app on their iPhone that told them all the neces­sary details at the start of the pro­gramme, along with a GPS route to the cur­rent loc­a­tion of the mur­derer. It would cer­tainly cut out a lot of the faff­ing about, but the only pro­gramme that would be improved by such a device is Murder, She Wrote.

There is a dif­fer­ence between a one novum rule and ped­antry for drama. Take for instance David Mitchell’s com­plaint:

Apparently, if a ship blows up in space, it doesn’t really make a noise. How silly much of Hollywood’s sci-fi out­put must look to audi­ence mem­bers with exper­i­ence of inter-stellar warfare.

Personally I think it’s excit­ing when things go bang but it would be a ludicrous waste of the one phys­ical impossib­il­ity that Perkowitz per­mits. You’d need to save that for warp speed or all of Kirk’s adven­tures would have to hap­pen on the moon.

Pedantry would be point­ing out that a ship blow­ing up around the Moon wouldn’t make a noise either, so inter-stellar war­fare is not a neces­sity. My objec­tion is that sound in space is one of the con­ven­tions of the genre. This and other oddit­ies, like sim­ul­tan­eous light and sound for explo­sions, are simply part of the dra­matic tool box used for sci­ence fic­tion. The sort of per­son who com­plains about those is the sort of per­son who watches a musical and asks “How come every­body knows the words?”

If we were hav­ing this dis­cus­sion about Geography it’d be a non-issue. I don’t know much about American geo­graphy. I know Chicago and Detroit are in neigh­bour­ing states, but I don’t know if you could drive from one to another in three hours. That means a film where a crook picks up the guns in Chicago in the morn­ing and deliv­ers them in Detroit at lunch­time wouldn’t bother me. Would it be reas­on­able for me to mock any­one who was annoyed as a bunch of spods? ((If Chicago and Detroit doesn’t work for this example, then replace them with NY and LA — which I know are quite far apart.))

I don’t think one novum per film should be a rigid law. FTL travel, in one form or another is a staple of SF, even if it cur­rently looks impossible. It works not because of warps or tachy­ons, but because it’s neces­sary for the story. Still, I do sup­port the prin­ciple that using sci­ence as a magic wand is a bad idea. So do most of the authors that I fol­low and read. One of the nice things about Twitter is see­ing authors ask­ing ques­tions because pulling an answer out of the air isn’t good enough for them. The clas­sic wheeled space sta­tion is the res­ult of writers not want­ing to magic grav­ity into a set­ting, when they can come up with a plaus­ible reason for it. It’s an obvi­ous example of cre­ativ­ity through limitations.

Perhaps a bet­ter idea would be to count each novum as a neg­at­ive mark on a story. FTL drive is a neg­at­ive, but so long as the place you end up is inter­est­ing enough, the net res­ult is pos­it­ive. Similarly there’s no reason for English-speaking ali­ens to appear, unless the story is improved by them. Under this rule the magic wand the Doctor uses against the Cybermen in the Christmas spe­cial Dr Who vs the Cyberkittens is a bad idea because it’s a big neg­at­ive and it kills the story.

It also helps if you think about what is or isn’t sci­ence fic­tion. Star Wars is not science-fiction. It’s set in space, but it’s fantasy. The driv­ing motor of the story is about the people and their struggles. It’s set in space, but for the most part that’s just exotic scenery. The Core in con­trast is driven by a phys­ical dis­aster. The reason for the story exist­ing is a sci­entific prob­lem, which surely makes the sci­ence fair game for cri­ti­cism. The sci­ence not tan­gen­tial to the drama as it is in Star Wars, it is the ant­ag­on­ist. If the peril is as ludicrous as the Pacific Ocean lev­it­at­ing and drop­ping on the lower 48 states of the USA in the mother of all tsuna­mis you have a prob­lem. If your solu­tion is get­ting Bruce Willis to build a giant umbrella before the ocean drops you have a worthy sequel to The Core.

Archaeology as Science Fiction

TARDIS Bokeh. Photo (cc) Capt. Tim.

There’s an inter­est­ing post on Archaeolog: Archaeology, Science Fiction, and Pop Culture, by Dan Shoup, who’s more nor­mally found at Archaeopop. In it he puts for­ward two propositions.

  1. In the pop­u­lar ima­gin­a­tion, archae­ology is a form of sci­ence fiction.
  2. Archaeologists should embrace this, and start writ­ing sci­ence fic­tion that pro­motes their vis­ion of the past and agenda for the present.

I’m sym­path­etic to this, but I’m not sure I agree with all of it, and I’m cer­tainly not as enthu­si­astic as Dan.

On his first point I think he’s right. For a lot of the pub­lic archae­ology is a form of sci­ence fic­tion. Common things you hear from the pub­lic on a dig are: “Where’s yer hat ‘n’ whip?”, “Let me know when you’ve found Atlantis.” and “I sup­pose the only way we’ll ever really know is if someone builds a time machine.” I’m much more luke­warm on his second pro­pos­i­tion. Just because the pub­lic thinks some­thing, that’s not enough itself to jus­tify doing it.
Continue read­ing

–ve on Bonekickers


Bonekickers has limped to the end of its run and after an epic quest which spanned four thou­sand years and half a dozen major finds, Gillian Magwilde finally acheived her quest in an mad­cap man­ner which sealed Bonekickers in the pan­theon of British tele­vi­sion along­side such clas­sics as Triangle (a drama based on the glam­or­ous and sexy world of North Sea Ferries) and Eldorado. It’s as if the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation had decided to write a drama as the super­fi­cial flaws seem to obscured some people’s views of the fun­da­mental flaws in the series.

Spoilers, and I’m using the word quite wrongly, follow.

The story arc was the quest for Excalibur which cropped up in one form or another each week. To what extent this was a rev­el­a­tion is hard to say. I ima­gine the audi­ence was divided between those who knew exactly what to expect and those who couldn’t believe the plot could be as shal­low as that. Personally I don’t have a prob­lem with that per se. If Indiana Jones can go raid­ing lost arks, then why not have someone go after Excalibur. The prob­lem is that a drama at least needs internal logic. The writers tried to sup­ply that, but they were left with the prob­lem of how to get Excalibur from Bath to Wells Cathedral, a dis­tance of twenty miles. The answer was:

The Knights Templar took it with them to Portugal around the time the Portuguese were explor­ing the West African coast. From here a black man, Oran, got it. He was enslaved and shipped to America where he fought, with his sword, along­side George Washington against the British. He was shipped to Britain after the war was won and he escaped around the Bristol Channel, where the sword washed up and was taken by someone whose name I can’t be bothered to look up to Wells.

The second epis­ode was built around the sheer injustice, which is still often down­played, of the slave trade. Millions died. The idea that Oran had Excalibur makes even less sense than the idea that Africans enjoyed being slaves, because you could hear them singing. Contrary to what Scotty says, when it comes drama you can change the laws of Physics but you can­not change the laws of nar­rat­ive flow. Unfortunately the final epis­ode was up against an avalanche.

The cli­max, for want of a bet­ter word, was when a bad­die took excalibur and attacked the heroine with it. It broke in his hands and to let the audi­ence know this was a Significant Thing, Magwilde explained how it had sur­vived four mil­lenia before it broke in his hands. This utterly failed because when you’re burn­ing the True Cross, blow­ing up the remains of Boudicca or los­ing the bones of Jeanne d’Arc to traitor from the Army, a broken sword really isn’t a big deal. At least you still have the bits. If you’ve spent five weeks show­ing that the loss of major arte­facts doesn’t mat­ter, then why on earth would you expect any­one to care by epis­ode six? It’s as if they simply couldn’t care less, and the tim­ing on the script told them they needed to resolve the story some­how. The need to get the job done would explain how the bad­die died.

The death of the Bad Guy at the end of a drama is usu­ally about a moral judge­ment, and it’s more ham­fis­ted in Bonekickers than usual. After telling Magwilde tells him that he isn’t the man for Excalibur, he jumps into the pond Magwilde had just swum out of and dis­ap­pears. I sup­pose you could argue that dis­solv­ing the bad guy in cathed­ral pond is an ori­ginal end, but see­ing as Magwilde was show­ing no ill-effects there’s that nar­rat­ive con­tinu­ity prob­lem again. The remain­ing eleven masked men get the mes­sage through the col­lect­ive uncon­scious and decided to turn their back on evil and set up a flor­ists’ shop in Glastonbury. Possibly. Actually we never find out what hap­pens to them.

For all of the above you simply can­not blame Mark Horton, which is why I find the com­plaints dir­ec­ted at him about the many, many inac­curacies tedi­ous. It would be a bit like get­ting agit­ated about the police using the wrong form to take a con­fes­sion in Murder She Wrote. I can­not see, des­pite some claims by other archae­olo­gists, that Bonekickers has dimin­ished archae­ology in any way. If you look at com­plaints by the pub­lic it’s not archae­ology both­ers them. The pub­lic love archae­ology and that’s why they’re annoyed Graham and Pharoah have done such an awful job with it. The first epis­ode was sadly the high point.

It’s been fas­cin­at­ing watch­ing it, but then people slow down to gawp at car crashes.

+ve on Bonekickers


To cla­rify, I am not being at all sar­castic when I say I’m pos­it­ive about Bonekickers. The first epis­ode wasn’t bril­liant, but first epis­odes of any series tend to be poor because not only are they intro­du­cing a story, they’re intro­du­cing char­ac­ters. The entire first sea­son of Star Trek:TNG and DS9 are poor, but with char­ac­ters estab­lished they improved massively. The per­petual prob­lem with new Doctor Who is that each series intro­duces a new assist­ant or new Doctor which causes prob­lems for devel­op­ing stor­ies. So in light of that, the cur­rent shal­low­ness of the char­ac­ters in Bonekickers is understandable.

It would also be easy to go through and pick every point that made me laugh dur­ing the show. I could do the same for 1960s era Batman. Like pick­ing apart Batman I’m not sure there’d be much point to it. There are some prob­lems though. There are cer­tain assump­tions about real­ity which have to hold. It might be pos­sible to have a Bat-microscope which can view inside atoms, but you can bet Batman will have to use his open eye to view it. Similarly there are cer­tain basic archae­olo­gical assump­tions and this clip shows where they get it wrong.

The line about ‘get in the trench or out of it’ is an echo of what had been said to the archae­olo­gist earlier in the show. That’s not been com­men­ted on much because the bit where they yank out the wood has caused howls of deri­sion. I think this is fair because prior to this jar­gon and tech­nobabble was get­ting dropped to show how they were ser­i­ous archae­olo­gists. The pub­lic know that wood rots and this isn’t plaus­ible. My reac­tion would be if it’s the holy cross then surely all bets are off, but people don’t think like that. There have to be some basic found­a­tions which the drama is built on and this scene breaks them.

That aside, if you look at the assump­tions Bonekickers uses then it’s actu­ally very pos­it­ive towards archae­ology. The pro­gramme shows arche­olo­gists in a largely flat­ter­ing light. They appear almost nor­mal. The reason the Head of the Department is odi­ous is that real archae­olo­gists don’t go chas­ing media atten­tion. This comes up a couple of times.

The tech­nobabble emphas­ises that this is a men­tally demand­ing pro­fes­sion. Often engin­eers or bio­lo­gists in TV shows are shown giv­ing things their best guess. In con­trast the archae­olo­gists in this series Know What They Are Talking About. They have a wide range of skill sets, but this is the basis of how they know stuff rather than just mak­ing it up.

Two of the four cent­ral char­ac­ters are from eth­nic minor­it­ies. I don’t know of a single archae­olo­gical depart­ment in the UK that has more than one non-white lec­turer. I would be delighted if that’s down to my ignor­ance rather an accur­ate reflec­tion of real­ity. Nonetheless uni­ver­sit­ies as a whole and archae­ology in par­tic­u­lar are strug­gling to recruit ethnic-minorities onto courses, which isn’t going to help rep­res­ent­a­tion at staff levels.

The assump­tions aren’t all help­ful. Bonekickers lives in its own fin­an­cial uni­verse so the lab, which serves the same func­tion as the Batcave or Torchwood Hub, is amaz­ingly well equipped. This is prob­ably a dra­matic neces­sity. Carbon dates and post-ex ana­lysis needs to be sup­plied fast to keep the story mov­ing, but that means that Wessex University must have a bot­tom­less pit of money for the archae­ology depart­ment. It’s also amus­ing that the lead char­ac­ter lives on Bath’s Royal Crescent. This must mean she’s inde­pend­ently wealthy, but there’s also the assump­tion that the work­ers have a reas­on­able wage, which many field archae­olo­gists will find hard to swal­low.

There are oddit­ies. The insist­ence that they have an archae­olo­gical con­sult­ant seems a bit po-faced. Thanks to Daniel Petts at the PAS, I know Mark Horton has been say­ing what his role was. Star Trek also has sci­entific con­sult­ants who they ask about phys­ics before decid­ing the prob­lem can be solved by run­ning warp power through the deflector. I don’t think they make a big deal of it though. On the plus side next week’s epis­ode might bear some resemb­lance to a pro­ject Mark Horton has been work­ing on con­cern­ing a ship found in the Bristol chan­nel. That sounds like a way of get­ting the polit­ical implic­a­tions of archae­ology out for dis­cus­sion. He also says that it’s funnier.

They say a good wine critic is judged by the wine he rejects. Certainly the safe option would be to pan Bonekickers and thus imply that my work is far super­ior. Perhaps there are med­ics who berat­ing Green Wing for its unreal­ism. I think that would be miss­ing the point and the same goes for Bonekickers. It’s not an out-and-out com­edy but I don’t think it is meant to be entirely ser­i­ous either, else it’d be called some­thing like The Unsilent Grave.

Archaeology (is/ought to be) Pop Culture?


It’s ok she’s a com­mie, not a mem­ber of the pub­lic. Photo © Warner Bros I’d guess.

There’s an odd debate piece in Antiquity this month between Kristian Kristiansen and Cornelius Holtorf. On the sur­face it’s about the archae­ology as pop­u­lar cul­ture idea which Holtorf has been devel­op­ing over the past few years. Unfortunately I’m not sure the debate makes much sense in those terms, but I’m not entirely clear what it is about. I’m going to ramble on for a while and see if I start mak­ing sense any­where. If I do I may tidy it up for a paper.

In his piece Should archae­ology be in the ser­vice of “pop­u­lar cul­ture”? A the­or­et­ical and polit­ical cri­tique of Cornelius Holtorf’s vis­ion of archae­ology Kristian Kristiansen argues against what he describes as an ultra-liberal and deeply con­ser­vat­ive ideo­logy. I like that. I think a lot of post-processualists who have claimed to be left-wing are, when you actu­ally exam­ine their work, stridently right wing. Many ‘left-wing’ archae­olo­gists in the UK reacted to Thatcherism by pro­mot­ing archae­olo­gies which looked at the power of the indi­vidual.* Unfortunately for Kristiansen I wouldn’t say that Holtorf was one of them.

Kristiansen takes issue with Holtorf’s cojec­ture that archae­olo­gical facts do not, from the per­spect­ive of pop­u­lar cul­ture, mat­ter. From this Kristiansen derives a hyper-relativist view­point for Holtorf where truth is decided by mar­ket forces. In light of this the whole ‘work­ing out what happened in the past’ thing that archae­olo­gists have been doing for a hun­dred years is thrown out in favour of an archae­ology for a self-obsessed public.

Holtorf replies with Academic cri­tique and the need for an open mind. It’s an unchar­ac­tist­ic­ally spiky rejoin­der to Kristiansen who’s art­icle is, accord­ing to Holtorf, ver­ging on the defam­at­ory. Holtorf argues that his pos­i­tion is in oppos­i­tion to Kristiansen’s char­ac­ter­isa­tion and that far from ignor­ing the con­sequences of his argu­ments, he’s keenly aware of the polit­ical dimen­sion to his state­ments, and sup­plies cita­tions from his books. He then goes on the attack, ‘I can­not account for Kristiansen’s beha­viour, but I sus­pect some aca­dem­ics, as they get older, find it frus­trat­ing to see famil­iar pos­i­tions being chal­lenged and dis­courses chan­ging in unfore­seen ways.’

That sur­prised me. I know one or two people who’ve said they’ll be appear­ing in a BBC doc­u­ment­ary ‘Talking with Dinosaurs’, after dis­agree­ments with senior aca­dem­ics at Another University. Paul Bahn also referred in his Bluffers Guide to an eld­erly pro­fessor known as ‘Thrombosis’ (the clot who blocks up the sys­tem) but expli­cit ref­er­ences to age in aca­demic papers are rare. Or maybe I just read the wrong papers. It also sur­prised me that Holtorf didn’t press on Kristiansen’s quo­ta­tion of his work, because I think Kristiansen does mis­un­der­stand Holtorf’s pos­i­tion and that his quo­ta­tions show where he is mistaken.

The key lines are from page six of From Stonehenge to Las Vegas, which Kristiansen quotes as:

As far as I am con­cerned the prac­tices of archae­ology in the present are more import­ant and also more inter­est­ing that what cur­rently accep­ted sci­entific meth­ods can teach us about a time long past. Much of what actu­ally happened hun­dreds or thou­sands of years ago is either sci­en­tific­ally inac­cess­ible in its most sig­ni­fic­ant dimen­sions, incon­clus­ive in its rel­ev­ance, or simply irrel­ev­ant to the world in which we are liv­ing now … Importantly I am not deny­ing the rel­ev­ance of the past to the present cat­egor­ic­ally; I merely ques­tion the sig­ni­fic­ance of accur­ately know­ing the past in the present.

Me, I’d embolden the line can teach us about a time long past in the quote above to make it clear he’s com­par­ing archae­olo­gical facts with archae­olo­gical pro­cess. I think that inter­pret­a­tion would be jus­ti­fied on two grounds. First there’s the ellip­sis, as Kristiansen skips some of the text.

Professional archae­ology con­sists of vari­ous present day prac­tices, includ­ing advan­cing aca­demic dis­course, teach­ing stu­dents, man­aging tour­ist sites, archives or museum col­lec­tions, and admin­is­ter­ing or invest­ig­at­ing archae­olo­gical sites in the land­scape. These prac­tices are gov­erned entirely by the rules, con­ven­tions and ambi­tions of our present soci­ety and relate to its estab­lished val­ues, norms, pro­ced­ures and genres. For example, research is val­ued in the form of com­pleted pub­lic­a­tions and per­suas­ive argu­ments, invest­ig­a­tions inthe form of com­pre­hens­ive and inform­at­ive reports, teach­ing in the form of cog­nit­ive — and social — learn­ing out­comes, and man­age­ment in the form of appar­ent care, effi­ciency and account­ab­il­ity. Although all these prac­tices depict the past in some form, a time-traveller’s obser­va­tions about the degree to which these depic­tions relate to what it was actu­ally like in the past remains largely irrel­ev­ant. Importantly I am not denying…

That’s all about how the archae­olo­gical pos­i­tion is jus­ti­fied. Secondly in his book he has little boxes with sound-bites of his idea and Thesis six (p74) is: ‘The pro­cess of doing archae­ology is more import­ant than the res­ults.’ Reading that with the sec­tion Kristiansen quotes I get two ideas that I think Holtorf is try­ing to communicate.

In archae­olo­gical prac­tice coher­ence with onto­lo­gical real­ity is desir­able but not a necessity.

Coherence with real­ity is import­ant in some­thing like Physics. The uni­verse doesn’t care how Marxist you’re feel­ing today. Grab two wires of mains elec­tri­city and you’ll feel a world of pain regard­less of your the­or­et­ical per­spect­ive. In con­trast let’s take an archae­olo­gical prob­lem. Did archaic Homo Sapiens inter­breed or replace Neanderthals? It’s a major ques­tion about the very ori­gin of our spe­cies and opin­ions vary. Yet if we got a con­clus­ive answer what use would it be? What dif­fer­ence would know­ing that fact about our past make? The fact itself Holtorf argues would make little dif­fer­ence. However, Kristiansen is wrong in con­clud­ing that Holtorf believes the search for that fact is a waste of time. He spells it out in the sec­tion Kristiansen quotes: “…the prac­tices of archae­ology in the present are more import­ant and also more inter­est­ing…” What does that mean for our Neanderthal ques­tion? That’s his second point

Meaning in archae­ology comes from the pro­cess of how we find things out.

We don’t have the lux­ury of trip­ping back in time to check we have the right answer, so instead we would have to decide what makes an answer sat­is­fy­ing. My guess is that answer would involve DNA ana­lysis com­bined with archae­olo­gical exam­in­a­tion sites with con­tem­por­an­eous occu­pa­tion Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens. The DNA ana­lysis would not exist in a vacuum, it would be based upon an awful lot of Genetic the­ory and exper­i­ment which would have to give many jus­ti­fic­a­tions about how out own bod­ies work, how those of other prim­ates work and why ana­lo­gies are jus­ti­fied when examin­ing palaeo-DNA. In doing so it relies not just on our view of ourselves but also of our place within Earth’s eco­logy. The archae­olo­gical jus­ti­fic­a­tion will prob­ably have to be more thought out than ‘My good­ness all the bones look just a muddy, they must be the same age’. Instead there’ll be jus­ti­fic­a­tions of age based on chem­istry and strati­graphy and the social rela­tion­ships described between indi­vidu­als who may have left little trace of themselves.

If this explan­a­tion were presen­ted today, how would it appear? It would not be pub­lished in Glik, a lan­guage spoken across Australasia in the 45th cen­tury AD, nor would it be likely to appear in clas­sical Latin. It would not con­tain ref­er­ences to the god Jupiter or Slood Chemistry. It would be iden­ti­fi­ably a product of the 21st cen­tury. It would be recog­nis­able through ref­er­ences to pop­u­lar cul­ture. Popular cul­ture is not the same as ‘low cul­ture’ and Holtorf (p7) also dis­tin­guishes it from ‘mass cul­ture’ instead pre­fer­ring a defin­i­tion from Raymond Williams as ‘the cul­ture people pro­duce for them­selves’. Perhaps another way of see­ing it would be not so much as lan­guage, but as the cul­tural con­text of lan­guage. Therefore just as as archae­ology is embed­ded in lan­guage so too it is embed­ded in pop­u­lar cul­ture. Equally I would also say this high­lights a prob­lem with one of Holtorf’s claims, that archae­ology is mainly about the present.

I dis­agree. I can see it is neces­sar­ily embed­ded in the present as archae­ology is a means of under­stand­ing the past in the present. However British Archaeology is more or less exclus­ively Anglophonic, des­pite this I would not say that British Archaeology is mainly about the use of English lan­guage and for the same reas­ons I would not say it was about pop­u­lar cul­ture, rather it is immersed in it.

I think argue Holtorf is mainly arguing first that this is a state of affairs, what archae­ology is as opposed to what it ought to be in From Stonehenge to Las Vegas. In his later book Archaeology is Brand in con­trast he is much stronger advoc­ate for enga­ging with pop­u­lar cul­ture, though there is cross-over between the two. It is inter­est­ing to note that Kristiansen seems to find the lat­ter book less objec­tion­able. Yet it is in the second book he ana­lyses vari­ous tropes in pop­u­lar con­scious­ness and argues for work­ing with these ideals to express archaeology.

So what does an archae­ology work­ing with pop­u­lar cul­ture look like?

As I write the annual idiot mara­thon is under­way. Hate it or loathe it, it’s pop­u­lar cul­ture with the antics of the inmates being the sub­ject of gos­sip amongst view­ers across the coun­try. The same goes for the tre­mend­ously optim­ist­ic­ally titled Britain’s Got Talent. The apo­theosis of pop­u­lar cul­ture in archae­ology might there­fore be thought of as the BBC’s Restoration, a show where the pub­lic are asked which one of thirty build­ings should be restored. This is the same pub­lic which voted Diana ahead of Darwin and Shakespeare in a Greatest Britons poll.

In light of this it could be extremely easy to be dis­turbed by Holtorf’s calls for demo­crat­isa­tion. In par­tic­u­lar he wrote a paper, whose name I for­get and can’t look up right now as the book is in the attic,** in the book Philosophy and Archaeological Practice which called for uni­ver­sit­ies to be opened up to all sorts of sub­jects so they could fairly com­pete. If I remem­ber cor­rectly Håkan Karlsson wrote in a reply that for many altern­at­ive ideas, the whole point was that they were out­side the aca­demic sys­tem. Personally it’s not a view I could agree with. I read today an eleven year-old girl was repor­ted as suf­fer­ing sexual abuse, as a psychic gave that inform­a­tion to a teach­ing assist­ant. Since this, the mother has been invest­ig­ated due to the alleg­a­tions and has given up her job. The child has been with­drawn from school because the mother can­not simply view this as ‘another way of know­ing’. Alternative ‘ways of know­ing’ can injure or kill, so can sci­entific ways, but at least these are track­able. You can­not get mor­tal­ity data from any Homeopathic organ­isa­tion in the UK. I’ve tried.

However archae­ology is not a life-critical sub­ject. Unlike medi­cine it’s also sur­pris­ingly unre­lat­iv­ist in pop­u­lar cul­ture. While a herbal rem­edy might ‘work for you’, people are curi­ously unwill­ing to accept that while their York was occu­pied by Vikings, their neighbour’s York was a Saxon col­lect­ive which lived without all the slaughter, thank you very much. The reason, when put like that, is fairly obvi­ous. Your drop­ping dead isn’t really my prob­lem. In con­trast your claims about Viking occu­pa­tion dir­ectly stake a claim on my past. You can­not have an archae­ology for one.

This is reflec­ted in the pub­lic opin­ion of archae­ology. Recently the Huddersfield Daily Examiner ran a story ‘Call in Time Team to dis­cover Grimescar Wood’s Roman secret’ which is about find­ing the past of an archae­olo­gical site rather than a past. It’s shared by altern­at­ive archae­olo­gists. In the Swedish paper Skånskan, Bob Lind takes issue with Martin Rundkvist’s dis­missal of his astro­nom­ical claims. For Lind archae­oastro­nomy may be a dif­fer­ent meth­od­o­logy, but it does not reveal a dif­fer­ent truth, instead he believes it shows archae­ology to be false. It’s also a view shared by aca­demic archae­olo­gists. A recent blog post at Archaeolog by Christopher Witmore Load up the pantry? Or, load up the land­fill? only makes sense in the light of one shared past. If he was merely apply­ing ana­lo­gies from a per­sonal past rather than the past to argue against hoard­ing then his argu­ment would be non­sensical as the solu­tion would be to stop believ­ing in pasts where hoard­ing failed.

Note this is not a philo­soph­ical argu­ment against relat­iv­ist approaches, simply an obser­va­tion of the use of the past when archae­olo­gists inter­act with non-archaeologists. However one of the other defin­i­tions of pop­u­lar cul­ture Holtorf quotes (p8) is by Richard Maltby ‘pop­u­lar cul­ture is a form a dia­logue soci­ety has with itself’. This is inter­est­ing when you look at how archae­olo­gists can talk to each other.

There is a quiet revolu­tion unfold­ing in Easter Island Archaeology. The col­on­isa­tion of the island which was pre­vi­ously thought to have dated to AD 800 has been pushed back to around AD 1200. This change has pro­found implic­a­tions for inter­pret­ing the archae­ology of the island. It doesn’t com­press the rel­at­ive times­cales — it entirely elim­in­ates Easter Island’s earli­est period. It was thought there was a massive social change around AD 1200, and that is now only true inso­far as that’s when soci­ety star­ted. This cor­rel­ates neatly with col­on­isa­tion dates for else­where in the Pacific. The col­on­isa­tion of Rapa is now dated to the same period, and it looks like New Zealand will be re-dated in a sim­ilar way. The re-dating of Easter Island rests in part on the re-analysis of radiocar­bon dates for coral. Because it’s mar­ine, carbon-14 does not enter coral the way it enters ter­restrial envir­on­ments. The res­ult is that mar­ine dates can give res­ults older than their true age. The debate about the col­on­isa­tion of Easter Island could be a series of earn­est and spe­cial­ist debates about dat­ing tech­niques and archae­o­zo­olo­gical finds. The lat­ter com­ing from the evid­ence of rat col­on­isa­tion of the island. This hap­pens, but allied to this are alleg­a­tions of Euro-phobia (Bahn 2007) and a dis­cus­sion of the polit­ics of envir­on­ment­al­ism and global warm­ing denial (Hunt and Lipo 2007).

It’s import­ant to note that the win­ner of the Easter Island debate won’t simply be the per­son who is most pop-cultured any more than it the per­son who writes the best English. However it will help com­mu­nic­a­tion. While Holtorf may take a relat­iv­ist view of the past, this does not appear to be inher­ent archae­ology as pop­u­lar cul­ture. Contrary to Holtorf’s Thesis 8, the many mean­ings given to ancient sites are equally import­ant, does not seem to be a view shared by many of the pub­lic. The pub­lic believe in a single past which can be known through care­ful investigation.

This is where I dis­agree most with both Kristiansen and per­haps Holtorf. Both seem to pos­tu­late to a greater or lesser degree a polar­ity where the pop­u­lar is at one end and the schol­arly at the other. Kristiansen (2008:490) is quite expli­cit in his attack:

It seems as if Holtorf main­tains by an ever increas­ing group of archae­olo­gical enter­tain­ers. However, it seems that these enter­tain­ers need make no ref­er­ences to the aca­demic dis­course of sci­entific authen­ti­city and know­ledge about a real past from which they ori­gin­ate, even though they are rooted in a century-old tra­di­tion of museum present­a­tions and pop­u­lar books, tele­vi­sion programmes.

To be fair Holtorf gives him the of ammuni­tion. Kristiansen quotes Holtorf (2005:14)

I sug­gest an altern­at­ive cat­egor­iz­a­tion of archae­ology: from archae­ology as sci­ence and schol­ar­ship to archae­ology as pop­u­lar culture.

This would seem to agree with dif­fer­ence between the pop­u­lar and the scholarly.

This polar­ity has been writ­ten about by Alan Campbell in Tricky Tropes: styles of the pop­u­lar and the pom­pous.

Scholarly’ against ‘pop­u­lar’ is noth­ing more than a prim vigi­ance about etiquette. And the main reason why ‘schol­ars’ don’t write pop­u­lar work is not that they have some sort of con­scien­tious objec­tion to it. It’s that they can’t do it. Campbell (1996:80)

Taken to its logical con­clu­sion I could make this piece far more schol­arly by mak­ing this far harder to read an lit­ter­ing it with obscure ref­er­ences and untrans­lated phrases which are de rigeur for the aspir­ing scholar. Somehow that seems a bit mad as ideas go.

Not only is schol­ar­ship not in oppos­i­tion to pop­u­lar cul­ture, it’s what is deman­ded by pop­u­lar cul­ture. Holtorf men­tions this in his rebut­tal (2008:492) and his book (2005:12). This gets men­tions else­where mainly as the pro­cess of dis­cov­ery, but it’s pos­sible that Holtorf’s will­ing­ness to bundle schol­ar­ship with other epi­stem­o­lo­gies hides the point that the pub­lic want rigour­ous pro­cess. The two most com­mon ques­tions on an archae­olo­gical dig from the pub­lic are “What have you found?” and “How can you tell?” and its extremely rare to get the first without the second, because for most of the pub­lic the answer isn’t enough.

The ques­tion is some­thing hap­pen­ing is very dif­fer­ent to ought some­thing be hap­pen­ing? Kristiansen presents the ques­tion of whether or not archae­ology part of pop­u­lar cul­ture as a mat­ter of choice. I’m don’t believe this is the case, but there is the option of decid­ing how to work with pop­u­lar cul­ture or whether to ignore it. A recently pub­lished chapter on how a change in approach can bene­fit both schol­ars and the pub­lic was recently pub­lished by Rob Young and Jane Webster ‘Love Letters, Love Stories and Landscape Archaeology: Reflections on Working in the North Pennines’. They argue that an enforced break due to an out­break Foot and Mouth dis­ease gave them the time to explore local reac­tions to their work on Bollihope Common. Recognising and respond­ing to local interest gave them the bene­fit of extra work­ers, but also qual­it­at­ively changed their approach to the land­scape and their research ques­tions. They now see their work as part of a dia­logue between schol­ars and local inhabitants.

This, for me is one of the attrac­tions of Holtorf’s approach. It sug­gests an aban­don­ment of self-conscious searches for abso­lute truths by using archae­ology as a proxy for light­weight philo­sophy. Instead it val­ues archae­ology as an act of com­mu­nic­a­tion. I can’t see it as a pan­acea, indeed like Kristiansen and Holtorf, I think it high­lights dangers in the use of archae­ology. However it remains bet­ter to light a candle than curse the darkness.

* For people out­side the UK, one of Margaret Thatcher’s most fam­ous quotes was ‘There is no such thing as soci­ety.‘
** It’s up in the attic delib­er­ately to stop me get­ting dis­trac­ted by things like this.



A lot of people will be talk­ing about the obvi­ous film/book. The film and book ver­sions of 2001 are dif­fer­ent, in the book the mono­lith is on Iapetus, the moon of Saturn where liquid water may exist. Arthur C. Clarke changed his mind for the sequel, and decided that Jupiter was the bet­ter place for the sequel 2010, which is far bet­ter than any sequel to 2001 has the right to be. I haven’t bought the DVD yet, but I will even­tu­ally. A dir­ect com­par­ison between the two is per­haps not fair as they’re two dif­fer­ent films and stor­ies. As great as 2001 is, it is umm… cine­matic in scope. It’s a story of bil­lions of years. 2010 is much more personal.

The plot is the quest to find out what happened after Dave Bowman left the Discovery for the last time. All the people on Earth have to go on is the mes­sage: “My God! It’s full of stars!” The Americans are build­ing Discovery II travel there. In the mean­time Russians have built their own ship, the Leonov, to exam­ine Jupiter and board Discovery as a derel­ict. This hap­pens against a back­ground of Cold War ten­sion (one magazine said that this dated the film). An ana­lysis of Discovery’s orbit shows that it will crash onto Io before the American ship can reach it. The Russians offer to take three American astro­nauts with them on the Leonov, so that they can try and avoid whatever happened to the Discovery’s crew repeat­ing itself.

The Americans are put into hiberna­tion for the trip, but as they sleep US-Russian rela­tions deteri­or­ate fur­ther. The Russians dis­cover unusual read­ings from Europa and reluct­antly awake Heywood Floyd. They agree they haven’t the fuel to make a diver­sion, they’ll be rely­ing on scrap­ing over Jupiter’s atmo­sphere to act as a brake to slow them down. Instead they launch a probe…

2010 is among other things a ghost story, the adversary is unknown and pos­sibly unknow­able. It shows off what Arthur C Clarke could do. The scene above was based on pub­lished spec­u­la­tion about Europa at the time. The res­ult is that the scene isn’t too far off how sci­ent­ists would describe Europa today. However the point of 2010 isn’t to be a lec­ture in astro­bi­o­logy, it’s about human inter­ac­tion. Unseen alien pres­ence poses a chal­lenge which means the crews of the Discovery and the Leonov have to over­come both their fear of the unknown and of each other to leave the Jovian sys­tem alive. Technology is import­ant in the story, but its role is pla­cing lim­it­a­tions on what is feas­ible rather than a means of escap­ing limitations.

Arthur C. Clarke under­stood the lim­it­a­tions of tech­no­logy and that’s what makes 2010 a far bet­ter story than you’d expect. His death will be a great loss.

The Christmas Number One


The biggest num­ber one single of the year will be decided this week. Since the advent of awful ‘real­ity’ TV, what has happened for the past few years is that the win­ner of Pop Idol or the X-factor has been hyped into the num­ber one spot. This year there’s a cam­paign to oust them. I know it’s cyn­ical anti-marketing, but as far as pro­duc­tion and sub­ject goes it is the per­fect anti X-factor song. See Dave Gorman’s blog for more details.