I could draw up quite a list of people who won’t like this book. Adam Stout purports to be an unapologetic relativist (more of that later). His history of archaeology in Britain, mainly in the inter-war period, comes from this position and is allied to his interest in alternative pasts such as druidry and earth mysteries. If you think the history of archaeology is primarily a story of how our knowledge of the past came to be more accurate, you’ll struggle with this. If you think the success of people such as OGS Crawford and Mortimer Wheeler was down to employing scientific methodology you’ll struggle with this. If you think the only sane response to modern druids is mockery you may struggle with this. I certainly disagree with a few of the author’s characterisations of archaeology. Despite (or even because?) of this it’s a challenging and engaging view of the development of archaeology.
The first point of difference between myself and Stout is a matter of how Political with a capital P archaeology is. I accept that archaeology is a political action, but so is going down to the shops to buy a loaf of bread. I might be reifying abstract ideologies and reinforcing economic roles in society, but if I want to critique those ideologies and roles, I don’t think I’d start by analysing my shopping list. Adam Stout starts with an account of writing against the backdrop of the Occupation of Iraq. He states that the cover story for May 2003 ‘PREHISTORIC WAR’ was cashing in on the war fever in the USA. It might, but as a counter-example I’ll offer a quote from the introduction to Whiteley and Hays-Gilpin’s new book:
A war is raging in the Middle East as you read this introduction or, at least, one is imminent and the world is on high alert. We can assert this with some certainty, regardless of the shelf life of this volume, because this condition has characterised the region for most of the last 1000 years.
Whiteley and Hays-Gilpin 2008:11
I can’t say Archaeology magazine wasn’t using the war to boost sales. I suspect it wasn’t an openly cynical ploy to use the deaths of thousands of people as a sales drive. Equally I wouldn’t be surprised if someone wanted to put war in a historical perspective but didn’t think about what the upcoming event would mean for many people’s lives. It’s hard to say because if you want to publish on war when the USA isn’t either contemplating invading somewhere or else actually invading somewhere you have a very small window to aim for. One difference between us then is that I think the interest in war reflected public opinion rather than led it. This matters because it shows how Stout works from the position that archaeologists are largely working in the service of the state. This is point of departure for most of the book, the creation of archaeological authority.
The first part is most explicitly about the creation of archaeological authority. It’s fertile ground for anyone who wants to find evidence of self-congratulation amongst academics. It’s the strongest section of the book because it’s most clearly here that Stout marshalls the evidence to demonstrate his point. He’s able to draw on letters from various protagonists to show that political machinations were a major part of the academic archaeological programme of the the 1920s and 1930s. I was fascinated to see how a group of motivated people effectively collaborated to take the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia and take it for their own use as a national society. Yet while Stout is making a point, it doesn’t come across as axe-grinding.
The second part is, for me the least satisfying of the four. It tackles a fight against diffusionism as propsed by anthropologists. Again the handling of the politics is very good, but I’m not sure how well it squares with the content. Stout’s argument is that archaeologists were eager to show inexorable progress to the modern era, and that diffusionism was a threat to this. In the case of someone like Childe, I’d argue that diffusion was the means by which progress occured.
The third section is a case study of Stonehenge. If you’ve wondered where the modern Druids came from and how they decided to claim Stonehenge, then this is essential reading. Once again the politics are covered well, as are some of the beliefs of the 20th century Druids.
The fourth section is about The Old Straight Track and the challenge from other interpretations of the past and the challenge to archaeology. It provides some interesting examples of how unwanted interpretations could be neutered and the emphasis of archaeology as something vocational. Stout hints at the challenge being in part that ley-hunters were contextualising sites into their place within the wider landscape and fact-obsessed archaeology was less theorised at this time. It is fair comment, though I doubt it would be popular amongst many archaeologists.
My biggest concern with most of the sections is that the conflict is seen as political rather than factual. Possibly for reasons of space there’s little examination of the archaeological content. In the case of ley-hunting, to what extent was the statistical likelihood of leys occurring known at the time The Old Straight Track was published? What were the archaeological objections? The second section in particular would have benefitted more from a discussion of the content as well as the context.
Another concern is that Stout never goes beyond prehistory. To some extent this is criticising him for not writing a book which he didn’t intend to write, after all the title is Creating Prehistory. At the same time the reader could come away with the impression that archaeology in Britain was almost entirely the archaeology of prehistoric Britain. Romans are occasionally mentioned, but the effects of Roman or Medieval archaeology on the development of prehistoric archaeology aren’t really tackled.
This may be where the difference between his relativist position and my own matters. He sees history and archaeology as a matter of telling stories. Even if this is the case, stories have forms. The Iliad is not going to be rendered into a limerick. Similarly scientific explanations have forms, and there is no real tackling of methodology or theory in Stout’s book. If you think coherence to reality played a part, even if it not the sole part, then there’s a big hole in the history. It cannot be dismissed simply as a matter of incommensurable epistemologies as Stout himself shows.
Stout argues that better is not necessarily more accurate, using the example of Maiden Castle. On page 235 he uses Niall Sharples’ account of Maiden castle to show how Wheeler was capable of spinning his own tales based on his own prejudices. This I agree with, but I would also ask how we can accept Sharples’ explanation as more correct. The answer lies in the methodology of archaeology which has developed, in part from Wheeler’s own work. The method Wheeler used gave some of the tools to undermine his work. In contrast I don’t see that possibility from Iolo Morgawg’s work. Even if science were only story, it’s clearly a different sort of story.
Another matter I’d like to see Stout explore would be the development of archaeology as an anti-religious science. Archaeology as Whiteley and Hays-Gilpin (2008:20n1) say tends to shy away from religion. Certainly archaeologists are happy to diagnose anything they can’t understand as being ‘ritual’, but once it’s in that box study is often closed. They put this down to science and religion being competitors in claims for discerning truth in the first half of the 20th century. In chapter nine The Esoteric Revival Stout attributes the negative view many of the inter-war archaeologists had towards early religion as being due to their atheism. Perhaps more could be made of the conflict between science and religion at the time, and hence the antagonism to the religious claims of contemporary druids, which then fed back into views about the past.
Nonetheless while it’s clear that I don’t agree with some of Stout’s conclusions I still think there’s much to like about the book. For a start it’s readable. It’s clear that he’s written the book because he wants to be understood and make a difference rather than pad out a CV. It’s also well-argued. I might not agree with the arguments, but it’s not a matter of plucking ideas from the air. Stout clearly has done the reading, got the references and uses them to back up his claims. Hence while it is possible to disagree with him, it’s not a good idea to simply dismiss his work. It’s also a genuinely novel piece of work. There are many books which take to a greater or less extent the whole of the history of archaeology as their subject. Quite a few a clearly attempts to produce theory textbooks in a very dull way. In contrast the more focussed approach Stout takes enables him to look more closely the processes that created academic archaeology. If anything I’d like to see an tighter focus still. There are the seeds of four interesting books on the development of archaeology. Most importantly it’s the least telelogical history of archaeology I’ve read. Many histories of archaeology could be subtitled How did we get to the wonderful state we’re in today?. This book in contrast is focussed on the inter-war years rather than the eventual outcome. This puts him smartly out of step with anyone who mistakenly believes history of archaeology is a branch of archaeology rather than history of science.
It’s not the one book you need if you’re studying the history of archaeology in the UK, but it is perhaps the one book you need to read as a companion to a history of archaeology.
Whiteley, D.S. and Hays-Gilpin, K. 2008 ‘Religions beyond Icon, Burial and Monument: An Introduction’, Belief in the Past: Theoretical Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion. eds. D.S.Whiteley and K.Hays-Gilpin, Left Coast Press:California, 11–22.
Find it at WorldCat or LibraryThing.