The value of past studies

The shell midden at Caisteal nan Gillean in Argyll has been published many times. Each publication builds on the work of the last.

I’ve been considering the way in which our understanding of archaeology changes over time. New techniques of analysis, the application of new theories and the discovery of new data constantly refine our interpretation of the past. You only have to read some of the key publications from a few years back to see the impact of this. It is not a problem, rather, I see it as a good thing. We should always be questioning our paradigms. But it does lead to some surprising issues.

First, there is the way in which academics tend to be wary of older literature. I can understand that people don’t want to place too much emphasis on out-of-date studies, but I think that a blanket ‘ban’ on earlier material is dangerous. How old is old? Should we eschew all papers over ten years old? Twenty? Or just those published before 1950? What about the way in which they often set out information which can be key to the studies of today? When re-assessing a site or assemblage it is necessary to have a proper understanding of the material itself. It is also necessary to be familiar with earlier research: it can help us avoid some of the pitfalls; and suggest new avenues of exploration. That early research should provide the foundation of our new studies. On occasion, it can also help us to avoid duplicating research or reinventing the wheel. Increasingly, I find people explaining things to me that come up (if in a more basic fashion) in something I read (or even published) in the 1980s. It makes me feel old and irritated, though now I realise that they are probably just behaving as good academics do and avoiding anything published over twenty-five years ago.

Second, new interpretations require new publications. This is the meat of the academic journal, and even beneficial to those of us who publish popular archaeology (always in demand for a new edition or volume). But it is more complicated for those who create more permanent text. In this respect, I am thinking in particular of the creators of museum displays. There is no hard and fast rule as to the frequency with which a museum display should be updated, but in general they last longer than the sales run of popular archaeology books. Curators are very aware of fashions in display and advances in interpretation, but rarely have the resources to undertake frequent updates. For this reason, the captions have to be written to withstand the passage of time. A difficult task.

I can’t do much to change museum economics and priorities. But I can make a plea for older literature. Don’t ignore it. Have a look through those early site reports and specialist analyses. You never know what nuggets of information you will find. If you teach archaeology, don’t advise your students to focus solely on current publications. How will they develop an understanding of the context of their archaeological research if they are not familiar with the foundations on which it is based? There is, of course, too much literature, too many publications, for anyone to come to terms with everything. But, as archaeologists, I do not think that we should be living merely in the present.