Who exactly is a ‘real’ archaeologist?

Me at BSR
Loitering around the imposing facade of the British School at Rome (photo by me)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the nature of the archaeological professional. This has been prompted both by my own efforts to navigate the unwieldy world of academia, and by an article that I finally finished for the Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology (Springer) on ‘Professionalisation: The Consolidation of Archaeology as an “Expert” Knowledge.’ Last week, I organised an event at the Society of Antiquaries of London in memory of the prehistorian John Davies Evans (1925-2011), a man who perhaps perfectly encapsulates the fact that an archaeologist is a multifaceted character—not easily defined by one single skillset or aptitude (look here to find video and slide coverage of the event, including me chairing it).  Evans was a researcher, an excavator, a photographer, a teacher; but he arguably spent the majority of his career in an office: working as an administrator at the helm of some of the most prominent archaeological organisations in the world.

This week I’ve been in Rome poking through the archives of the British School at Rome where a series of similarly diverse individuals have come together over the past 100+ years (since its foundation in 1901) in the constitution of archaeological expertise (among other forms of knowledge).  These individuals include everyone from artists to photographers to field surveyors, historians, conservators, and architects.  What the School cultivates is scholarship via human exchange and interface which, to be honest, is really the means by which the best research always evolves: in interaction with people whose different thoughts/acts on the world make you, in turn, think/act differently.

The topic of crafting disciplinary expertise is one that is close to my heart, primarily because of the number of times that I have been teased for “not being a real archaeologist.” I’ve reflected on this issue elsewhere (see here) and I’ve never really understood what people mean when they say this, because I haven’t yet seen the rulebook where “real archaeology” has been universally defined and accepted.

I think these people are just acting on the fact that I’m easily riled up (it’s true!), but such comments are made so frequently that I think them deserving of interrogation.  I assume that their origin relates to the issue of excavation and working with stone tools—i.e., that because I no longer excavate or study stone tools (although I’ve done both, and indeed, I’ve held jobs as a collections specialist processing stone and other archaeological artefacts, as well as a zooarchaeology lab assistant processing animal bones), I therefore don’t count as an archaeologist.  When I circulated an advert for an excellent project that I’m excited to contribute to – Archaeologists Anonymous – (and, yes, I’ve purposefully chosen not to stand anonymous!), someone I don’t know made a comment that they were too busy to participate because they were off doing “real archaeology.”  What I understood this to mean was that they were busy with a commercial archaeological job that was demanding, constricted and relentless (not entirely dissimilar to my own academic archaeology job, I would suggest).  However, what I couldn’t follow was why it was necessary to disparage involvement in the project based on an assertion that it wasn’t legitimate archaeology.

The nature of ArchAnon is just that – to open up discussion and debate about the field of practice.  So I want to extend that debate here by reflecting on where this idea of a ‘legitimate’ kind of archaeology comes from and in whose interest it is maintained because (1) I don’t believe it is productive for the discipline; (2) there is no evidence that a ‘real’ archaeology has ever or will ever exist; and (3) I think it potentially destructive to the field to endorse a cramped and confining view of the profession.

If we look back at the history of the discipline there’s good evidence to suggest that the concept of a professional archaeologist never really took hold until the 1960s-70s.  Around the world, university training programmes for archaeology didn’t emerge until about the turn of the 20th century, and throughout the first half of that century, many of those who enrolled on such programmes tended to go on to curatorial positions.  It was in museums and learned society organisations where much of the early classification and conceptual work that now underpins archaeology came about; and it was at meetings, via publication, and in exhibition spaces (local and international) that the circulation of such work made it accessible on a wider and wider scale.  There is little evidence to suggest that excavation is the defining feature of the discipline (for example, see Lucas 2001); rather, what ties together all those people over recorded history (going back at least 4000 years) interested in old human things is not digging in the ground, but collecting objects or working with collected materials.  Indeed, it is collecting practices that seem to have driven excavating and surveying activities, and these practices were never limited to stone tools, but began with efforts to gather all-encompassing cabinet-of-curiosities-type assemblages, and slowly narrowed to focus on all configurations of human material remnants and representations (e.g., images) of such remnants.

At no point has there ever been a single form of archaeological practice – indeed, this is the nature of professionalisation itself: it is ever-evolving, as is the expertise from which it grows.  And it is such open-endedness that arguably makes the discipline sustainable.  Presumably those who refer to ‘real archaeology’ do so as a form of boundary patrol – something that is also fundamental to profession-building and the demarcation of specialist knowledge.  But what archaeology offers – as it has always offered – is a diversity in method and thinking that gives its students transferable skills related to assessing human circumstances in the past, present and future (see Schofield 2012 for discussion of such skills). This diversity makes the discipline far more relevant to the world than some constrained body of practices that have never (across the entire history of antiquarian studies) actually characterised our work.

We need to challenge the idea that there is some “real archaeologist” out there to which we must all conform. We need to do this not only because the idea is, in fact, baseless, but because it works to restrict the nature of what’s possible via our practice.

On that note, I’ve got a case study coming out in my colleagues’ forthcoming volume Visual Research: A Concise Introduction to Thinking Visually. Please check it out!  My article on archaeology’s professionalisation will be published sometime in the next few months, so you can read more about the development of the discipline there…

LUCAS, G. 2001. Critical approaches to fieldwork: contemporary and historical archaeological practice. London: Routledge.

SCHOFIELD, J. 2012. The best degree? Current Archaeology 270: 48-49.

The thesis!

Sara's Thesis
Sara's Thesis, photo by me.

Wonderfully, I submitted my PhD a few weeks back &, amongst other things, am now preparing for my viva voce exam (aka my thesis defense).  I’ve posted below the abstract of my doctorate, in case there’s any interest in knowing what I’ve been toiling over for the past three years!  Here it goes…


Doctor of Philosophy


by Sara Perry

Archaeologists have long scrutinised the relationship of images to disciplinary knowledge creation.  However, to date, very little attention has been given to archaeological visual media and visual methods as generative tools.  Visualisations work to make things possible—income, infrastructure, status, security, ideas and expertise—and their shrewd application has significant consequences for professional development and conceptual/methodological growth.

The following thesis embarks on a micro-scale study of the mid-20th century establishment of the Institute of Archaeology (IoA) at the University of London to demonstrate the extent to which visualisation is embedded in, and accountable for, the foundation of academic archaeological studies in Britain.  Drawing on results from extensive archival enquiry and interviews, this research stands as an account of institutional development told not through the standard lens of biography or intellectual evolution, but through analysis of the strategic management of visual material culture and graphic performance (i.e., photographs, illustrations, models, display collections, TV, exhibitions, illustrated lectures and conferences).  It traces the early history of the IoA through a series of formative events from the mid-1920s to the end of World War II wherein visual media are mobilised to dramatic effect in the coming-into-being of scholarly archaeology in London, and in the post-war regeneration of British culture.  Particular attention is paid to the entanglement of visualisation in the IoA’s pioneering work on the first archaeological television programmes; the standardisation of archaeological photography; the acquisition and display of the Petrie Palestinian collection; the launching of one-of-a-kind graphic industrial/laboratory units; and the training of the earliest generations of accredited field practitioners.

This project is prompted by a desire to overturn two fundamentally unsustainable standpoints.  Firstly, visual culture tends to be fallaciously constituted in archaeology—and beyond—as a recent phenomenon whose origins stretch back no more than a few decades (conveniently coinciding with the rise of digital graphic production).  However as I argue here, calculated and skilful manipulation of optical media has a deep legacy, implicated in even the most basal levels of the discipline’s intellectual and organisational consolidation.  Secondly, visual representation as a sub-field of enquiry is often relegated to the sidelines of ‘legitimate’ practice—dismissed as ephemeral and unrobust, or irrelevant to the fundamentals of archaeology.  I counter such perspectives by outlining the rich and prescient history of critical graphic studies in the discipline.  I then demonstrate that savvy visualisation can, in fact, breed concrete professional outcomes for archaeologists, providing the infrastructure to develop and refine our methods, the cognitive tools to reconceptualise aspects of the archaeological record, and the commercial capital to sustain and propagate the field.

At once a chronicle of the IoA’s heritage and a testament to the power of visual media, this thesis situates imagery as a forcible actor in the struggle for disciplinary sovereignty and scholarly authority.  Ultimately, it speaks not just of the importance of visualisation to archaeology’s past, but so too of its potential for negotiating our future.

Alan Sorrell, (Archaeological) Artist and Illustrator

Prof Matthew Johnson and I have just received the fabulous news that we’ve been granted a Small Award from the British Academy to fund a pilot study of the Alan Sorrell archive.

Sorrell (1904-1974) is an artist and illustrator who, during the mid-20th century, produced defining images of many of Britain’s most renowned archaeological sites (e.g., see Sorrell, M. 1981), and in so doing, arguably shaped the institutional and epistemological dimensions of British archaeology.  With a neo-Romantic sensibility and a career that included employment by the former Ministry of Works, he stands at the junction between a series of potent intellectual concerns in the discipline—among others, between art and archaeology; academic and broader public consumption; discipline and imagination; and the scholarly establishment and governmental agency.

Sorrell’s archive is currently on loan by his family to the Society of Antiquaries of London.  Matthew and I will be studying it over the course of this upcoming fall and winter towards various ends, including the production of a small visual exhibition of work. Sorrell interacted with many archaeologists on and off site, and I would be keen to hear from those who may recollect such interactions.

Will keep you posted!

A screen shot of Alan Sorrell's Falling Tower, reprinted on the front cover of Johnson's 2nd edition of Archaeological Theory: An Introduction.

SORRELL, M. (ed.) 1981. Reconstructing the Past, London: Book Club Associates.