theory

Archaeological challenges in the Hundred Acre Wood

Hello everyone! Belated happy new year and welcome back. We’ve decided to begin the year by talking about problems (just to start on a positive note). Well, sort of. We’re participating in an international round-up of blog posts this month on the subject of grand challenges in archaeology (you can see the whole thing here). Obviously, we’re approaching this from the perspective of Christchurch (and, to a degree, New Zealand) and the challenges we face here - both in the sense of difficulties encountered and challenges to be met.

To this end, three of us - with different areas of interest and experience in archaeology - got together and had a bit of a discussion about the challenges that stand out to us the most, the salient points of which are presented here. However, partly because it amuses me and partly because I want to see if any of you can guess who said what, I have replaced our real names with the names of Winnie-the-Pooh characters for the purposes of this post.

Imagine, if you will then, that Christopher Robin, Tigger and Owl, playing at being archaeologists for a day, are sitting around a fire in a clearing of the Hundred Acre Wood. Their conversation turns, as it always does when archaeologists congregate, to their (current) profession, and some of the challenges they’ve encountered while uncovering the mysteries of the past. For the purposes of this tortured metaphor, The Hundred Acre Wood is not always a place in England but sometimes a city in New Zealand (just go with it, okay?).

(In reality, we sat at our computers and carried out an online conversation over a couple of days when we should have been doing other work. The truth is always so much less fun than fiction.)

It was a situation not dissimilar to this. Image:

This conversation ranges from the specific and often practical difficulties they have faced in their daily work to some of the broader questions facing archaeology as a profession and field of research. Two major themes start to emerge: one revolves around the engagement of archaeology with the world today, the other encompasses the research potential of archaeological work, especially when it comes to answering big, broad questions.

The challenges of research - from the practical difficulties of realising it, to the scale at which it can be approached and the questions to be asked and answered - is perhaps the most obvious to the three participants, given the scale of work and amount of archaeological data being gathered in the city after the earthquakes. The last five years have resulted in over 2000 new recorded archaeological sites in Christchurch, approximately 1000 (or more) boxes of artefacts and the systematic excavation of the first 50 years of a whole city (not to mention several earlier Maori archaeological sites as well). It can be a little overwhelming.

“Indeed,” says Owl, hootingly. “Just from a practical perspective, there are the challenges presented by the time and money required to undertake research, by issues like databases and data management and accessibility and so on. A lot of which is made more challenging by the fact that all of the archaeological work in the city is done by archaeological consultants, who have neither the time nor funds to actually do the research.”

“Yeah,” says Tigger, bouncing up and down (please feel free to imagine this said in a Tigger voice, it’s kind of hilarious). “It’s the perennial problem of realising the research potential of archaeological consultancy, where most of the work happens but not much of the research. Unlike universities and research institutes, where most of the research happens, but less of the work. I mean, less of the initial data collection and excavation. I would never suggest that academics do less work.”  

In which Tigger bounces and

“Maybe,” says Christopher Robin (who has been uncharacteristically silent until now), “we’re excavating too many sites. There does seem to be too much data and not enough people to work with it. But it’s also important that we don’t lose the information offered by those sites.”

Owl nods. Wisely. Because owls are wise. “It’s not just the amount of information we have from sites being excavated and investigated right now. It’s also all of the accumulated information we have from old sites, which is constantly being re-analysed and integrated into new databases and new methods and new research questions.”

Christopher Robin gently suggests that Owl try not to be such an Eeyore, and think instead about the potential of this information. “The fact that so much data has been accumulated makes possible some really interesting challenges as far as research questions go. We can look at bigger, broader questions of life in the past that we couldn’t before. Ideas like the birth of the modern city, the development of regional architectural styles, the development of identity at different scales and at different groups.”

“Capitalism! Consumerism! Colonialism!” hoots Owl, in a momentary loss of dignity.

Tigger, in the typically positive manner of tiggers everywhere, reminds the other two that this potential is one of the most exciting things about working in Christchurch. The other two agree, nodding solemnly in the firelight. Christchurch has immense potential when it comes to broad research questions in archaeology, uniquely placed as it is to explore the past through the lives of individuals and communities and the global processes that changed the world. We’re excavating on a site by site basis, but accumulating a city wide dataset that fits within a much wider context. The scale of the archaeology (in every sense of the word) has so much to offer.

Owl, the ruffled feathers and dignity from the previous outburst settling back into place, adds “There are some challenges inherent in that as well, though. There’s a need for comparative data from other places and time periods in the world, especially if we want to address these questions on a global scale over time. Accessibility and data compatibility - and comparability - is a real challenge, as other archaeologists have already talked about elsewhere.”

“It doesn’t mean that incompatible or incomparable datasets can’t contribute to a bigger global conversation, though,” says Christopher Robin, reasonably.

“True” Owl continues, on a roll. “It’s not just the practicalities of it, though. It’s not always easy to reconcile different scales of research potential. When you’re looking at big picture questions, it can be hard to hold on to the nuances and details of individuals and things and easy to over generalise or simplify complicated situations and concepts. But, at the same time, these are the questions we need to be asking, the ideas and changes that are most relevant to the world we live in today - and some of the most exciting to pursue.”

Owl holds court on

It is at this point that a second big theme begins to emerge from the conversation: the challenge of engaging archaeology with the world today. Again, it is one that is particularly obvious to those of us working in Christchurch, where the value and relevance of heritage in the present day is a complex and often controversial topic. So much of the city’s visible heritage has been lost and the significance and future of those elements that have survived (the cathedral is a case in point) is very publicly and contentiously negotiated. The challenge goes beyond this, however, beyond the very obvious examples of symbolic heritage buildings to the ways in which archaeology (and heritage in general) is engaging with the world and lives of people today.

“Exactly,” says Owl, slightly long winded-ly. “There’s so much potential, especially with the situation here, to make use of all this information we have about the history of the city in the context of the world around us now. Like the parallels and contrasts you can see between the social, political, and urban processes that are occurring in Christchurch now, after the earthquakes, and those that occurred during the first decades of European settlement in the 19th century. Our past is relevant to our present (and our future) and we need to be better at communicating this.”

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Christopher Robin adds, thoughtfully (everything Christopher Robin does is thoughtful), “There’s definitely a lot to be said for the value that relevance adds to archaeology, as well, especially from the perspective of non-archaeologists. That’s one of the biggest challenges for me, you know - the public perception of archaeology and the apparent lack of value that people place on heritage in Christchurch (and New Zealand), outside of a few select examples.”

“That’s something that archaeology faces all over the world, I think,” says Tigger.

“Yes,” says Christopher Robin. “It’s that issue of archaeology, and heritage in general, being seen as something that halts or holds up development and is therefore a nuisance, rather than something useful to society.”

Owl hoots in agreement. Or something.

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“For New Zealand in general, though” Christopher Robin continues, “it does seem like we place a lot of value on our natural heritage, which is such a huge part of our national identity, but not as much on our cultural heritage. Maybe, as a profession, one of the challenges to be met here is how we present what we do to the general public. Maybe we should be focusing more on what the public wants out of archaeology, rather than what we think they should know about.”

“Maybe,” says Owl. “It’s true that I am often surprised by the kinds of stories and discoveries that people - archaeologists and non-archaeologists, alike - think are interesting and cool. It turns out that the things that owls find interesting are not always interesting to other people.”

“Who knew,” says Christopher Robin, only a little sarcastically.

“It’s not just what we’re communicating,” says Tigger, still bouncing. “It’s how we’re communicating it. We need to be better at making archaeology accessible to non-archaeologists. Tiggers watch a lot of YouTube videos, you know, and a lot of the archaeology channels are dry. They should be active, experimental or - if we’re talking about that natural heritage focus - taking place in relation to the landscape. Time Team was a good example of that.”

“I miss Time Team,” says Owl, mournfully.

“And if we’re talking about individual artefacts or sites or even archaeologists,” adds Tigger, "they need to be personalised in some way.That’s it! We need to personalise the past, make it engaging and accessible.”

“What, like writing an entire blog post as fictional characters from our childhoods?” asks Christopher Robin.

“Sure,” says Owl. “That sounds like a good idea. Could be fun.”

Fun,” agrees Tigger. “Fun, fun, fun, fun fun.”

It is here that we shall leave our three intrepid archaeologists, although their conversation continues long into the night, as the flames of their campfire flicker through the trees of the Hundred Acre Wood. There are other challenges to be solved, other adventures to be had and discoveries to be made, but these are tales for another day.

(Or, the online conversation occurring in reality deteriorates into a series of typos and comments on coffee and shoes and the subject is tabled for another day.)

Owl, Christopher Robin and Tigger.

Acknowledgements:

The fantastic, fabulous work of A. A. Milne, of course.