Timothy Webmoor, Saïd Business School, Univ. of Oxford
Review of: Stone Worlds: Narrative and Reflexivity in Landscape Archaeology by Barbara Bender, Sue Hamilton and Christopher Tilley, 2008. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.
This is an innovative and creative book. These are its best qualities. It is also ambitious – the authors setting themselves the task of both complying with the “archaeological morality” (269) of publishing the results of field investigations, and conveying the experience of working at Leskernick on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall. To do this, the authors have experimented with form and content. And while their citational circle does not extend to media studies (where, I would suggest, they would find inspiration and edification), the book exemplifies Marshall McLuhan’s famous adage: the medium is the message.
Reviewing experimental work, criticism rather than accolade comes easier, partly because the novelty excludes easy comparative evaluation. So I think it important to underscore that being innovative and taking risks, even though you may be safely tenured scholars, should be commended. It creates discussion, fosters debate, stirs emotion, and motivates colleagues to work harder. It disrupts our insulated routines of scholarly production. It is, unfortunately, all too rare.
The collaborative effort of the Leskernick project, steered by Barbara Bender, Sue Hamilton and Christopher Tilley, bends the parameters of analogue publication to transcend traditional site reports. The reader will not find neat topical divisions, no ‘introduction’, ‘background’ (limited to environmental characteristics and a few weather stats), ‘results’, ‘discussion’ or ‘significance’, followed by add on (and on and on) appendices. And with few exceptions, it does not resemble any other field project’s publication in archaeology.
There is a structure, however, with the book divided into four parts. Part One somewhat approximates a conventional ‘introducing the site’. Goals for the project are laid out, the setting and unique “awe and mystery” of the rocky hill where Leskernick is situated are conveyed, and the authors quickly dispel any notion that this will be a conventional report focused upon an archaeological site. By the time they conclude Chapter 1 stating that “we stand with the Leskernick people at the centre of their world” (35), the reader can expect to share an intimacy that will bring her to the edge of being an ‘insider’ of the project (cf. 266). We then receive an orienting tour of the site, followed by Chapter 3’s methodology.
Part Two encompasses the ‘real’ archaeological information. If one were after conventional details, Chapters 4-7 are were we glean the details about Bronze Age Leskernick gathered through the excavation of 400 square meters of area, and the survey of every house and field enclosure on Leskernick Hill. A rough chronology, pegged to the radiocarbon dates in Table 4.1 (88-89), develops. Initially there were the earliest stone rows and circles, with the most spectacular ‘Propped Stone” and its summer solstice alignment dating to as early as the Neolithic. Then, in the hill’s clitter of stones, a growing population of 100-200 people, or eight to sixteen families, built their houses and field enclosures during the Middle Bronze Age and supported a pastoral economy (138).
There is disagreement about whether these people inhabited Leskernick year round or only seasonally, though the directors favor the former scenario. Then there is a decrease in the number of families, leaving the hill with perhaps only 60 inhabitants. Then a gradual abandonment of the dwellings and the hill until much later medieval visitation and re-use. It is the narrative of part of the life-cycle of a landscape.
The volume could have ended here with the conclusion of Chapter 7. But this book is not really about archaeological information. The remaining Parts Three and Four use the archaeological endeavor as more of a backdrop for what seems to particularly interest the project directors (or at least two of the three). This is the experience of Leskernick in the present. It is this emphasis, which makes the work stand out. It also draws the reader in – initially.
What rapidly occurs, though, is an overabundance of information; sometimes repackaged for different chapters, or indeed blatantly repeated (compare diary entries of 53 with 255). There is simply too much detail. They are concerned not to “close off alternative interpretations” (86), to let “the voices proliferate” (438, note 1.3), to avoid “a rhetoric of authority in which closure is created and debate shut-down” (27-28). But what happens is a numbing effect. So that rather than precise details concerning Leskernick, the reader comes away with a series of theses.
This is too bad as the following chapters, though somewhat disjointed, present a range of interesting ‘case studies’ that span anthropology and cognate fields and which dissolve disciplinarian distinctions. The phenomenological treatment of the ‘processional way’ of the site (184-190) and ‘photo essay’ of the neighboring ridge of Brown Willy (231-236), the artistic interventions of Chapter 13, the frank discussions of political economy in Chapter 11, and of running a public outreach exhibition in Chapter 14, as well as the visual and material culture analyses packed into Chapter 12 are examples of what’s on offer. While these extra-disciplinarian studies could have been better merged with the more traditional archaeological reporting, casting the net wider like this worked well in conveying the experiential side of Leskernick.
Indeed, I wish I had been present at the ‘pissing on Bourdieu’s book’/burying of the excavator’s trowel incident (273-274). Now that doesn’t happen often! Or does it? This is another major point of the book. The “background noise” (281) or the “back regions” (298) edited out of traditional reports for being superfluous and irrelevant to the project’s findings are, in fact, integral to its operation from the ground up. A reflexive acknowledgement in anthropological and archaeological fieldwork that being human, caught up in fields of relations while ‘in the field’, cannot and should not be bracketed off from being a ‘scientist’.
This is the book’s ‘sociology of the discipline’ thesis: archaeology is a social practice in the present that makes it impossible to sieve out subjectivity from archaeological interpretations. Steeped in postprocessual and interpretive archaeology, the book holds true to the ‘principle of honesty’. It is well taken, and the authors do a good job of opening up the process of how consensus in interpretation is reached by presenting discussions and diary entries where alternate views are expressed. The discussion with the geomorphologists (Chapter 9) was the best example of this.
As a corollary to this social activity thesis, in Chapter 11 the book expands upon the experience of fieldwork as initiation into craft, of apprenticeship. Archaeology is a field of relations that bind participants together as a seasonal community undergoing Van Gennepian rites of passage. Whilst most archaeologists are highly aware of these initiatory rites, and are often drawn to doing fieldwork because of the comradeship, no other book has treated it with such serious attention.
But the volume attempts to do too much with too much ‘data’. Presenting these ‘back stories’ as well as the ‘front stories’ of survey and excavation, contributes to the continued inundation of the reader with repetition and innocuous details – exactly what is intervisible and from which stone? who’s trowel had more rust? why were Danner boots better than steel Doc Martins? just what did that post-it comment from the Altarnun exhibition say?
A postmodern paralysis. Rather than sieving all potential information through experts’ experience and judgment, we have the opposite. Document it all as anything may be relevant. This forensic ‘thesis’ relates to the ‘crisis of representation’ and the claim that all statements about the past are subjective interpretations. Since statements cannot be definitively adjudicated based upon accepted criteria, and so cannot be objectively ‘true’, the emphasis shifts to a ‘shotgun effect’ approach. Put enough (multiple) interpretations out there so that amongst them all we are sure to hit upon something important. As seasoned scholars, this manic desire to document, as well as the “concern with the manner in which the past is written and presented” (27, emphasis original) is not simply experimentation for the sake of satisfying rebellious impulses and postmodern anxiety. It is backed-up by a body of theory that spans the social sciences. Yet only this exact combination – established scholars, theoretical depth and experimentation – legitimizes the book’s excesses. Indeed, I suspect if any of these three ingredients were absent, the book would not have worked – literally, as I doubt very much that an established press would have published it.
Wedded to eschewing any general criteria for obtaining objectivity, opting to (over)document the rich and subjective experience of doing archaeology in the present, is another inter-related thesis. A theory of ontology, of Being-in-the-world: making places makes people. With two of the three project directors coming from Material Culture Studies at University College London, we are given the group’s dictum of dialects over and over again. A statistical study could be done to present how often the phrases ‘mutual engagement’, ‘a dialectical relationship’, ‘in making things we make ourselves’, and so forth crop up with mantra-like consistency. The corollary is that since being is embodied, to understand this dialectical process of mutual engagement we need to attend to the sensuous and physical. This again sets themselves the most difficult task of overcoming problems of their own making, as “neither word nor image can be substituted for being bodily in place” (339). How can the book succeed, then?
Despite the explicit attempt to “create a dialogic relationship between images and words” (335), they doom themselves to failure because of the fundamental assumption that textual communication of experience is fundamental to visual forms of expression: “photographs are typically invaded by language from the very moment we start to look at them” (335). Images are inadequate by themselves as “they remain radically underdetermined as to be incapable of constituting a narrative form” (335). This allegiance to constructing narratives, of the importance of rendering the fieldwork of Leskernick in text, runs contrary to their other primary thesis: that conventional archaeological narratives inadequately convey the messiness, subjectivity and sensuous qualities of working at archaeology. The book’s priority of text over the visual ought to be denounced. The visual would seem to be more capable of evoking, with less ‘philosophical-linguistic closure’, the experience of Leskernick. I am surprised that there were not more experiments in video documentation and diaries. And while an analysis of the website is outside this review, the project would have certainly benefited from integrating new media into the project from the outset.
In the end, “we are left with more questions than we started out with” (412). This, both as a reader and as an archaeologist, disappoints me. There may have been rhetorical force behind such a pithy postmodern conclusion. Say in the mid-1990s while the project was conducted. Since this time such statements have become tiresome, part of reflexivity’s redux. We cannot abdicate our anthropological and archaeological authority. We are specialists, trained in a particular practice. We have expertise and so should be able to say something a bit more definitive than this. Indeed, this is borne out of the book’s sociological analyses (Chapters 11-12). While well intentioned and despite efforts at implementing “an egalitarian and nonhierarchical vision of fieldwork organization” (249), flat hierarchies are flawed. Competence, background knowledge and experience, and interests vary amongst practitioners. We tend to sort ourselves out. “We’re trapped in the hierarchy of knowledge: however much we try to democratize . . . there is an inequality” (250). Steeped in Leskernick for five field seasons, I think the authors should proffer expert opinion.
Had it been published (as a book) just after the conclusion of the project in 1999, this volume would have been as groundbreaking as the many academic papers that have also arisen from this collaboration. Both in terms of representational form and as a capstone to the content of the theses concerning social practice, reflexivity, dialectical relationships with material culture, and even archaeological art. While admirably drawing attention to the political economy of doing archaeology at the academy and in the field, an equally uncompromising look at the economy driving publication – where the (textual) wheels meet the road, so to speak – of archaeological work would have aided in explaining the (apparent) delay of the book and pushed the collection’s arguments for reflexive attention to the process of fieldwork even further. In 2008, that would have been radical. But then, how long would that book have needed to be?
[Modified from a review published in SITES: A Journal of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies. 2009, Vol. 6(2)]