Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Walter Taylor on Publishing Archaeology

This is a guest posting from Kristin Landau in Copan, who sent me her very interesting remarks on Walter Taylor's discussion of publishing archaeological data. They fit with some of the themes of this blog, and I thought they deserved to be disseminated more widely. So here they are, with Kristin's permission (M.E.S.):

While giving Walter Taylor’s 1948 monograph a close read for the first time (he’s really a brilliant writer), I found that although the New Archaeologists may have have assimilated some of his recommendations (criticisms?) regarding then contemporary archaeological theory and practice, his suggestions on publishing have gone unheeded and still resonate today, 60 years later. What follows is a three-point brief synopsis of his remarks on publishing archaeology (page numbers refer to the 1968 second printing).

1. The nature and ideal content of archaeological publications (empirical data).

Taylor brings to the forum the scarcity of detailed, empirical reports; the lack of percentages, ratios, and relative amounts; and the absence of other basic ‘hard’ data upon which the archaeologist as anthropologist may base his interpretations on and syntheses of “cultural problems” (p. 51). He sees this as “bad practice” (125) for three reasons:

  • Without presentation of excavation data “we are left to assume that other aspects of the research program are more important and more rewarding of publication” (51), i.e., extensive but shallow comparisons among sites rather than intensive (thick?) investigation the structure/object at hand and the idea(s) and systematics behind it.
  • The lack of empirical information does not allow for proper criticism (see point 2 below) and therefore re-analysis and re-interpretation by other archaeologists. Instead, the archaeologist as archaeologist destroys the observable data along with his excavations and leaves important contextual information irrecoverable for himself, his critics, and future students.
  • If the data from which the archaeologist’s very interpretations have been gleaned are denied the reader, this is of “dubious procedure” and hints at hidden agendas or the inaccuracy or inexactness of the original data (154).

I find this to be the case for Maya archaeology, though to perhaps a slighter degree now than in 1948. Taylor’s empirical information is certainly recorded but rarely published and remains inaccessible (the exception perhaps being dissertations). Therefore the aspiring archaeologist must travel to faraway locations to dig through meager on-site libraries when and if the librarian happens to be present. Perhaps we have bettered the practice of archaeology in the recording of data, but if those data need to be re-excavated from a foreign, inaccessible library, how successful have we really been? (See pgs. 51, 84, 125 and 156 for further).

2. How may we criticize archaeologically based reports and confront the task of constructing a closer approximation or interpretation of past actuality?

Taylor’s answer to this is obvious and simple: We must rely only on the hard evidence. He outright states that “…if…readers find fault with his [the archaeologist’s] conclusions, they have but to examine the observational data and make their own inferences or set about producing…more empirical evidence upon which to base alternative interpretations” (113). Any reader may rightfully destructively analyze and critique an archaeologist’s interpretation of the data, but then must constructively offer further interpretation, qualification or alternative hypotheses through either perusal of the (published?!) original data or new excavations. As Kluckhohn (1940) had stated before and Taylor argues in his book, this is and has been the modus operandi of the natural sciences: archaeologists need not be hesitant to proffer “theories” or carry the burden of thinking these theories must stand true for all time.

This second point is an integral part of the first. If we as archaeologists are to advance the understanding of a culture by the continual qualification or direct criticism of our colleagues’ work, our arguments must derive from the data (or methodology, methods or techniques as therein stated) and not elsewhere, as has sometimes been the case (p.43, 113).

3. The unfortunate practicalities.

Despite his call for the recording and publishing of all empirical data from an investigation, Taylor recognizes temporal and monetary limits, and states that archaeology nevertheless defeats its own aims and goals when this information is left out (153). Still, the absence of data points to dubious procedure. J.E.S. Thompson (1942:4) also acknowledges this practical problem in publishing, but attempts to ameliorate it by contending that all of this description would overburden the reader, anyway (53). Taylor reminds us that the detailed data are enumerated for the specialist who wants to check over, make criticisms about, or reinterpret the original archaeologist’s conclusions. Thus rather than a “burden” to the reader, this information is more often intentionally sought and is crucial to continued and improved research; an archaeological report ought not be an attempt at literary art (192). Lastly, Taylor suggests a model for how archaeologists should present their data and the relationship(s) between them as part of his conjunctive approach (194-195). Unfortunately, no solution to the problem of time and money in publishing is ever offered. Taylor remains more of an idealist than a pragmatic; as others have pointed out, he never in his career produced an archaeological report at his own high standards (see pgs. 153-154, 194-195, and Thompson 1942, pg. 4.).

Therefore we are left with a number of well-argued, complex reasons for the inclusion of the dull and uninteresting empirical evidence involved in archaeological research, but without recourse on how to fix it. Even sixty years later the best we came up with is storage of this data in hand-written notebooks in bodegas and site libraries around the Americas. Perhaps the next generation of archaeologists will be able to convince publishers, university tenure committees, granting agencies and whoever, of the fundamental role of boring data for the approximate nature of archaeological methodology and its importance in the social science(!) of anthropology as a discipline. Until then, I return to the unpublished record of Operation 46 sub 3: excavation of stelae long count dates from the Copan field library…

Kluckhohn, Clyde

1940 The Conceptual Structure in Middle American Studies. In The Maya and Their Neighbors, C. Hay et al., eds. New York. pp. 41-51.

Taylor, Walter

1948 A Study of Archeology, 2nd printing [1968]. Carbondale: University of Illinois Press.

Thompson, J.E.S.

1942 Late Ceramic Horizons at Benque Viejo, British Honduras. Contributions to American nthropology and History, Vol. VII, pp. 1-36.

- Kristin Landau

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