This is part of a series of posts commissioned by History Matters in response to the award of the MacArthur ‘genius’ prize to the historian Robin Fleming for her work on archaeological sources. All of the blogs in this series will appear here as they are posted.
When historian Robin Fleming gave an interview to the Boston Globe on 6 October following her award of the MacArthur Fellowship, she probably did not anticipate the reaction to her comments amongst some of the archaeological community. There was general consternation that she seemed to be claiming to have ‘discovered’ historical archaeology through a ‘new’ approach of looking at the everyday material culture, and no doubt a great deal of secret jealousy at the $625,000 award.
I personally have sympathy for Robin. Whilst a few of her comments were clearly poorly considered, such as the suggestion that archaeologists are not interested in the ‘big’ historical questions, she did make some good points. After all, anyone who has had to plough through the densest of excavation reports can only agree that they really are soul destroying, and in the main pretty pointless. When you actually watch Robin’s video presentation on the MacArthur Foundation website, rather than just read the Boston Globe article, her tone is very different; she is using archaeological data to get to the silent majority that are not represented by the exclusively male, ecclesiastical, and high status sources . Surely this is something to be applauded?
But what I suspect provoked much of the comment was the fact that an historian was making a very explicit statement about using archaeological data in order to construct her narrative. This touched a sore nerve that has long run through historical archaeology since one of its earliest exponents, Ivor Noël Hume, rather flippantly described the discipline as “the handmaiden to history”.
Fifty years on from Noël Hume’s remarks, and historical archaeology has come of age. In the commercial world, excavation undertaken prior to urban redevelopment inevitably has a significant historical focus, whilst the archaeology of the post-classical world now features as a mainstream element on the syllabuses of almost every archaeology department in the country. So why does such sensitivity remain?
I think part of the problem comes from the still uneasy position historical archaeology occupies between prehistory and history proper. In the absence of a recorded framework of reference, prehistoric archaeology is often characterised by dramatic discoveries that fundamentally change the way we understand the nature of humanity. History on the other hand is a direct record of events, the more recent past mapped for us, albeit imperfectly, to be read and interpreted. So where does historical archaeology sit when concept-changing discoveries are rarely there to be made, and there already is a well-established historical context?
A good example of this conundrum is illustrated by the recent discovery of Leicester’s ‘King in the Carpark’. Unlike our prehistoric counterparts, it is not often that historical archaeologists gain such a level of media attention. However, the hype surrounding the almost miraculous discovery of Richard III’s remains went global when archaeologists, either through meticulous research or, more likely, incredible luck, managed to locate the grave of England’s last Plantagenet monarch. TV documentaries, academic papers and a bucket full of ‘impact’ for the REF all followed, but was it such a ground-breaking discovery? After all, we had always known Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth, his remains taken to Leicester and buried at Greyfriars, hadn’t we?
Well on one level this is true, it was not a ‘great discovery’; but to dismiss the find altogether is somewhat missing the point: the excavation of Richard has provided further fine detail to the pre-existing narrative. We now know his body was not thrown into the River Soar at the Dissolution, and the physical remains display the humiliating mutilation his corpse experienced both at the point, and after, death. Oh and yes, Shakespeare was not exaggerating the ‘crookback’ bit.
If one cuts through the hyperbole that still surrounds the discovery, the best way to view the finding of Richard’s body is as if we had come across a new eyewitness account. It does not change the broader story, but it does give a fresh insight, helping to contribute to specific debates concerning his life and death. But what is important is that this new perspective can be brought through the ‘reading’ of an archaeological find.
So is Robin Fleming wrong to use archaeological data? Certainly not, as for the period she is dealing with, archaeology is one of the primary sources. Should archaeologists feel threatened when historians handle their data? Not at all, so long as it is interpreted with understanding and in the appropriate context. However, it is equally important that historians do not ignore the fresh perspectives archaeologists can bring to established historical debates, but that is another possible blog posting.
Both disciplines should now be mature enough to embrace each other’s approaches and stop retreating into entrenched camps every time they perceive the other to be invading their intellectual territory. After all, whatever labels we place upon ourselves, we are all striving to make sense of the same shared past.
Hugh Willmott is a Senior Lecturer in European Historical Archaeology at the University of Sheffield. His current research is focusing on understanding the longer-term affects of the Dissolution of the Monasteries through a programme of excavation and historical research at Thornton Abbey, Lincolnshire. You can find Hugh on twitter @Hugh_Wilmott.
Image: ©Hugh Wilmott