Mary Beard’s Point of View
Mary Beard’s recent episode of A Point of View on BBC Radio 4, and the follow up article on the BBC website entitled ‘Is the archaeological dig a thing of the past?’ have led to a certain amount of outrage amongst professional archaeologists.
On the programme, Beard spoke about the research being conducted in the town of Ostia, Italy by The Portus Project, where geophysical research has shown that Ostia’s city wall extended further than was originally thought and has also led to the discovery of three extremely large warehouses.
Interestingly, the name of the project was never actually mentioned by Beard, and no reference was ever given for individuals interested in learning more about the project – surely a crime for an academic?!
For those who have not heard of it, The Portus Project is led by researchers from the Universities of Southampton and Cambridge and aims “to develop techniques that will enhance the ways in which highly complex classical sites can be investigated and recorded, and evaluate the impact of those techniques” (1). The project combines non-destructive surveys and excavations to create computer graphic representations and simulations of the areas that it is investigating. For more information of the project, see their website (link below) which has some really interesting information about their methods and techniques and also has a frequently updated blog.
The thing that seems to have caused a lot of outrage on social media is that the summary at the top of the article states “Archaeological discoveries are more likely to be found by technology than with a trowel and a torch” (2). Beard has since stated on Twitter that she did not write the title of the article, and I am assuming that she also didn’t write the summary line.
Beard does give a reasonable layman’s history of the archaeological use of aerial photography, the development of non-destructive survey techniques and their use now. She is also completely right in stating that geophysical survey “leaves the archaeological remains where they are safest – under the ground” (3).
However what Beard fails to remind people of is that much of the archaeological excavation conducted nowadays is rescue archaeology – commercial archaeology units excavate areas that will otherwise be destroyed due to construction and other land development projects. Excavations for research sake are increasingly rare, and tend to only really be run by universities.
Archaeological excavation is an extremely useful technique for investigating the past and tells us a great deal that cannot be understood from non-destructive methods alone. One just needs to look at the University of Reading Silchester Insula IX Town Life project has produced to understand the sheer amount of information that be recovered from this kind of research.
Beard stated that non-destructive survey techniques have had some incredible advances in recent years, and are developing all the time, and every archaeologist should surely agree. These techniques are incredibly useful in that they help us to investigate areas where we cannot excavate. What was not explained, however, was that non-destructive survey techniques also help us to create a fuller picture from that which excavation alone does, and could never replace archaeological excavation entirely, a message that I think Beard could have used to greater effect to promote the work that archaeologists do.
I am hugely supportive of the work that Mary Beard does, and I think it is fantastic that she has managed to get the topic of archaeological methods into mainstream media, I just personally wish that her message had been slightly more understanding of the way that archaeology works today.
What do you think? Comments on a postcard, by carrier pigeon or in the comment box below please!
To listen to Mary Beard’s Point of View: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b041yr94
To see the BBC article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27236869
The Portus Project website: http://www.portusproject.org/
Mary Beard’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/wmarybeard
Silchester Insula IX website: http://www.reading.ac.uk/silchester/