Sunday, 4 January 2015

The most important archaeological find of the year?

The damage to the Great Mosque in Aleppo (photo: AAAS/BBC)

The New Year and the weekend before Epiphany means the end of the annual time, which brings a well-deserved break to my normal busy schedule. Today is one of the last days before the lull will finish with the start of the school term and the need to face all those things that will need doing this year. Interestingly, the start of the school year in Leicestershire will fall onto the same day most of Europe celebrate Epiphany, which means that I will be officially having a bank holiday in Sweden, but in practice starting my working year in UK. A bit confusing, but I will balance the hours when using them to cover for some mid-week flights.

The lovely nothing-muchness of the time at home at Christmas means that pretty much nothing has happened archaeologically in my life, but this gives a good opportunity to reflect on a couple of finds made recently. These actually relate to some of my recent blog entries, so I can comment with some personal reflection on the matters.

Images by the University of Birmingham (Heritage Daily)

Heritage Daily has compiled a list of the top 10 archaeological discoveries this year. Naturally, the meaning of these discoveries will be truly revealed with time, when their significance against the background of all the other finds regionally. One also has to take into consideration that the online magazine states that this list is based mainly on the trending results of their own site (plus the apparently subjective ‘magnitude’ of the find). Nevertheless, I must agree with their Number 1: the new digital map of the hidden archaeology of Stonehenge. I myself wrote about this map at the end of August, but I do not seem to have mentioned the fact that some of my colleagues have not been that enthusiastic about the total coverage of geophysical mapping. However, one person’s humble pit is another person’s interpretation on ritual practices, so I can understand if people working in places with standing structures or scanning physical objects do not find a few pits that exciting.

What will be interesting to see is what will happen next with Professor Gaffney and Stonehenge. Vince has had a long time relationship with this landscape – with Sally Exon, Vincent Gaffney, Ann Woodward and Ron Yorston’s Stonehenge Landscapes: Journeys Through Real and Imagined Worlds from 2000 probably not getting the appreciation it should have had. If nothing else, the BAR volume not only looks at the barrows – often overlooked in the Stonehenge landscape – but it also gives good basic descriptions of different barrow groups. I have used Stonehenge landscape myself in the course material of my online course and tried to remember to present all Stonehenge [field] projects I am myself aware of. Everyone of them has brought something different to our knowledge of this enigmatic landscape that almost everybody in the world knows. Thus, any new finds of Stonehenge are important and part of World Archaeology – even if I can remember how underwhelmed I personally was when I visited the monument the first time. But I was awed and continue to be awed by everything that is there with it in the Salisbury Plains.

Anyway, Vince has now moved to the University of Bradford and we will see what and where his and his collaborators studies will take him. Birmingham’s loss is for Bradford’s benefit – potentially resulting in consolidating an amazing world class department I wrote about in relation with REF.

Returning to the Daily Heritage list, depending on the view point, some of the finds were not as ground-breaking as suggested. Number 5, the ‘enigmatic’ Viking fortress, is not such a thing if one knows about Scandinavian archaeology, although it is marvellous that geophysics has helped to find a new Viking fortress after 60 years. Helen Goodchild and others can be proud of their work with the University of Ã…rhus. However, Number 3, the two Mayan cities found with Lidar, adds truly our knowledge of central American archaeology and show how these prospection methods help archaeology. Sadly, when even more sites are found this way, this method becomes a standard and the news value will diminish for the consecutive finds unless their validation brings up something exciting. However, Numbers 4 and 9, the two early hominid engravings will testify of the early capabilities of different species even if their dates may be contested and new finds may become the earliest.

Although it is important that Lord Renfrew and others pass the word about the destroyed heritage of Syria, it is an international emergency with the refugees (who in many news pieces have become immigrants) sailing increasing on boats the human traffickers leave heading to Italy and take the EU Frontex programme hostage that is the real story. This is a direct continuation of the problems outlined in the Migration and the Mediterranean conference in early November in Rome where I was a participant. Even if my heart bleeds knowing the damage at the citadel of Krak des Chevaliers and what happens to other monuments in bombings and assaults, it bleeds even more for all the displaced and desperate.

Krak des Chevaliers in fire (photo: Wikimedia)

Nevertheless, the assessment of the damage in Syria has been carried out partly through the use of Google Earth and Bing Map images, but partly through the US Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit, which has shared commercial imagery. I have myself promoted the use of the free resources and this shows how they can be used for a truly worthy cause – even if the in-real-time assessment is not necessarily possible for normal citizens. No matter what one thinks about the directions Google as a company takes, in this way their product is an instrument of good – if it will also stay free and online in the future (we all know what happened to Yahoo Maps). Perhaps this continued monitoring of heritage at risk and disappearing using shared free tools is the most deserving the most important archaeological find of 2014.

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