Francis Pryor and Bonny ScotlandPosted: December 8, 2012
Since this is primarily a professional ‘blog, rather than a personal one, I don’t often discuss wider developments in archaeology here or repost others’ musings; I’m making an exception here though. I’ve long held that Francis Pryor is the finest archaeology writer we’ve produced in quite some time: capable of writing narrative archaeology in a way that both makes sense to the non-specialist and engages them. Digging beneath the style, the perceptive archaeologist will find very little to disagree with – Francis might take a personal view, as any archaeologist does, rather than presenting a consensus but that is one of his great strengths: making debates intelligible to a wider audience, always taking pains to describe the other side of an argument went setting forth his own.
As an undergraduate, I committed the heinous crime of referencing some of Francis’ books in essays. Referencing Farmers in Prehistoric Britain seemed to be OK. Referencing Britain AD incurred the wrath of the academic gods (my lecturer), however, and I never referenced any of Francis’ work again… during my first degree. Since then, I’ve used my growing academic confidence to reference his books whenever I think he has a good point to make which supports (or differs from) my own argument. Why this snobbishness? I remember a friend of mine at a different university telling me of a rant one of his lecturers had about Time Team at about the same time and maybe it’s that fear of dumbing things down for a popular audience that provokes such institutional insecurity. If so, it’s both irrational and a peculiarly archaeology related fear – I know several history lecturers who have no such qualms about using Simon Schama’s History of Britain.
Alternatively, maybe fears run deeper and relate to defining the boundaries of a specialism – after having a go at me for referencing Britain AD for it’s populism (I seem to remember something along the lines of “it’s not a proper archaeology book, it’s a TV tie-in” but maybe I’m reading too much into my patchy memories) my lecturer listened to my bald defence of Pryor as an archaeologist. He somewhat sniffily replied “maybe he’s OK as a prehistorian but he doesn’t know anything about the middle ages” and with a grimace intimated that maybe other poor, stupid, students would reference the book in future and he’d have to read it again (I wonder now if he had in fact read it at all at that point).
I thought then, and I think now, that such academic distance should be a strength rather than a weakness: whatever the period, the process of archaeological research and writing is the same and sometimes someone less familiar with prevailing paradigms can provide the necessary impetus to move understanding forward. Such arguments, of course, move beyond the particular case of Francis Pryor who was (is) an archaeologist above all else: if he was/is known as a prehistorian more than anything else than that is because there is more prehistoric archaeology in his Fenland home than later periods – but there are some later sites and any archaeologist will tell you that directing an excavation of that type means that you have to be familiar with all periods.
I think this is a debate worth having – long overdue in many ways. At a time when public engagement in archaeology is so fashionable and almost universally acknowledged as necessary to funding in the current climate, even if some archaeologists may wish it were not so, it seems strange that we even need to have it, but there we go: we do. Popular archaeology books are important for communicating archaeology to a wider audience. Writing for a wider audience should not, however, preclude those books from academic merit.
For Francis’s own thoughts, which prompted this post, click through the link below:
Edit: Since posting this, I’ve somewhat serendipitously discovered that my PhD supervisor, Terry O’Connor, has also recently written a ‘blog post about writing style and archaeology. That can be found here: Writing Zooarchaeology.