Until two decades ago, archaeology was full of certainties. Archaeologists believed in objectivity and in their capacity to explain the past as it actually happened. From the 19th century, a number of professionals were responsible for recreating the past through the study of archaeological objects, from the vantage point of salaried positions in museums, heritage offices and universities. Yet even within the profession, debate soon emerged. Archaeologists meeting in London in the midst of the Second World War, for example, wondered whether they should accept state funding and therefore risk being manipulated as had blatantly happened in Germany under the Nazi regime.
Subsequently, in the 1960s, concerns were raised regarding the rights that Native Americans should have to control their own past. This resulted, years later, in the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in the US. As other countries introduced similar legislation, archaeologists have seen their privileges curtailed. The advent of postmodernism, called post-processualism in archaeology, further assisted in breaking with the certainties of the early 20th century. Archaeology is now understood as a discourse anchored in the dominant intellectual tradition of the Western world, whose emergence was linked to the creation of the modern state, and therefore to nationalism, colonialism and imperialism. However, once political and ethnic identities were identified as grounds for contesting archaeologists' views, other communities, brought together by gender, religion or other types of identity, also came to the fore. While there has generally been positive respect for others' visions of the past, there has also been a reaction against "pseudo-archaeology".
Creating Prehistory is written within the framework of the dispute on whether archaeologists' discourse can be considered the most authoritative source for interpreting the past. The author is a doctor in archaeology, but also defines himself as an environmental campaigner, psychogeographer, and member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. His book deals with the professionalisation of (prehistoric) archaeology in Britain, mainly in the interwar years, by a group of scholars identified as the "heroic band" or the "radicals".
Part I is the most convincing section of Adam Stout's book. It describes the strategies the "radicals" adopted to establish themselves as the authoritative voice of prehistoric archaeology. A minor problem is that Stout wrongly treats prehistoric archaeology as representative of the other branches of the discipline and the portrait is, therefore, incomplete. Yet if we take it as illustrative of prehistoric archaeology only, it is contestable but valid. In Part II (which unfortunately is not very clearly laid out) he moves on to discuss the basis for prehistoric archaeology as developed by the "radicals" and stresses both the idea of progress and diffusionism, pointing to the ever-wider institutional gap between anthropology and archaeology.
Part III discusses the druidic revival in the 1920s, focusing on Robert Macgregor Reid, and the clash between the druids and the professional archaeologists, particularly over Stonehenge.
Finally, Part IV is dedicated to a series of projects on prehistoric sites and landscapes. On the one hand, intellectuals and professional archaeologists promoted the idea of heritage monuments and sites such as Stonehenge and the excavation of Maiden Castle; on the other, amateurs developed projects focusing on the emergence of ideas such as ley lines.
"Describing the past means telling stories," Stout states in his introduction. "As professional keepers of the past, historians and archaeologists have much to fear from epistemic dissolution, and the fierce debate over relativism has demonstrated that what's at stake is power." So, the history created in this book is not really about the professionalisation of prehistoric archaeology in Britain, rather the creation of disciplinary authority as against the existence of alternative discourses such as George Macgregor Reid's druids and Alfred Watkins' ley hunters. Both groups - professionals and alternative/fringe archaeologists - are then compared, and commonalities found: opinions, Stout maintains, were not always based on evidence. Also, Stout argues, both groups tried to promote their deeds publicly; and each of them had a strong sense of community. In his view, because they acknowledge "the mysteriousness of the past ... archaeologists are mystics".
On the contrary, I would argue that archaeologists are not mystics but professionals who engage with archaeological material culture and try to understand it on its own terms. Stout implies that all accounts of the past are equally valid and again, I would deeply disagree. Archaeologists adhere to a rational process that asks questions and seeks data to answer them, pursuing an explicit methodology. They cannot reach any truth, for, to echo Umberto Eco, interpretation has its limits. They are also influenced by their own academic, personal, economic and political context. Yet, despite this, methods followed by archaeologists allow them to demonstrate what is inaccurate, or directly false, and also to be sceptical of interpretations that are not backed by convincing data. This does not mean respect for others' views is impossible but, ultimately, neither ley lines nor a druidic past is a fact that can be subject to validation.
This is why I, and a majority of colleagues in the profession, led by outspoken figures such as Garrett Fagan (Archaeological Fantasies, 2006), still think that professional archaeology, with all its internal variety and contradictions, has much to offer for an honest understanding of the past.
Creating Prehistory: Druids, Ley Hunters and Archaeologists in Pre-War Britain
By Adam Stout
Wiley-Blackwell 336pp, £55.00 and £22.99
Published 16 May 2008