A craft saved for all

Lost at Sea
March 5, 2004

In archaeology, the lack of publication of final excavation reports is a skeleton in the cupboard. Ever since archaeologists ransacked the earth sciences in the 1970s to create an interdisciplinary "science", excavations have yielded more data than can be digested. A report from the Council of British Archaeology published in 2001, From the Ground Up , concluded that the process of publication of site information for the purpose of facilitating research and disseminating knowledge for public benefit is failing spectacularly.

In 2003, the first report of the All-Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group, The Current State of Archaeology in the United Kingdom , proposed a multimedia solution, in which a site's detailed stratigraphy and catalogue data would be published on the internet with only summary accounts and conclusions appearing in print. Archaeologists, however, are not thrilled at this prospect. In the past, microfiche proved a damp squib, not a revolution; and web-based reports are not user friendly for referencing site plans and artefact drawings. Some 92 per cent of British archaeologists prefer books and journals to other media. The future for print remains bright.

Two of Britain's leading scholars in archaeological theory controversially blame the scandal of unpublished excavations on a creative failure of style and presentation. For Ian Hodder, formerly of Cambridge University, "the modern language of archaeology is not a handsome tongue". The personalised writing of 18th-century antiquarians may have given undue emphasis to the actions of individuals and to controversies in interpretation, but it usually recorded ancient remains scientifically while remaining readable.

Today, the excitement and tension of discovery in 18th and 19th-century reports has been lost to endless standardised codes, objective procedures and jargon; the autobiography of the excavator has vanished. For Christopher Tilley of University College London, "there is something inherently unsatisfactory and elitist about the notion that excavations should be undertaken only to satisfy the specific research goals of archaeologists", leaving the public as excluded spectators of antiquity.

This comment is particularly valid now, when so many excavations are publicly funded. Consider the archaeological establishment's demand for greater scientific rigour in the 1980s, which killed off chairs in "biblical archaeology" and spawned the dull-as-ditchwater "Syro-Palestinian archaeology". Public interest in the subject declined, and with it went excavation funding - not academic archaeology's best public relations exercise.

Periplus Publishing London has entered the arena to show how final excavation reports need be neither dull nor elitist. Lost at Sea is the first of their offerings.

In March 1996, author Franck Goddio and his colleagues from the National Museum of the Philippines were surveying the Palawan Straits in the Philippines when an emergency diverted their research ship to the Lena Shoal, an area described in 12th and 13th-century texts as "littered with jagged rocks, their tips as sharp as sword or spear". After reports of looting by local fishermen, they came across a Chinese junk that was wrecked there in the reign of the Emperor Hongzhi (1488-1505). A survey at depths of 48m revealed an exotic cargo of shattered porcelain. Goddio writes: "Craters gave it the appearance of a lunar landscape. Crowbars, wooden flippers, ropes, snorkelling tubes... had been abandoned or lost at the site. The ground was also littered with elephant tusks."

Not even the locals' fear that the tusks were bones of mythical beasts haunting the site was preventing looting, so Goddio and colleagues started excavating within a few days. The research was sent to press within an impressive five years. Seven chapters and five appendices describe and contextualise a vessel laden with porcelain, stoneware, bracelets and bronze gongs, tusks, iron and lead ingots, and thousands of glass beads.

Stowed in ten 1.4m wide bulkheads in the 24m-long, 100-ton junk, this cargo was being privately exported from China following the collapse of the state's tributary trade system.

Lost at Sea is a groundbreaking publication. First and foremost, it saves an ancient and rare type of ship for humanity, by scientifically presenting it in catalogue form. Plenty of detail guarantees the book's long-term value, for example appendix five on the "Analysis of the composition of a fragment of a gong". At the same time, this is a beautifully produced volume with pictures of the excavations, plans, maps and artefacts in glorious colour. Both the scholar and the general public will be thrilled.

Cynics may scoff that such a lavish production cannot be economically viable. Yet the initial print run of 5,000 copies is more than 80 per cent sold. Pedants can always pick holes in excavation reports and this one is no exception, but Periplus London has here balanced science with the interests of a wider readership.

Sean Kingsley is managing editor of Minerva: The International Review of Ancient Art and Archaeology .

Lost at Sea: The Strange Route of the Lena Shoal Junk

Author - Franck Goddio, Monique Crick, Peter Lam, Stacey Pierson and Rosemary Scott
Publisher - Periplus Publishing London www.peripluslondon.co.uk
Pages - 288
Price - £120.00
ISBN - 1 902699 35 1

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