The Search for an Alternative Methodology

In the work that we are undertaking at Leskernick, on Bodmin Moor, we want to explore the prehistoric symbolic continuum from house to field to stone row and stone circle to distant cairn on the hill on the horizon. That is one of our objectives. Another is to move beyond the reconstruction and reinterpretation of the past to think about the process of doing archaeology - the conduct of research at both the level of the excavation trench and that of field survey. We want to try and investigate the relationship between archaeology as a discourse on the past and archaeology as a practice in the present. Archaeology is a contemporary practice. It is not just about what went on in the past, but the experiences we have of the traces of the past today, and the contemporary social shaping of our accounts. There have been a growing number of criticisms of the accounts of the past archaeologists provide in general (eg. Bapty & Yates 1990; Hodder 1986; 1992; Shanks & Tilley 1987a; 1992; Tilley 1990), and of the process of writing-up the results of field surveys and excavations in particular (Hodder 1989; Tilley 1989). The boundaries between archaeology as text, and literature as text, have been challenged. The standard type of distanciated third-person 'authoritative' narrative in which archaeologists 'cover the traces' of what they actually do, to produce a 'polished' version of the past for professional consumption has been called into question. Nonetheless, whilst there have been criticisms, there has been little attempt to develop alternatives.

The excavation that we undertook was small in area, short in duration, produced no portable finds, and only a small number of features. The standard approach would be to produce a brief, formulaic, interim (to use the standard jargon), report on our work. The daily process of excavation, however, generates alternative site histories which are subsequently abandoned, forgotten, perpetuated, or transformed.

The usual excavation account eliminates this process of reconstruction and interpretation, and in so doing jettisons much that is of value to an understanding of both the site itself and the manner in which some conclusions and interpretations, rather than others, become the final report. It needs to be recognised that the intensely detailed procedures of excavation have the potential to be time-consuming to the detriment of interpretative thinking, If excavation is not interpretation, and presented as such, it is nothing. All excavation, from the identification of a feature, to the manner in which this feature is recorded, and meaning assigned, involves different levels and types of interpretative debate. We need to find a means to highlight this in order to provide a counterpoint to the spurious fixedness of both excavation reports, and archives with their context sheets allowing minimal space for the interpretative process to be recorded.

A further aim of the Leskernick project is to explore similarities and differences between the confined world of excavation and the large-scale settlement survey. What are the effects of differing research environments? There was a definite tension between what was happening up on the settlement survey and down in the excavation trench. We tried to make sure everyone moved up and down, but inevitably there were fields of knowledge and passionate interests inhibiting movement (note the landscape metaphors (Salmond 1982)).

The excavation was more conventional, more disciplined, the settlement survey much freer, apparently more anarchic. But we could afford to be less restrained around the houses because we weren't destroying anything. How do we 'free-up' excavation while providing an acceptable empirical record? Who and what is the guardian of acceptability? In this paper, we attempt to present both the excavation and the field survey work at Leskernick in terms of a process in the conviction that the act of 'getting there' is as important as whatever temporary conclusions we might arrive at through that process. We want, during the Leskernick project, to try and create methodologies and ways of writing that more truthfully reflect the process of discovery, uncovery, intuition, and interpretation.