Writing archaeology

CWA editor Matthew Symonds pays tribute to Neil Faulkner’s approach to presenting the past.

The column name could hardly have been more appropriate. From CWA 65 in 2014, during Caitlin McCall’s editorship, until last issue, Neil Faulkner’s ‘Thinking Aloud’ column tackled issues that went to the heart of archaeology. The topics were rich and varied, ranging from how the past can shape the future, to the nitty gritty of why we dig. Along the way, enticing curiosities illuminated much bigger pictures, such as what Easter egg hunts and the Birdmen of Easter Island have in common (CWA 71), and why Pittsburgh, USA, proves there is no one right way to do archaeological fieldwork (CWA 78). His conclusions could be provocative or downright heretical, but were always thought-provoking. And all the while, Neil wrote with such immediacy that you believed he was sitting across the table from you, setting the discipline to rights with vim and insight.

Neil Faulkner (22 January 1958 – 4 February 2022).

Neil’s all-too-early passing on 4 February this year has denied us any more opportunities to be privy to his thoughts, and this final column is offered as a tribute to a much-missed colleague. It is not intended as an obituary – others are far better placed to write one (see tributes to Neil). Instead, it looks at just one facet of a man with so many strings to his bow: what Neil teaches us about writing about archaeology well. The subject cropped up in the first ‘Thinking Aloud’, when he employed the wisdom of two titans of the field – Vere Gordon Childe and Indiana Jones – to set out how good archaeology depends on the union of evidence and ideas. As Neil put it, ‘…the material is mute. It cannot tell a story about the past in and of itself. It has to be interpreted…’

This theme also leapt out from the first piece of Neil’s writing that I read: The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain. I was still an undergraduate when it was published in 2000, and I vividly remember the impact of its introduction. Just four sentences in, it daringly acknowledged that archaeological data ‘can sometimes make for dull reading’. Neil went on to propose using what R G Collingwood called ‘the historical imagination’ by blending data and interpretation to ‘tell the story’. He was convinced that this ‘must be done if archaeology is to be interesting and worthwhile’.

‘Thinking Aloud’ often touched on the dangers of material and meaning parting company. Take the case of Dracula’s castle (CWA 99). The fact that it does not exist is no barrier to tourists visiting Romania having two options to choose from. The tendency for what is thrilling to win out over what is authentic remains a serious problem when communicating archaeological research to the wider world. After all, selling nuanced readings of complex, ambiguous, and incomplete evidence takes work, even when you’re not up against inherently more exciting claims like ‘it was aliens/Atlantis/a curse’. Not so much fake news as fake pasts, perhaps. At the other end of the scale, Neil quoted Robert Graves’ frustration with specialists unwilling to transform a command of niche data into developing grand overarching theories (CWA 105).

The combined approach that Neil championed is not without risks. Looking at the history of archaeological research shows how even the greatest minds can be humbled by new discoveries. The further researchers stray from the safety of facts, the more they place themselves in the hands of capricious fate. Neil knew that. And he also knew that sometimes people have to be wrong in order for advances to happen. But ultimately, archaeology can only truly prosper when the public are able to share in the excitement of its breakthroughs. Neil’s determination to not only see, but also understand, leaves a body of work that serves as a masterclass in how it should be done.

Remembering Neil
Tributes to Neil from contributors to Military History Matters, which he edited, can be read here: https://the-past.com/comment/in-memoriam-dr-neil-faulkner/