The Festival of Archaeology – shame about the mumbo-jumbo

The Festival of British Archaeology is running from 17 July to 1 August with events in many parts of the UK. I can highly recommend it – there are some really exciting things going on: some archaeological stores are open, there are artefact handlings, guided walks, excavations open, and lectures, among many other things, as well as lots of children’s activities. The listings are now available online.

Unfortunately it makes me despair to see yet again the Council for British Archaeology promoting superstitious pseudoscience. This year you can try dowsing: either for garden features at Ham House in Surrey, or in Cornwall ‘try your hand at this ancient art to locate mineral lodes and mine workings, used for discovering metal bearing lodes from medieval times’.

So, what’s the point of wasting all that money on geophysical equipment, like ground penetrating radar and magnetometers, when a hazel rod will do the job?

Last year there was an event in Cornwall to identify ley lines, and I got short shrift when I questioned this, receiving a very anodyne and dismissive reply. The CBA is a body whose raison d’être is promoting research and education in archaeology, and improving the communication of archaeology to the general public; presumably it would like archaeology to be taken seriously and treated as a proper discipline (whether to be described as a science or a humanity is debatable). But I can’t see how it can expect to be taken seriously if it gives credence, even in just two of many events, to magical detection techniques. How likely would you be to see the Lancet carrying a paper on new varieties of leechdoms and wortcunnings; or your GP treating your cancer by suggesting you drink beetroot juice and use creative visualisation, or explaining your lassitude is due to too little yang? Modern chemistry has also moved on somewhat from its origins in the search for the Philosopher’s Stone.

Never mind, at least the archaeologists can improve their chances of finding what they want to know by the judicious use of ritual deposition, sacrificing a small goat, a bit of dowsing; or even better, instead of excavating, just employing a spiritualist to ask. Anyway, I’m off tonight to the Royal Society for a talk on how to ward off evil spirits.

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