Stonehenge is in the news again
Stonehenge is in the news again. This time, because the plans to deal with the traffic situation have finally gone ahead, and it has been decided that the problem will be solved by digging a tunnel and re-routing the problematic road away from the monument. This is a plan that has been considered and debated for many years now, and in fact one of my most read blog posts was a reflection, back in 2014, in response to the tunnel plan about what we mean by the 'landscape of Stonehenge'. My thought is that there is no such thing as a pristine landscape, and the area has so much more history than just the Neolithic. But I am very sympathetic to the traffic issues, and realise that there are multiple considerations when it comes to heritage management. For clarity, I am not strongly for or against the tunnel. Dr Tess Machling has posted some very insightful threads on this, and I think my feeling is generally in line with hers. I don't believe the tunnel to be the best solution, but it is what we have, and I am confident it will be done professionally and to a very high standard. There are a number of major archaeological units in a consortium that will be working on the project, probably the best and most experienced the UK has to offer, and there will be positive outcomes. My main issue is framing it as returning the landscape to some sort of pristine prehistoric version, which goes against my idea of what a landscape is, a palimpsest of different times, fluid and evolving, rather than fixed.
A more worrying issue is how the tunnel debate has been pitched, by groups who are opposed to it. The language being used is sensational, and clearly designed to create click bait headlines (and as Dr Machling points out, to get signatures on a petition). Is this really what we should be doing to get our point across, to get media attention and press coverage? This is an uncomfortable issue that has simmered away in the back of my mind for many years, and was very clearly expressed in this article by Dr Kenny Brophy and Dr Gordon Barclay, following the "trajectory of interpretative inflation" regarding Stonehenge, going from possible to probable to certain, to sensational!!
There are strong parallels between the headlines that Machling has collected, and those that Brophy and Barclay dissect in their paper. The purpose may be to raise support for your petition, or to make research more "REF-able" or get research funding, but it is very clearly attracting unpleasant associations. When the Barclay and Brophy paper came out, I wanted to write about my own perspective as editor of the Archaeological Journal, and having been involved in one of the projects they critiqued, but I found it difficult to collect my thoughts and spent a great deal of time reflecting on it.
I started working on the Feeding Stonehenge project in 2010, the same year that the paper on isotopes from cattle teeth was published, by Viner et al (if you haven't already read this, or Barclay and Brophy's paper, I would advise doing so). It was one of the first papers I read as I familiarised myself with the wider context of the project in which I had recently become involved. I remember distinctly an early conversation with the PI, about how Viner should have published the paper in a better journal, as the findings were so novel and could get a ‘higher impact’ (not a direct quote, I cannot remember the exact phrasing). As a new postdoc, this insight stuck with me, as a lesson in how I should think about presenting my own research.
The main aim of my role in the project was to analyse lipid residues from pottery, and assess whether there were differences in how pots were being used in different parts of the Durrington Walls settlement. Early on in the project, I was told that I would lead the publication, which is fairly typical for postdocs. The version of the paper I wrote was along the lines of Viner et al, a scientific report which was cautious in describing spatial variability. The main point I made was about problems of sampling an archive of thousands of pot sherds, and trying to get a sample set that was distributed evenly between all the contexts. The sample set we ended up with was heavily biased towards middens, with a tiny proportion being from the southern circle, and the ‘pits’ actually being a problematic grouping that lumped together samples from lots of different ‘pit’ contexts, that were not clearly comparable. In the end my version of the paper was scrapped and rewritten, and the whole process felt very geared towards making it more 'exciting' (and I was no longer first author). Same data, very different pitch, and much less cautious.
When the press release for our paper came out, I went along with it. It was my first encounter with press releases, and I remember being bemused at the headlines - “Food of the Gods” “Prehistoric BBQs” etc. The sensationalism I even found amusing. I went along with this idea for a while, thinking that 'good' research should have a press release and make the news (and maybe this is important for ECRs looking for a job...?). I am not laying any ‘blame’ for this on any single person. The interpretations were made in light of the growing narrative of the wider project, which just goes to show how the way we interpret scientific data is not entirely objective and very influenced by context in which the science is done. But perhaps we should have been more cautious, and certainly good science does not take a ‘possibility’ and turn it into a ‘certainty’. Whilst the headlines from our paper were more benign, the sensationalising feels very similar and feeds into the more sinister nationalist narratives that Barclay and Brophy clearly present, and that Machling is discussing right now with regards to the tunnel.
We must remember that news stories and popular writing are ultimately where people outside academia base their knowledge and opinions, and if we spin things, or even get it outright wrong, it can be very hard to change peoples’ views. My reservations about the Craig et al. paper were ultimately what prompted me to write Shillito 2019, which explored an alternative way that the residues could be interpreted (even in this case, the press release from the paper ended up missing the point…). Whilst I do like the idea of the greased sled, it is clear in the paper that I am offering this only as another possible interpretation that fits the data, rather than the ‘definitive’ interpretation of the lipid residues from Durrington Walls, and it supposed to be a reflection on how we interpret archaeological data.
This kind of media hype isn't just a 'Stonehenge thing' and seems to crop up all the time, with academics shrugging and brushing it off as oh it's the press release I didn't say that in the academic paper, it's just what the media do. Is it? How much of this do we have control over, and how much is our responsibility? Does it matter if the media headlines are benign, or is it only a problem when findings are misused? I am torn between wanting to share my research more widely, and worrying about saying the wrong thing or having research taken out of context. I would be very interested to hear what others think about this?