Ronald Hicks - Archaeological Method & Theory and the M3


The following is an article penned by world henge expert and anthropologist Ronald Hicks, of the Department of Anthropology at Ball State University, Indiana, USA.

It seems to me that certain issues important for understanding the opposition archaeologists and other scholars have displayed toward the M3 highway project have not really been clearly explained in the debate so far.

From what I have read in the newspapers, it is apparent that the public, and perhaps even those in the government, have a rather limited and out-of-date conception of just what archaeology is all about. This is probably the fault of archaeologists, for we do tend to be rather too involved in talking to each other rather than communicating as we should with the public, who in the end provide most of the support for our work.

Consequently, I will try here to clarify
1) the objectives of archaeology,
2) the reason for our concern with "landscape" rather than just sites, and
3) what is today considered good archaeological practice.

If I succeed, it will also clarify the vehemence of our objections to the planned highway routing.

Many seem to think that the goal of archaeology is to retrieve artifacts, and the more spectacular the artifact, the better. This is simply not the case. An artifact in and of itself has little value for archaeology, although it may make for an interesting museum display. What is of utmost importance is information. For archaeology, this comes in four major types of data that must be recovered and analyzed: artifacts (things--usually portable--made or modified by humans), features (modifications to the site itself--monuments, pits, hearths, post-moulds, etc.), ecofacts (floral and faunal material ranging from pollen to charcoal to animal bones that provide evidence of the local environment, human use of it, and the date of that use), and, probably most important of all, context (the relationships among all of the other sorts of data and between the site itself and the surrounding landscape).

What are archaeologists trying to do with these data? Four broad objectives are now widely recognized. The first, and oldest, is that archaeologists are expected to reconstruct culture history (the sequence and chronology of cultures). Once one knows what culture belongs where in time (and geographically), the next step is to reconstruct that culture--their way of life--as fully as possible. That will then allow us to gain some understanding of the culture process (i.e., why things were done as they were and why they changed, or didn't). Finally, and most difficult of all but certainly vital for a sacred site such as Tara, we must try to gain some understanding of the way the people of the past thought about their world (their religion, cosmology, ideology, iconography, and so on).

From the last of the types of data listed above, context, you should begin to suspect the reason for our concern with the landscape beyond the site. While archaeologists used to focus solely on sites, over the past few decades they have come to realize that sites do not exist in isolation and that their creators did not think of their world primarily in terms of their house or village. People do not simply occupy a structure, a farmstead, or a village; these have meaning only within the larger landscape.

Significant places in a prehistoric landscape may actually be natural features that contain no evidence for human activity. For example, a hilltop--and plenty of those besides Tara and Skreen are mentioned in Irish myth--may be seen as the dwelling place of a god. Ritual complexes, of which Tara is the premier example from later Irish prehistory, typically cover an area of several square kilometers within which are found a cluster of monuments recognized as being of a ritual or ceremonial nature--passage tumuli, earthen enclosures, and so on--as well as a variety of lesser elements that are nonetheless important. To the people of the past, they would have been seen as a unit. The complex surrounding Newgrange, for instance, covers approximately 16 square kilometers. That at Tara undoubtedly includes Rath Maeve, whose far edge lies 1.6 km to the south, and the Riverstown enclosure and linear banks lying nearly 2 km to the west and northwest. The northern and eastern limits are less clear, which of course means we have less information in precisely the area to be affected by the proposed highway. In my own professional opinion, it is nonetheless highly likely that the complex incorporated elements at least 2 km to the north and east, such as Rath Lugh. To the east the closest prominent feature that might have marked a boundary to the district is, in fact, the Hill of Skreen, some 3.4 km away, well within the likely limits for such complexes. The presence on that height of an early monastic site is another indication that it is likely to have been a pre-Christian sacred site and thus part of the complex.

To turn to the issue of methodology, the use of 22-tonne mechanical excavators in stripping topsoil to expose archaeological features is, at best, highly questionable. Stripping the topsoil is acceptable only if there is strong reason to believe that any deposits in that layer have been thoroughly disturbed--through long-term plowing, etc.--and even then it is not a good idea because experimental work has shown that plowing tends not to move things very far, meaning that one can still learn from the material in the topsoil. If such stripping is done, great care must be taken not to disturb deposits below that depth--which is difficult given the damage the earth-moving equipment itself is likely to do just by virtue of its weight, particularly the large machines they are using. In any case, a representative sample of the removed soil should be screened to determine what, if any, artifactual or other data it may contain.

Furthermore, while rapidly removing recent historical deposits to get to the "real archaeology" underneath was considered acceptable to many three or four decades ago, it certainly is not now. There is just as much to be learned from those layers as from older ones, because documents and the history books are very selective in what they record.

Carrying out an archaeological excavation is comparable to performing medical experiments on animals. One often has to destroy the subject to recover the data. Archaeology is by its very nature highly destructive. And any data not recovered in the process are lost forever. As a result, modern archaeologists dig only when essential and typically only in a limited portion of a site--no more than is necessary to answer the particular research questions that are of interest at the moment. Not only data bearing on those questions but also all other recognizable data must be collected and recorded.

The reason for this limited approach to excavation--and increasingly heavy reliance on remote sensing--is that we have learned over the past century or so that our ability to recover information continually improves. What appeared to be useless material to an excavator a hundred years ago, fit only for the spoil heap, we now know to have contained information vital to our understanding of the sites. A simple example would be charcoal. Who in 1907 would have thought that a few grams of charcoal held the key to dating a site? What early investigators of caves in France took to be waste flakes from tool production, we now know to have been utilized as tools themselves in many cases. Edge-wear analysis using high-powered microscopes simply did not exist. Nor could we recover DNA of the animals or plants being processed from residue in the pores of the stones, as is often the case now.

Unfortunately, highway projects such as the M3 do not allow us to preserve parts of the sites for future excavators. And the additional information the sites undoubtedly contain will not be recovered because we do not yet know what to record, recover, or preserve, so it is permanently lost. The thirty-eight sites that are said to lie in the path of the highway through the Gabhra Valley represent a very large potential loss of information about the Tara complex. The much touted "preservation by record" is an illusion.

I hope the above comments provide a bit more context. If any readers have questions or require additional clarification, I can be reached at or Ronald Hicks, Department of Anthropology, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana 47306, USA.