1.1 In the beginning was the framework

In fairy stories it is both necessary and straightforward to start at the beginning. In archaeology and history it is rarely so easy, for beginnings (or origins) are generally the most elusive and the most impenetrably mist-enshrouded area of any subject of enquiry. To provide a framework for the continued, evolving understanding of Scottish archaeology might, superficially considered, seem to originate in a contemporary desire to guide that understanding and the wise expenditure of limited resources in order to achieve it. In this light it would simply become the latest in a series of UK-wide regional research frameworks and primarily fed by the impetus given to such frameworks by English Heritage from the late 1980s.

However, this would be to belie the richer context from which this initiative stems. It is no accident that it is being led by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Founded in 1780, the Society is Scotland’s oldest learned archaeological society and one which has long recognised the need to promote such continued understanding as the framework would seek (Bell 1981). The Society was founded in the Enlightenment spirit of enquiry that fuelled similar if less long-lived organisations. Shortly after the founding of the Society, for example, the Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society (hereafter PLAS) was born in 1784 and like the Society of Antiquaries, was also fuelled by the cultural politics of the 11th Earl of Buchan (Allan 2003 and specifically on the Society’s library Allan 2002). One of the first actions of the PLAS was to issue a Preliminary Discourse (PLAS 1784) and a list of Subjects for Illustration: areas of research to which the membership (all male) were encouraged to direct their thinking, clearly with some of the anxiety that is felt today about limiting thought, for it is at pains to point out that the selection of subjects ‘is by no means intended to circumscribe members in their choice, but merely to furnish hints to those who may have the opportunity of throwing light upon the ancient history of this Country’ (McComie 1787, 1). The notion of deliberately directed research is often thought of as a recent phenomenon, but clearly it is not and can be seen to make an appearance in the mid 20th century. Grounding his argument in both medieval charters and prehistoric flints Marc Bloch in his posthumously published The Historian’s Craft (1954) makes the case for directed research in the following terms:

‘Every historical research supposes that the inquiry has a direction at the very first step. Mere passive observation, even supposing that such a thing were possible, has never contributed anything productive to any science.’

Describing the importance of cross-examining evidence he continues with remarks that might easily describe the nature of a successful research framework in that it should be:

‘Very elastic so that it may change its direction or improvise freely for any contingency, yet be able, from the outset, to act as a magnet drawing findings out of the document’ (we might say site or landscape or artefact [note 1]) ‘Even when he has settled his itinerary the explorer is well aware that he will not follow it exactly. Without it however he would risk wandering perpetually at random.’

More recently still, the widely recognised need for research and research frameworks or agendas has been strongly advocated across the profession and academia. Focussing on a broader chronological context, Andrews and Barrett (1999) stress the need for a new research agenda for archaeology as a whole, to facilitate effective, efficient and valuable enquiry. They build upon the idea that the value of archaeology is directly related to its contribution to understanding the past, as elucidated by Carver (1996; and his earlier 1993 which emphasised its importance in the context of early medieval towns). Crucially Andrews and Barrett emphasise the need for research frameworks to base their principles in ‘understanding … how humans inhabited the material conditions which archaeologists recover’ (1999, 40).

To return briefly to the Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society’s seminal Subjects for Illustration ; the subjects encompass antiquities, onomastics, philosophy and fine arts and of 39 areas listed at least 25 are entirely or in part concerned with Scotland’s medieval past. Many are at the root of current, more archaeologically focused, enquiry and demonstrate the pivotal place of medieval life and culture in the on-going making of Scotland and in our understanding of that process.

Note 1: In his call for a closer unity between archaeology and history Professor Lord Smail reminds us that the word ‘document’ has as one of its meanings ‘that which teaches’ (2009, 22). Though the implication, certainly in medieval Latin, is one of a written text, still, landscapes, sites and artefacts (and not just the archaeological texts written about them) can be legitimately defined as documents.

Leave a Reply