6.3 Collaborative Studies

Collaboration within and beyond archaeology is essential for investigating Scotland’s medieval past. The form this takes can vary, from working with archaeological specialists, those in neighbouring disciplines such as history and anthropology, and scientists. Engaging with local knowledge is essential to understanding local conditions, while experimental archaeology allows an engagement with past processes. Working with craftsmen also provides an experiential component to approaching the past.

For a while it was fashionable for disciplinary naiveté to hold the floor – it seemed appropriate for disciplines such as archaeology and anthropology to look inwards at what their contribution was so as to be able to say clearly what archaeology or what anthropology was and what they were not. This is perhaps best typified by the work of anthropologist Max Gluckman et al. (1964), advocating deliberate naiveté as a research procedure, deliberately and with discipline ignoring the work of other fields of enquiry. However, as observed by Silverman (1979, 413-14) this made a huge assumption that disciplinary colleagues could agree on the boundaries of their discipline, particularly with respect to anthropology and, one could add, archaeology. Archaeology, like anthropology, rarely studies problems ‘confined within sharp disciplinary boundaries’ (ibid, 414) but has sometimes betrayed the same anxiety about overlapping with history in particular. A key advocate of this anxiety about archaeology as the hand-maiden of history has been Austin (e.g. Austin 1997; Austin and Thomas 1997), though his stance has softened more recently (2007). Whilst it remains important for any discipline to understand the parameters of its operation, it must equally recognise that the unknowable past lies outside its parameters. A multi-disciplinary interface must surely be the goal in order to maximise the potential for a fuller understanding of the past – an approach long-championed by archaeologists working on medieval Scotland (e.g. Wainwright 1955; Alcock 1983, 2003; Austin and Alcock 1997) and is a bench-mark of the St Andrews Dark Age Studies Conference series, which commenced in 1993, under the guiding hand of Barbara Crawford and, more recently, Alex Woolf (Crawford 1993, 1996, 1998, 2002; and Woolf 2006).

Humanities- and Science-based perspectives, which for the purposes of the document mainly embraces the extraordinary advances made in archaeological science in the last few decades, to the extent that the spectacular discoveries of the future are as, if not more, likely to be made in the laboratory as in the excavation trench. The integration of humanities scholarship with the natural and physical sciences has not always been smooth, and the Framework could usefully explore new avenues of collaboration and the development of new theoretical perspectives.

Archaeology and textual scholarship has experienced similar problems of integration, even though the cliché of archaeology as an expensive way of finding out what the historians already know is thankfully past. Many archaeologists have worked well with historians, and it is becoming more common to find them also working proactively with textual sources. The Framework would do Scottish medieval archaeology a great service if it could integrate its overall approaches more closely with those of other regions and time periods that involve a similar multiplicity of data types. Ethnological study of traditional practices is also a vital source of interpretation for excavators of medieval and later structures and their artefacts. Ethnology has a tradition of research that goes back to the 19th century, but its best known exponent in recent years has been Sandy Fenton, who has produced many works on the subject, including A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology in 14 volumes.

Beyond working with colleagues in other academic disciplines or co-ordinated working across the archaeology sector, there are major benefits to working with people with local knowledge (for instance of particular land or weather conditions) or with what might be regarded as ‘traditional’ skills. These skills can be hugely helpful in the understanding of earlier spaces, places, objects and manufacturing processes. A good example of this in practice is the work of the Glenmorangie Research Project on Early Historic Scotland, based at the National Museums Scotland. As part of an ongoing partnership with The Glenmorangie Company, the museum has been commissioning contemporary artists and craftworkers to produce versions of early historic objects that are more reconstructions than replicas. Two such commissions have been delivered: the recreation of a Pictish throne and a pair of early Christian book satchels. Partnership with master wood and leather workers was essential in reconstructing the designs from very fragmentary archaeological remains. Manufacture gave often unexpected insights into the processes, tools, resource management necessary to create such pieces. Aiding the formation of links between archaeological and non-archaeological specialists should be encouraged wherever possible.

Experimental archaeology is a potential way of addressing gaps in our knowledge of, for example, pottery production and the use of kilns. Future applications should be explored along with the potential of engaging public and school participation.

Existing inter-disciplinary collaboration in Scotland has demonstrated that the Early Historic period is a project with international potential and that a collaborative ethic and approach needs to be enhanced over the whole of the Medieval period in Scotland so that its international value is equally developed.

Comments 2

  1. Experimental archaeology: Medieval

    Do we know of any good exemplar experimental studies on medieval topics that could be used to illustrate this section?

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