... (or something very like that), said a waspish Peter Sawyer in a lecture some time around 1980. Sadly for him, Philip Rahtz was in the audience and published the remark. Ever since then it has, understandably, been something of a bugbear in relations between archaeologists and historians - or at least it has been constantly recycled by archaeologists as demonstrating what 'all historians' supposedly think about archaeology.(1)
You can understand the annoyance, or you would were it not for two things: first, the quote is now thirty-odd years old and historians' attitudes have moved on considerably, as far as I can see from my vantage-point as someone regularly described, at least by Anglo-Saxon archaeologists of a certain age (like J*hn H*nes and C*th*r*ne H*lls) as a historian rather than a proper archaeologist (in spite of, ahem, having at least as many degrees in the subject as H*nes at least). Second, and more importantly, it is really archaeologists themselves rather than any wicked historians who go out of their way to prove Sawyer's point.
Take, for instance, this article in the Torygraph. Archaeologists will be excavating the Château of Hougoumont where the Coldstream Guards held off determined attacks by large numbers of French troops in the earlier phases of the Battle of Waterloo, 200 years ago this June.(2) And how, one may legitimately ask, will this add to our knowledge of the Battle of Waterloo? What will the results of any excavation show, in and of themselves? They will, one assumes, demonstrate that, at some point in the early nineteenth century (although quite how any of this could be even remotely precisely dated without historical sources is uncertain (3)), the château was the scene of some kind of violent confrontation - of uncertain scale - during which people armed with some form of presumably smooth-bored fire-arm fired lead balls at each other, whilst other combatants used some form of device to project large iron balls at their enemy. Also employed were swords and a kind of socketed spearhead. They may indeed show that, unsurprisingly, some people were killed in this confrontation and that the buildings themselves were damaged. Possibly they may find some metallic uniform fittings which might enable us to identify the provenance of the participants, although given the predominance of Latin mottos on the badges and possibly buttons of one side and imperial-looking eagles on the other, one might be forgiven for reading the conflict as part of some sort of latter-day Roman civil war. Given the proliferation of written (including eye-witness) accounts, other documentation, paintings, plans and memoirs (not to mention surviving uniforms, militaria and other memorabilia from the battle in numerous museums) one may entirely legitimately ask what an excavation like this can possibly be other than an expensive means of showing what historians already know.
All this, alas, is all-too typical of recent directions in archaeological fieldwork. We can cite pretty much every episode of Time Team (personal favourite: the one where they excavate a crashed B17 to yield less valuable information than one could get from watching Memphis Belle) or Two Men in a Trench (personal favourite, the episode where they excavated bits of a WWII RAF airfield, excavating a defensive pit and finding a bit of Bren gun ammo, thus proving that it had been a Bren gun AA emplacement [as was known from surviving plans] and finding remnants of a pair of - wait for it - RAF goggles [their friendly museum curator promptly turned up and identified them thanks to the pristine pair he already had in his museum's collection] - fantastic), or the current penchant for excavating bits of the Western Front (archaeological conclusion: a major earthwork fortification seems to have been constructed across north western Europe at some point in the early twentieth century associated with some kind of major outbreak of conflict; alternative 'theoretical' conclusion a: it was simply a ritual display of a military ideals of rulership with no actual link to warfare; alternative 'theoretical' conclusion b: it was a long ceremonial causeway with multi-phase, ditched bounds, running from Switzerland to the Channel, linking mountain and sea in a religious cosmology) (4), or the excavation of amply-planned, -photographed and -documented 20th-century housing in York, or battlefield archaeology, or ...
Now - to be fair - there are some perfectly good, serious and concerning reasons for this. First, archaeology, field archaeology in particular, is on the receiving end of all the worst of neo-liberal assaults on the arts and humanities and has had to take refuge in 'modern relevance', wishy-washy 'community history' and 'memory' (and all the rest of the whole trite 'public history' agenda). Second, the limitations on fieldwork caused by planning regulations, competitive tender etc., seriously limit the potentials for fieldwork other than at the (modern) levels most likely to be obliterated by development. To a significant degree, then, there is an understandable amount of making a virtue out of necessity going on here. All that requires the critique above to be mitigated significantly - or some of it anyway.
It must also be said that sophisticated studies of excavated material culture from well-documented contexts actually have potential to significantly challenge and revise images drawn from the non-archaeological record. Indeed I have written elsewhere that the potential for archaeology to have an equal and independent explanatory value to documentary or other historical studies grows, rather than declines, in heavily documented eras (the opposite of the old zero-sum view that archaeology becomes less valuable the more documents you have).(5) But I have to say, firstly, that, in spite of a lot of rhetoric on these lines, I have yet to see much progress on this front and, secondly, that sadly there is currently much more interesting and sophisticated work being done on material culture in these periods by students of the more complete documentary and artistic record.
But whatever the case and whatever the justifications - reasonable or otherwise - all the activities listed (and some - like battlefield archaeology and the Hougoumont example especially - have little or no capacity for doing anything else) are simply illustrating what historians know already, but at greater expense. Twenty-two years ago, in an edited volume entitled Archaeological Theory: Who Sets the Agenda?, Richard Bradley penned a piece entitled 'Archaeology: the loss of nerve'. I wonder if what he was concerned about has not in fact come to pass.
(1) For comments on all this, see Commentary 1 ('Archaeology and its discontents') in my edited collection, Cemeteries and Society in Merovingian Gaul: Selected Studies in History and Archaeology 1992-2009.
(2) Not mentioned in the article is the fact that the whole French attack was a cock-up as Napoleon had ordered Reille and Jerome not to capture Hougoumont necessarily but simply to screen Hougoumont with feint attacks, but that the latter got carried away and ended up committing more troops than was planned - not that this negates the achievement of the defenders of course: quite the opposite.
(3) Even were one able to construct reliable and accurate typologies of the artefacts (and the only reason one would be able to do so would be on the basis of written sources), the muskets used would only give more or less vague 'TPQ's for the engagement, depending on which bits of which models were found. The French musket was essentially a pattern 1777 Charleville and the British 'India Pattern' 'Brown Bess' an 1802 Guards model (if it hadn't been the Guards involved, then the musket pattern in use would have been a 1797 model), giving us 'TPQ's between 13/18 and 38 years earlier than the battle.
(4) Some of this Great War archaeology is motivated, it is said, by a desire to counter the views of Great War-glorifying historians like Gary Sheffield, whose views I have written about before. That seems entirely laudable to me, although the argument does not in itself require archaeological excavation for support.
(5) See note (1) above, and the preceding chapter on 'Archaeology and Historiography', originally published in the Routledge Companion to Historiography, ed. M. Bentley (1997).