Peer review in investigative archaeology?

5 Jun 2013

The monthly magazine, British Archaeology, May 2013, has an interesting editorial by archaeologist Mike Pitts (he also has a website - see http://mikepitts.wordpress.com and www.britisharchaeology.org/ba129). It concerned the discovery of Richard III duirng the excavation of a medieval friary in Leicester - and digging up a car park. He wondered why it excited the general public. However, that question might be somewhat ambiguous as it was the likes of the BBC and other media sources that popularised the story by making such a song and dance about it. Why wouldn't Richard III's remains have interested people - after all, Shakespeare wrote a play about him. True, the archaeological team seem to have groomed the media to a degree - a big degree perhaps, but we like mysteries. There is also the possibility he was a maligned monarch - his reputation besmirched by the not very nice successor, Henry VII (as another BBC programme claimed just a week ago).

However, Pitts is more concerned with why academics and others thought they should throw in a pennyworth, criticising the public for being morbidly interested in their kings and their kings rather than in the history of other more intellectual things such as - well, have a guess. One Classicist scholar was miffed by what she thought was self promotion by the team involved in digging up the body - ignoring the considerable research and the off-chance they would come up trumps. Apparently, there were a number of people who objected to the way the story was presented to the public - and the fact the public seemingly swallowed it whole. Once again we have that elite attitude that the public are not capable of making up their own minds about the validity of anything as important, or not so important, as the discovery of the body of a king of England - they must have been influenced by all the noise and publicity. Not only that, they objected to the fact that the discovery was not subject to peer review - namely, discussed by academics and sat on for months, if not years, before being released to the public in a suitably dry format. Pitts makes the point this is a complete red herring as British Archaeology (and we may note its rival Current Archaeology also) often reports new archaeological research as it happens - and we might add, not when it has been doctored by the ministry of truth. Academics will talk about unfinished research, amongst themselves, Pitts says, but letting in the public, it seems, is a step too far - they might ask the wrong questions. He then adds, asking the wrong questions is what shifts paradigms.