“He hated to leave while the party was still going on.”

Posted on September 30, 2013


‘He hated to leave while the party was still going on’ is what Kent V. Flannery would have put on his tombstone. That line is from his ‘On the Resilience of Anthropological Archaeology’ paper. It includes such other gems as, ‘It’s Trotsky’s birthday, dickhead’ and ‘Three archaeologists on the Michigan faculty—Bob Whallon, Henry Wright, and I—went through the Chicago system, and we all agreed to do the opposite at Michigan.’

I saw a link to this article pop up on Twitter from @HenryRothwell and would recommend everyone take a look at it. http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev.anthro.35.081705.123304

It is an incredibly entertaining read as it is a transcript of Flannery’s “interview with a B. Walters”. The reason I am mentioning the article, beyond the fascinating perspective is the style it is delivered in, an interview with Barbra B. Walters. Flannery has always been good with telling a story, just read the Golden Marshelltown, and it is something I wish I saw more often in archaeology- insightful, a little bit of humor but not too much, and a delight to read.

Of course I am not saying every piece of archaeology should be like this- that would be a disaster. We need work that is just the data as well. It is the one of the reasons why I rarely read newspaper articles about archaeology- mostly fluff, not as entertaining, and there is no way to look at the data. Heck even some journal articles are a bit like that too. Moreover, I highly doubt many people could pull off such writing, I know I couldn’t. Those caveats being mentioned, I do wish there there was more variety in how people present their thoughts.

This is a problem with the current publishing system- specifically peer review and the medium demanded. Peer review has the unfortunate habit of allowing the reviewers, in most cases, to make judgement calls on the presentation instead of the quality of data presented. Don’t get me wrong grammar, spelling, and the statement of  clear thoughts are all important to ensure people understand you- all qualities I struggle with- but it also means style of presentation can be just as much a reason for rejection as the quality of the finds. This causes a pretty bad feedback loop were people emulate the styles they see and do not experiment because it is publish or perish. Who would want to take the risk of being rejected?

The second problem I mentioned is the medium required by the system- journal articles, books, peer reviewed stuff etc. Has anyone gone into a tenure review and had their board say, “ah, we really don’t care about those articles but that map of the development of prehistoric Mayan development just blew our minds, here is tenure.” How about when going for a job interview? Did anyone every say, “that interview you gave on Charlie Rose was fantastic, your hired”.

Now I understand why there is publish or perish- if it wasn’t there you would have free loaders who did nothing and collected a pay check. My only wish is that we were a bit more diverse in how we communicate and what we value.


Posted in: Wildcard