Failure is Not Fatal

Posted on January 17, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations, that I have filmed. This one is from the TAG conference:

Session Info

‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.’ – Winston Churchill Human success, rather than human failure, has been valorized in our understanding of what it is to be human in past societies and the contemporary world. What it has been to fail to successfully experience, adapt and survive the human condition has often been ignored or understated both within and beyond the academy, save for ‘exceptional’ examples. Within Western society, discussion of any kind of failure is difficult, often at great cost to our mental and physical health, and it is seldom discussed in relation to our own practices as archaeologists. Failure within archaeology is potentially disastrous – consequences may involve the withdrawal of funding, academic shame, the loss of data, and career insecurity. Yet failure also has an irreplaceable role in learning, progression, and resilience, individually and societally. At a time when so many are feeling, and being, failed economically, socially, and politically on a national and global scale, this timely session aims to explore and discuss the many contexts for failure within both historical and contemporary settings. The session covers a range of failure in archaeology and related areas: • The failures of past cultures – failure to change, inability to adapt to climate change/food scarcity, religious change, cultural adaption, etc. • Archaeological evidence of failure – what are we missing? • The failures of the archaeological community itself, past and present – academic, interventions/excavations, projects, communications. • (Perceived) personal/professional failure, and lessons to be learned and shared – how can we ‘fail better’ in the discipline? • Failing to share information on what does not work, issues of data hoarding, and Open Access. • Celebrating failures (negative results, repaired artefacts, etc.) and encouraging ‘beta’ mind-sets towards archaeological projects.

Organisers: Lorna Richardson (Umea University) and Alison Atkin (University of Sheffield)


Failure is not Fatal: It’s the silicosis that will kill you

Millions of words have been expended on the archaeology of the north Wiltshire landscape ever since John Aubrey first stumbled across the henge monument and stone settings of Avebury in 1649. New discoveries in old contexts are even now being made – such as the square stone setting inside Avebury’s southern circle (Barker et al 2017). But this whole landscape is covered in archaeological evidence for failure that, to date, has gone unremarked. This paper describes the mass evidence for failure in north Wiltshire’s extensive nineteenth-century sarsen stone quarry. This has been ignored in previous accounts of the stone trade that focus on the family history, and distributed end products, of the business (Crook and Free 2011, Free 1948, 1950, King 1968). Yet the field remains themselves speak almost entirely to failed attempts to extract and cut the stone. As a work-in- progress, this paper illustrates the nature and (partial) extent of this failure: and tentatively suggests that it has implications for both the long-standing narrative of a successful trade developed from small yet enterprising origins, and also for understanding prehistoric sarsen extraction for the construction of those monuments that have enjoyed the lion’s share of archaeological attention.

Katy Whitaker (University of Reading)

Navigating the Interpretative Dilemma: Making progress through failed analogies

‘The Interpretative Dilemma’ (Wylie 2002) is a pertinent challenge for archaeology, namely whether to focus on questions which are easily testable but relatively uninteresting, or on more interesting but evidentially precarious hypotheses. Take analogies. On the one hand, analogies with known societies provide rich and compelling hypotheses about the cultural practices of the past. On the other hand, many archaeologists worry that analogies rely on the unfounded assumption that the past will resemble the familiar. One response is to emphasise how archaeological evidence can ‘bite back’ (Wylie, 2017); that is, the ability of archaeologists to uncover mistakes and biases in previously accepted interpretations. However, many (perhaps most) analogy-based interpretations will still turn out to be false or misleading. So why should archaeologists pursue them in the first place? This paper presents a philosophical account of progress in archaeology, which emphasises the value of learning from failures and of ‘honouring ambiguity’ (Gero, 2007). Using a case study of the role of analogies in interpretations of Pompeian household artefacts (Allison, 1999; 2009), it will demonstrate how archaeologists can secure valuable insights about the past (and our relation to it) by exposing the limitations and biases of apparently compelling analogies.

Rune Nyrup (University of Cambridge)

Failure: You’re doing it wrong

Failure is most often defined by what it is not: it is not success, it is not fulfilment, it is not achievement, it is not satisfaction. In the prevailing social discourse, failure and success are treated as binary opposites – we either succeed (good!) or we fail (bad!), when in truth most of our human ventures are a co-mingling of the two. In an uncertain economic and political world, we are encouraged to be resilient to failure, and warned that resistance (if not precisely futile) is problematic, negative, and perhaps even unhealthy. The self-help industry offers us ‘Nine habits to overcome failure’, ‘Five ways to make peace with failure’, it exhorts us to ‘Embrace failure!’ or ‘Be more Zen about your failure’ and reminds us that ‘Every success starts with failure’. Unfortunately, these easily accessible, instrumentalist accounts of failure fail us by focusing solely on a rules-based, operational onesize- fits-all approach. In this paper we will challenge the ‘cult of excessive optimism’, subvert the ‘cult of success’ and explore our embodied responses to failure as a means of defining it, in order to let go of that ‘…disappointment, [which]…we strangely hug’.

Darcey Gille (University of Sheffield)

What Price is Failure?

To celebrate our failures and to show that failure can indeed be the one stepping stone needed towards our future successes, this paper will be exploring firstly my own personal professional failure and then go onto the failures of success within our own contemporary cultural archaeological community. I have been told that I am too well known, too contentious and no-one in multiple archaeology communities feels they know enough about enabled archaeology to supervise any application for PhD. What I have learnt from this failure and how I am now using this as a stepping stone towards doing my own publishing route to a PhD could mean I may well achieve my aim. For it is by our very learning these failures that we can personally invent new approaches which can lead to us achieving our own archaeological purposed goals. The future can indeed look culturally bright for UK archaeology if we learn from our failings and change our past and present culture from one of limited vision to inclusion for all. For too long we have failed to culturally accept and welcome all to archaeology within our remit. Things we have left culturally unseen, invisible, ignored, and unspoken can become a celebration of success which could stop many people from turning away from us, or indeed aid us to learn from our past attitudinal failures and build up towards inclusion for all within the archaeology we love. This paper will speak of how we can use our own and archaeology’s failures to create a cultural acceptance which could well bring us into a successful era of all minorities in and outside of archaeology being able to aid our skills shortages and projects such as the HS2 project vacancies to be filled.

Theresa O’Mahony

The Failure of Commercial Archaeology in the UK – Can it be fixed?

Since the publication of PPG 16 in November 1990, UK archaeology has become increasingly commercialised. This has resulted in an increase in the number of sites under investigation and as a consequence, an increase in the number of archaeological employees. This paper argues, however, that commercial archaeology has failed to increase accessibility or understanding of the archaeological resource for a number of reasons:

• Increasingly limited access to and availability of archaeological archives

• A less than proportionate increase in the number of analytical/synthetic reports,

• A widening gap between commercial and academic/research archaeology,

• A failure to fully engage digital/social media in promoting and disseminating the results of archaeological research

• Despite increases in funding, staffing and available projects, commercial archaeology has failed to create a stable career structure in UK archaeology.

The paper will suggest, however, that all is not lost. The future development of our discipline will depend upon confronting, rather than deflecting, issues raised as a result of the commercialisation of archaeology. UK commercial archaeology can address most, if not all, of these issues and in doing so, return archaeology to a more progressive agenda: one better suited to the long-term future conservation, access, and understanding of the archaeological resource.

Kevin Woolridge

Failure in the Face of Climate Change

The changing climate presents a challenge for those who work to conserve and curate our heritage. We are working to understand the impacts of climate change upon our heritage but it is clear that loss of heritage assets is inevitable. Coastal erosion threatens archaeological sites and historic structures; changing rainfall, temperature, pests, and diseases will change our historic landscapes, parks, and gardens. For many years our approach to heritage conservation has been underpinned by the idea of ‘preservation’ either in situ or ‘by record’ but in many situations neither is applicable or practical. As our webpage states: Historic England ‘are the public body that looks after England’s historic environment. We champion and protect historic places, helping people understand, value and care for them’. Is accepting loss of heritage a failure? How can we build loss into our role as champions and protectors of a nation’s heritage? This paper will look at the challenges and opportunities presented by rethinking the role of a national heritage body in the face of inevitable loss.

Hannah Fluck (Historic England) and Meredith Wiggins (Historic England)

Let it Go: Loss is good for us

Over recent years heritage management in England/UK has become increasingly fixated with process and has failed to engage in a meaningful debate about its purpose. This process first approach can be illustrated by the concept of ‘Heritage at Risk’ and the need to focus resources on preventing the loss of heritage assets: any loss of being seen as failure. In this paper I will set out a contrary view and argue that far from being failure, ‘loss’ is actually good for us (for both heritage managers and the public). Indeed as archaeologists study the process of loss and actively lead to loss via excavation we should understand the wider creative opportunities it brings. My paper argues that cultural heritage management is a creative process and that we are normally at our creative best when we are dealing with/threatened by loss. We should not be concerned about loss but rather see it as a very liberating and powerful opportunity to do something, to think something different, to be creative. Loss should not be seen as failure but rather as a creative opportunity to understand, sustain, and enhance the cultural values we associate with heritage and the historic environment.

Neil Redfern (Historic England)

Exhibiting Failure

With history being famously ‘written by the winners’ the stories of the ‘losers’ have been, and still are, frequently written out and/or airbrushed away. However, archaeologists sometimes claim that material culture is more equal in its potential to preserve and reflect the failures, rather than just the success stories, of the past. While this argument can be countered by the indisputable fact that more powerful groups and individuals undoubtedly have the means to make their material remains more durable than the weaker members of society, it nonetheless presents a hypothesis worth exploring in practice. In this paper we will discuss our efforts to curate a ‘museum of failure’ utilising University College London’s substantial collection of archaeological artefacts, historical objects, and other museum specimens. The museum is due to ‘open its doors’ at UCL’s Octagon Gallery in central London in September 2018 and our challenge is how we tell a story (or stories) of failure, using a small selection of these objects, for a twenty-first century audience. Our presentation will serve to share our experiences with this project so far and partake in a constructive discussion on the potential for a ‘heritage of failure’.

Thomas Kador (UCL) and Vesna Lukic (University of Bristol)

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