What a strange weekend that was! For reasons best known to itself, the Association for Environmental Archaeology [http://envarch.net/] decided to dedicate their Autumn 2015 conference in York to “a celebration of the career and research of…”…me. On the one hand, it was enormously gratifying, a kind gesture for which I am deeply grateful. On the other, it was truly embarrassing to be the focus of such a celebration when I could name a half-dozen more deserving contemporaries. Nothing to be done, as Beckett says, so I am glad to have been the excuse for an excellent conference that brought a lot of friends together to exchange research and gossip.
And the event made me think. Somewhere along the last few decades, I have done what any toiler at the academic coal-face must do. We try to find out new stuff about our little corner of the world and tell people about it through books, papers and lectures. We share that new stuff with our students and try to help them to develop the skills of critical thought and communication that are so important in life. Some of those students find their own way into academic careers of one form or another, and far and away the greatest pleasure of my career has been to see former students becoming significant researchers and teachers of their own students.
Sometimes my early research is shown to have been inadequate, barking up the wrong tree, or simply barking. That’s good. Archaeological evidence is notoriously patchy and unsatisfactory, so our inferences from it can only be a provisional statement, open to revision in the face of new evidence. To think otherwise, to insist on the correctness of one’s interpretation even in the face of countervailing evidence is to misunderstand the word ‘science’, and is closer to the words ‘belief’ or ‘faith’. And to insist that one’s view should take priority simply because one happens to be a venerable Professor is disgraceful. I strongly resented argument from authority when I was a student, and I will not give it house-room now.
It has been, as you see, a thought-provoking weekend. The conference was a cornucopia of new research, much of it bringing new techniques to bear on questions that might once have seemed unanswerable. And it was lovely to share the conference with old friends, former students, new friends, current students – a collection of people who have made their own way into this particular corner of archaeology. Conferences should be an opportunity for a lively and friendly exchange of ideas and information, and not an opportunity for grandstanding and point-scoring. AEA Conferences have always been good-natured affairs, and this autumn’s was, at least for me, especially memorable. Many thanks to all who made it happen.