Historic England has defined what the term means, and we thought we’d got it straight (see webpage What are Reference Resources and previous blog post). But… I’ve started adding them to our database, which means I need to decide which references are Reference Resources, and which are not. In some cases it seems nice and clear, where there are books, online materials, or physical reference collections relating to a specific type of artefact or ecofact. But it gets fuzzy at the edges of these definitions – eg when is a book relevant as a Reference Resource? If it’s about the history of something, is it still a Reference Resource? Then it gets even more unclear with some excavation reports, typically the comprehensively produced examples that created or expanded existing typologies, and discussed the artefacts and ecofacts in their wider context.
This led me on to thinking about archaeological investigation and knowledge more generally. As archaeologists what we do is produce archaeological information by identifying or classifying things – features on site, sherds of pottery, worked flints, carbonised seeds, bones, shells, types of site, cropmarks and so on. Once we’ve identified them, we consider their meaning; initially in relation to the site/local area and/or the date and/or the type of thing itself; and subsequently perhaps in a wider context in relation to the region and/or the period and/or the broader class of thing. Some types of archaeological work just address the identification/classification/information stage, others go beyond this but stop at the next stage of basic meaning, but the most comprehensive studies look at things or sites in their broader context and wider meaning.
So how is this relevant to Reference Resources? Well, at the most basic level, a Reference Resource is something that helps to identify or classify archaeological features, sites, and materials. I think this way of looking at things helps with deciding which site reports can be considered to be Reference Resources. If an excavation report publishes a ceramic type series for a site or an area, this would be a Reference Resource for pottery. If an excavation report includes a comprehensive study of the significant assemblage of whatsits found at the site, setting them in a regional and national context, and the only existing Reference Resource for whatsits was 50 years old, this excavation report would be a Reference Resource for whatsits. However, if an excavation report just listed all the whatsits found using the 50-year-old typology, this would not be a Reference Resource for whatsits. I’ll see how this goes when I get back to the database.
One of the fascinating things about archaeology is that there is always something new to discover, even about sites or objects which have been known about for decades or centuries; something which some non-archaeologists might struggle to understand. It is this which keeps many of us interested. But it is also something specific to our way of thinking about the world. In relation to the identification and study of archaeological features, sites, and materials, it means that there is always a wider context to consider, as new examples are found that throw a different light on what we knew ten years ago, or as the ones found years ago are studied in greater detail. We become used to this way of thinking, but it is not universal.