The Fingerprints of the Lone Maverick Researcher

I still don’t know whether Graham Robb’s The Ancient Paths is tosh or not. If you dig into the book a very short way, you will see that he happily concedes he isn’t the first person to have come up with this idea. He’s also not setting himself up in defiance of French prehistoric archaeology – indeed, this material is his starting point.

If it isn’t complete tosh (excluding everything about the druids), then its breathless, revelatory tone as reported in the reviews is doing the material a disservice. It’s the tone of a man (usually) who has proven by drawing lines on maps, learning some uncontroversial things about Egyptian astronomy and free-associating with place names a bit that Atlantis is buried under Washington DC and the Hittites invented the internet.

“Popularly dismissed as superstitious, wizarding hermits, Robb demonstrates how the Druids were perhaps the most intellectually advanced thinkers of their age: scientists and mathematicians who, through an intimate knowledge of solstice lines, organized their towns and cities to mirror the paths of their Sun god, in turn creating the earliest accurate map of the world.”

And it was this chorus of quacking, much more than my sketchy knowledge of pre-Roman Gaul, that made me think “duck”.

Yet a lot of this is about marketing, and no author’s fault. This is what publishers’ marketing departments think historical enquiry looks like so this is how they sell it, pretty much regardless of how erudite the text is. If a book doesn’t have Startling New Evidence it must at least Overturn Existing Stereotypes. Often there is a rescue operation involved – restoring something to its rightful place in history, in defiance of some oppressive force. If the thing restored appeals to modern sensibilities, e.g. a conquered people or a wrongly accused individual, all the better – this will engage the reader’s post-Enlightenment indignation as readily as it fired the researcher’s, and they will steam through the book together.

Sometimes the oppressor is orthodox academia; in this case, the way one review tell it, it is also Julius Caesar, and the forehead-slappingly incredible possibility that he might not have represented the Gauls accurately. This is at least an audacious approach to straw man manufacture. If you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big one, as Caesar would no doubt counsel himself.

Physicists apparently suffer from a related problem. The media narrative has it that breakthroughs are made by lone genii, so anyone identifying as such automatically gets media attention. In fact – and just as I can guarantee no scholar of Roman Gaul is currently writing a to-do list that goes (1) believe Caesar (2) get coffee (3) seek to exclude maverick researchers by uniting with colleagues in defence of Teh Orthodoxy – this isn’t how most physicists work at all:

Physics is, these days, an immensely collaborative field. There are a lot of conferences. There are institutes and workshops and collaboration visits and endless seminars and dissections of research papers. Newly built physics institutes tend to have hallways lined with blackboards or dry-erase-glass cubicles to get people out of their offices to collaborate. We talk to each other, not because we are inherently very social (though a lot of us are), but because it’s a really productive way to proceed.

In physics as in archaeology, the motive of the lone maverick is a fine one. The human drive, expressed without cynicism, to discover alternative paradigms is very, very admirable and nobody should be ashamed of owning it. We should want to have our minds blown and our perspective altered. That’s what history and archaeology are about. The problem is that “orthodoxy” here is a straw man. Everybody who researches history or archaeology started doing it because they liked having their minds blown too. Go and read something very orthodox and classic and even textbookish on the Neolithic, like this or this or this. If you’re unfamiliar with the material, your mind will probably be blown. You won’t believe no-one has ever told you this stuff, that it’s just sitting around, and you won’t see yourself, or history, or the species, in quite the same way again.

It’s not that historical and archaeological investigation isn’t revelatory – it is. But these are drugs available on prescription. The idea that they have to be sought out furtively by mavericks making extraordinary bicycle journeys and meditating on hilltops in defiance of orthodoxy is a fantasy nurtured by publishers. It’s a shame that scholarly writing conventions tend to conceal the fact that everyone is really in it for the kicks.

Maybe I have it the wrong way round, and it is scholars who should be learning from publishers. Perhaps scholars who wish to extend their reach should own their inner maverick researcher, talk about their uncertainty and their delight, and do more bicycling.



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