Notes towards a Research Agenda

Introduction

Recent decades have seen a proliferation in the formulation of Research Agenda in British archaeology. The best of these have helped focus study and co-ordinate efforts. Far too many, however, especially before the year 2000, comprised either vague ‘wish-lists’ with no realistic chance of fulfilment, or have been so closely-articulated that they have inhibited innovation and the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. What makes a good Research Agenda, therefore?

Firstly, perhaps obviously, a structured approach needs to be followed. The following brief individual view of ‘what constitutes a useful RA’ is based upon the ideas explained in the 40-page document ‘A Research Agenda for Herefordshire’s Archaeology, 2011-14’ that I drafted in 2010-11 (Version 2.0, January 2011). This RA was organised by chronological period and began with an overview, in each case, of what was already known, and how this knowledge was at that time expanding (the detail of this enhanced knowledge was captured eventually within the book The Archaeology of Herefordshire: An Exploration, Logaston Press, 2015).

The Herefordshire RA then identified what appeared at the time to be the biggest gaps in knowledge. These concerned either large clearly-identifiable lacunae, or aspects that were partially understood, but needed amplification in particular spheres or ways.

It is then important to articulate the kinds of question, and specific examples of questions, that have been thought through up to that point in time. This is best done in reference to: 1) prior attempts to define what it is most important to try to learn; 2) what can be known given the present limitations of inquiry and the frequent intractability of the archaeological resource; and 3) what can be achieved with the inevitably limited financial and person-power resources at our disposal. In the Herefordshire RA, the questions were divided into ‘PAC’ (Presence, Absence, Character) questions of a more basic kind, and then ‘HO’ (Higher Order) questions that attempted to address the bigger more thematic problems to which research at a variety of levels could be directed.

It is then important to outline, not necessarily the content of projects devoted to answering those questions, but at least the kinds of project that can be developed to create the right conditions for the successful addressing of those questions, or aspects of them. In the Herefordshire RA, I defined these projects in four ways, as: Dedicated Research Projects (DRP) where ‘pure’ research was the primary focus; Developer Funded Works (DFW), where briefs and project designs responding to conservation challenges could identify how research ambitions might also be pursued during the progress of the mitigation work concerned; Resource Assessment and Conservation exercises (RAC), where resource protection and management were the primary goal, with research potentially an additional gain; and Community Led (or Linked) Projects (CLP), in which professionals and locally-resident enthusiasts might collaborate towards a variety of goals. In each instance I noted examples of the outcomes these various kinds of project could achieve.

Finally, it was acknowledged in the Herefordshire RA document, and it has frequently been noted elsewhere, that any RA is fundamentally a point-in-time document. In that case, it was suggested that the Herefordshire RA should be reviewed every five years. As such, and as mentioned on Page 1, above, the RA process is most likely to be successful where it is actively iterative.

Research Agenda and the Offa’s Dyke/Mercian-Welsh/Anglo-Welsh frontier

In the case of Offa’s Dyke, the book Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth-Century Britain (2016) among other things specified (in Chapter 2) the historiography of ‘Offa’s Dyke Studies’, and it identified very many of the questions that past studies and recent reflection have raised concerning all aspects of its emplacement in the landscape. It also specified a wider landscape within which the Dyke was set, both in terms of a frontier zone, and in respect to the geopolitics of the day. This latter was seen as extending not only throughout Wales and the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, but to Francia, the Carolingian Empire, Rome and beyond. The book also set out to pose questions sometimes well beyond the scope of what had previously been asked: from the simple and perhaps unknowable (‘was Wat’s Dyke also named after an individual associated with its construction?’, for example); to the equally specific but more practicably researchable (for instance: ‘is there any evidence for the contesting of the frontier at particular places, such as in the Llanymynech area?’).

So to a degree we have in place some of the key ingredients of a Research Agenda for Offa’s Dyke and the western frontier of Mercia: a recent review of what is known, substantive identification of gaps in knowledge, and the posing of research questions. Before a Research Agenda can advance very far, however, it has to be accepted that it can only be developed collaboratively, and in reference to actions as well as words. Although one person or a small group of people can draw up a list of questions, and even define some potential approaches to their answering, it is also essential to bring together a variety of opinion, drawn firstly from among those who have had most experience of engaging actively and in some depth in researching the field concerned, and from a variety of perspectives including cross-disciplinary ones. This is one of the key purposes of the ODC Workshop being held in Shrewsbury on 28th April 2017.

The document Offa’s Dyke: some notes towards the development of a Research Programme ‘in 100 Projects’  which this brief set of notes on RAs accompanies, does not attempt to specify exactly what can and should be done in terms of action. Rather, it has been prepared in the spirit of beginning to outline a Menu. Projects are simply a means of focusing action towards the achievement of goals: research designs then require the proposed actions and potential outcomes to be more closely-defined. Projects do not constitute the conduct of research as such, but they help to organise research programmes into deliverable packages. The section of that document that sketches out research directions ‘in 100 Projects’ does not order them in reference to the DRPs, the DFWs, the RACs or the CLPs of the Herefordshire example: although the achievement of particular research goals could in fact be defined in these terms. Rather, it identifies something of the territory that research projects focusing upon the western Mercian Dykes and frontier might occupy in the coming years.

Keith Ray                                                                              23rd April 2017