Monday, 18 October 2010

"Archaeology" on the Cheap in the UK

British archaeology developed in a wake of the seventies economic boom but also on the back of increased concern about the environment and a whole lot of other things. It became professional, got a new image did very well - for a while. The ironic archaeological tee-shirt slogan "My Career's in Ruins" spoke of the confidence of those days. Then we went into the 'grit your teeth and bear it' days, with it being clear that tough times were ahead, to come to where we are today. The future of English Heritage is at the moment in doubt, several local planning departments have already over the past few years closed their archaeology sections and more closures and lay-offs are clearly on the way. Developers are hard-pinched themselves and reportedly looking with increasingly jaundiced eyes at the costs of development-induced archaeological mitigation. Can it get worse? Probably. Pessimists in the profession are suggesting that British archaeology is on the verge of meltdown.

You would think that public opinion would be on the side of the archaeologists, would rally round to stop the cuts. After all everybody is "interested in the past" - the success of programmes like Time Team seem to show it. But perhaps we should give a thought to what kind of "past". Britain already has its ruined castles and prehistoric monuments for the tourists to visit - lots of them. It already has the museums full of lots of lovely "ooh-ahh" objects, various types of re-creations of the past (West Stow, The Yorvik Centre and the suchlike). What is more the biggest archaeological outreach project (the PAS in case anyone is puzzled where this is going) has convinced the public that "doing archaeology" is all about finding artefacts. That loose decontexctualised finds can tell a story. In fact the way the PAS presents it, archaeology is about little else. What is more, it also constantly pushes the vision of this kind of archaeology as being something anyone can do. Pensioner Joe Bloggs, disabled furrier Simon Fipps, Milkman Henry Scroggitt, farmer Giles. Even solicitors' secretaries. And it does not cost the public a penny for these folk to be out there in all weather "finding things". What is more the lucky searcher can gets a lot of cash from the grateful nation for "finding things", for doing a bit of do-it-yorself archaeology. That's surely much better than paying some scruffy guys with beards to sit in an office and do... whatever it is archaelogists do in their offices when they are not doing what archaeologists do, don't they: "finding things", isn't it?

I have been saying for a long time that the public image of archaeology over the past decade or so has been increasingly influenced (if not in some cases formed) by the press releases of the PAS. It is this vision of archaeology - a glorified Treasure hunt which can be done "on the cheap" by letting members of the public do this archaeology instead of expensive professionals. After all, why pay some boring professionals to "find things" if archaeology is for everybody and everybody can go out and find things? I'd not blame the public for asking these days, who needs any other kind of archaeology? What for, if the shiny stuff is being "saved for the nation" and going into the museum showcases? Maybe this is a question the PAS might like (pretty urgently) to be doing a bit more thinking on and some decent joined-up archaeological outreach. Before they are squashed by the spending cuts too.

Their "partnership" with artefact hunters and collectors is profoundly damaging to UK archaeology, and as we have seen in comments discussed in this log, the effects of this damaging influence extends beyond Britain's shores.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I wonder how the situation compares with that in France ? From personal experience, I seem to remember that there is much amateur interest in archaeology, but that it takes the form of participation, as unpaid labour, on local digs run by the "Departements" (regions ? provinces ? counties) and their archaeological services. Ths means that lots of members of the public are exposed to stratigraphical excavation and context. And all antiquities are part of national patrimony.

Nothing of the kind in the UK ?

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