Monday 17 November 2008

British archaeological policy seen from New Orleans

Does England and Wales have a co-ordinated legal and policy approach to archaeology as Derek Fincham of the College of Law of Loyola University New Orleans suggests? This is what he says in his text "A Coordinated Legal and Policy Approach to Undiscovered Antiquities: Adapting the Cultural Heritage Policy of England and Wales to Other Nations of Origin".

Has he actually asked any planning archaeologists in the UK about their thoughts on this? The announcement earlier this year of an imminent programme of building of hundreds of thousands of new homes in the UK was generally met by dismay by archaeologists, aware of how little of what will inevitable be destroyed (those "undiscovered antiquities") can be saved by virtue of those "policies". Fortunately more UK archaeology will be saved from obliteration by the credit crunch than those policies Fincham praises so highly.

In fact if Fincham was to talk with those that have to actually use it 'on the ground' (for example in development control) he would find that British archaeological legislation (including that on portable antiquities) is far from a well coordinated approach. It is a hotch-potch of loose elements and half-policies which seem not really too well integrated with each other and which have a number of gaps which are only filled by goodwill and the typical British fudge-it and make-do approach.

If the English and Welsh legal system is so super and well co-ordinated, what is the function of PPG 16 and related documents? How would Fincham relate the 'polluter pays' principle embodied in PPG16 (though not in any heritage law) to artefact hunting?

Derek Fincham also says (p. 355) that England and Wales have "a legal framework that essentially allows amateur and unprofessional (sic) digging". But is he suggesting that this model should be adopted in other countries? Like Iraq and Egypt? That any Tom, Dick and Hamid should be free to take a spade, metal detector or even bulldozer to an archaeological site in order to accumulate a sackful of portable antiquities for sale and another one of "scrap metal" for melting down? Is that what he is advocating - as long as there is a voluntary scheme to which they can, if they want, report some of the finds they are digging up? I do not understand the logic of this argument.

Also, is it actually true, as Fincham asserts, that British archaeological policy "cuts against the overriding policy choices of most nations of origin and sharply contrasts with the context-focused narrative found in most cultural heritage scholarship"? What on earth is Fincham on about? In what way is British archaeological policy and legislation not context-focussed? This is just nonsense. I queried it earlier, but Fincham merely dismissed my comment as "intellectually dishonest" without answering it. Preserving archaeological context is what all the ancient monuments (and planning) legislation is about, its what the Treasure Act and Code of Practice were written for, its why the PAS was set up. In what way is archaeological context treated any differently in Britain than the US, France, Poland or anywhere else? Not only am I at a loss to say how, but it seems the author of those words is too.

I also queried his statement (p. 349) that the institution of the Portable Antiquities Scheme had reduced looting of important archaeological sites. Since a government-sponsored survey was set up in 2007 to find the answer to the question of just how much looting was going on and its report is not due out for another few months yet (see post below), I really do not see how he can make such a claim without citing any evidence whatsoever. It is however a key point in his argument. If the PAS has NOT actually achieved much in this field, then it is not a solution to the "looting problem". These are a few of the questions which reading of his "A Coordinated Legal and Policy Approach to Undiscovered Antiquities: Adapting the Cultural Heritage Policy of England and Wales to Other Nations of Origin" leave unanswered.

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