Monday 3 January 2011

British Archaeology Dropping the Ball

A few weeks ago I published here a text about two documents connected with British "metal detecting" that had fallen into my hands. They showed with utmost clarity that significant decisions were being made between the author of one of them and a TV producer from a commercial station about how British archaeology is being presented to the public on prime time TV and how this was not being consulted outside the two special interest organizations concerned. I was of course unable to post the actual texts of either document here, but I felt I had to discuss what I see as the implications of these two associated texts and the questions they raise.

These questions of course - like much else related to "metal detecting" in the UK and the PAS - remained without an answer, none of the bodies of the archaeological establishment (RESCUE for example, grounded on public opinion) took up the argument. The topic was absent on the CBA discussion list (like much else), the BAJR discussion list without any further enquiry flippantly dismissed the whole story as fabrication. The organization concerned obligingly denied that there had been any such agreement reached with the TV company and pointedly ignored the postings here about it.

The way the legislation is framed in the United Kingdom makes archaeology very much more dependent on public opinion than in many other countries. For this reason, surely it is very important that we should be very careful how archaeology is presented to the public. It is on the basis of what they pick up from the media (rather than professional publications) that the wider public forms an opinion on what archaeology is, what kind of archaeology Britain needs. This is especially important when more and more elements of the system existing a few years ago are being shed under the umbrella of the financial state the country is in and the necessary cutbacks. Who is going to protest the loss of an HER somewhere if most of the people in the area have no idea what it is, what it does and that they ever had one?

It seems to me that British archaeology needs to establish a long term and detailed strategy which then is periodically re-evaluated, and above all that archaeologists should all be "singing from the same song-sheet".

After all the survival of the discipline is now more than ever before dependent on the type of public support it gets. If the British public see archaeology as a legitimate scholarly discipline with a specific methodology and needs and also things to say then archaeology will have more of a chance being funded as such by crowd-pleasing (vote seeking) policy makers. If the public is convinced that the whole aim of archaeology is to fill cases with golden goodies then there will be no pressure for the government to cut back more and more on the bits of archaeology not connected with golden-geegaw-finding with metal detectors. Of course that means British archaeology first itself deciding that it is NOT about just finding Treasures with metal detectors.

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