Wednesday 16 May 2012

No Mock Funeral for Archaeology?

I was reading a commentary on the recent publicity stunt of British pressure group 'Science for the Future', which has won extensive media coverage ('Scientists stage mock funeral outside parliament in funding protest', 15th May 2012). It occurs to me some of the opinions expressed in an article criticising the group were pretty much applicable to the discussion on artefact hunting. Mark Henderson writes:
In my new book, The Geek Manifesto, I argue that it's essential for scientists, and those of us who care about science, to find a stronger political voice. When governments let science down, they do it not because they are following an "anti-science" agenda, but because indifference to the needs and demands of the scientific community does not appear to carry a political cost.
Ditto archaeology, another geekish pursuit. Basically there is little political cost in ignoring the academic needs of archaeology while lots of glittery 'Treasure' is flowing into the nation's museums. It is essential  for archaeologists, and those of us who care about the future of archaeology, to find a stronger political voice. One other "Geek manifesto" quote (from Evan Harris, the former Lib Dem science spokesman), seemed applicable to the current situation in the "Archaeological Collectables Debate" and the position of most concerned archaeologists:
"We are held back by the circumspection and rationality with which we speak, handicaps that do not encumber our opponents."

How is (for example British) archaeology to find that 'stronger political voice'? On what can it build public support when the main picture its outreach projects is one of filling museums with gold and silver Treasures? What of the archaeology that produces no gold or silver nor fits into the National Geographic/ Discovery Channel Special model? (Note National Geographic has now done a series on metal-detecting). The kind of archaeology that does not involve wearing a cowboy hat and abseiling down cliffs and white-water boating through a jungle?

More to the point in the British context, how can one address the question of the preservation of the archaeological record when the state's own policies encourage the exploitation of that record for collectables and they've even set up a Scheme to "partner" this, which produces statistics which suggest the artefact hunting problem is in hand and there have been great successes in using the results to benefit some finds-hungry archaeologists?

In the present circumstances, the political costs of ignoring this issue are not great. The cost to the archaeological record are, I suggest, huge. When in Britain is the political cost of ignoring the steady erosion of the archaeological record going to be seen as commensurate with the damage done to both the archaeological record as well as the academic discipline of archaeology itself, and how can we achieve this if not by appealing to the public? And with what do we go to the British public, when and how?

Mark Henderson, 'A mock funeral is not the right way to make scientists' voices heard', Guardian, 15 May 2012

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