The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 101

Issue 101

July / Aug 2008



Early Scottish gardens unturfed

Axes could be 0.5m years old

In the press

Listing lobby was no hot air

Kent Anglo-Saxon cemetery could be royal

Poetry to assist transfer of Hadrian's Wall collection

In Brief & Phase 2


The Copper Age
Special: did Britain have a fourth age?

Portable Antiquities
The Scheme must go on

Drawing Stonehenge
A major fieldwork project is explored by six artists

Severn estuary
Martin Bell describes the unique world of ancient mudflats

Gin Drinker's Line
Insights into WWII Hong Kong defence system

A Professional Mockery
Gary Lock on difficulties in obtaining "grey lierature"

on the web

Recommended websites
Caroline Wickham-Jones explores the realms of archaeological fiction and a look at Barwick-in-Elmet Historical Society's website


your views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Mike Heyworth says it's time to think big – The CBA at Discover Archaeology LIVE, London Olympia


An exhibition to make you think (and a bog body)

Mick's travels & more travels

Mick Aston goes to Glamorgan in search of monasteries, and Jon Cannon tours south-east Wales

in view

New columnist Greg Bailey probes a coming major TV series – BBC's Bonekickers

my archaeology - NEW!

Neil MacGregor: The accidental archaeologist and new director of the British Museum


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


A Professional Mockery

Oxford University has a field research and teaching project at Marcham/Frilford, part of a large programme dating back to 1994. It has no access, says Gary Lock, to full details of any other projects on this map.

Map of Oxford Projects

For the last seven summers, the University of Oxford has been excavating at the late prehistoric/Romano-British site at Marcham/Frilford in Oxfordshire. We have 50 or more people on site for fiveweeks, hold an open day that attracts 1,000 local people, publish annual interim reports and other articles. Underlying this, of course, is our belief that we are beginning to understand the archaeology of that area. To enable that further we have a PhD student working on the landscape around the site, collecting and interpreting a range of data including extensive geophysics. Like most people working in universities, we integrate this research into our teaching – a requirement of the Quality Assurance Agency's benchmarking of an archaeology undergraduate degree.

Over the last three years, three commercial projects have taken place within a few hundred metres of our excavations, carried out by three organisations (see map). In May 2005, Oxford Archaeology evaluated (including excavation) the proposed Marcham bypass, opening 20 trenches based on geophysics. This is reported in the local CBA Regional Group journal – 29 lines of text and no plan (South Midlands Archaeology 36, 47–48); there is a reference to the 2005 final report, but this has not yet reached the Oxfordshire Historic Environment Record (HER) and, therefore, the public domain. In 2007, Cotswold Archaeology carried out a watching brief (with excavation) on a water pipeline, and recently Thames Valley Archaeological Services has evaluated the area to the north around a disused sand quarry (approximately 100 trenches).

Furthermore, between 1992 and 1999 (and apparently more recently), Wessex Archaeology coordinated a large-scale survey and evaluation covering 14km² just to the south for the proposed Oxfordshire reservoir. This involved aerial photographic work, geophysics, fieldwalking and trial trenching. A brief interim report mentions a "significant amount of new data for the iron age and Romano-British periods" (Oxoniensia 65, 7–12), a time span obviously of interest to us. These data are not yet in the public domain and, we have been told, will not be until Thames Water apply for planning permission.

All of this activity suggests an area of landscape rich in archaeology that is thoroughly studied. Certainly the former is correct – but the latter? If our system of commercial archaeology was devised for the benefit of archaeology, the answer could be "yes": but it is definitely "no". From my perspective there are two main problem areas.

First is the context for commercial work. To what extent do commercial projects have the budget, time and, perhaps, interest to do the background research for any particular new piece of work, to fit their work into existing knowledge and understanding of the particular area? There was no interaction between us and the organisations carrying out these projects before they started; we found out about them by chance (except for the reservoir). I am sure desk-based survey is done before fieldwork, but I suspect the focus is very much on the trenches to be dug rather than putting the work into a wider context.

Second comes publication, or more specifically the problem of grey literature access, eloquently highlighted by Richard Bradley (News, Mar/Apr 2006; Antiquaries Journal 86, 1–13). Are we comfortable with archaeological information being treated as a commodity to which developers control access? Even when it is "published", how easy is it to get hold of? Presumably the results of all these projects will eventually appear somewhere as grey reports; it is early days yet for CA and TVAS, but if they turn out to be as elusive as the OA report then it does not bode well for integrated research.

OASIS, the online index of archaeological investigations run by the Archaeology Data Service, is designed specifically for grey literature reports, fully searchable by contractor and place. Yet although it has been going since the late 1990s there are only 1,722 reports available online. As far as getting the reports I aminterested in, then, I am hopeful for TVAS, which has 109 reports online dating up to the present, and for CA which has five of recent date; but doubtful for OA which has 38 reports online dating to 1995–99.

OASIS is not to be confused with Bournemouth University's Archaeological Investigations Project, aimed at establishing the "location and extent" of grey literature, with online searchable gazetteers. This is useful but these are summaries, so even though the Marcham bypass report is listed there (together with 1,395 others for OA spanning 1989–2006), it does not say where to get it from in full form beyond assuming that a copy is in the HER. Of course I could go direct to OA and every other commercial organisation that I need a report from, but that is missing the point. We already have an online resource in OASIS, so why not use it?

A recent report funded by English Heritage, Assessing the Research Potential of Grey Literature in the Study of Roman England (on the AIP website - link to PDF) concludes:

...there seems little point in listing and indexing grey literature if the interested researcher cannot easily access the reports. It is essential for the health of the discipline that access to grey literature reports becomes easier, and copies in PDF format which can be downloaded from internet sites seem the most effective way forward.

I could not agree more – except that perhaps we do not need "sites" when one will do.

I admit that I am naïve and idealistic when it comes to commercial archaeology, and there are undoubtedly unseen politics and pressures lying behind these figures. But surely there are decisions that individual organisations canmake that would greatly improve the wider research process and benefit archaeology? An obvious one: why do commercial organisations not put their grey literature into OASIS? Or, even more radically, why do local authority curators not make it a condition of planning consent that reports are lodged there?

We are not practising joined-up archaeology. This has obvious implications for the whole concept of landscape archaeology, academic research and teaching. Making spatial and temporal connections across landscapes relies on data being available, and on the people who are digging holes having the time, resources and vision to look beyond their four baulks. The "profession" criticises universities for not teaching the skills that modern British archaeology requires, where curators and contractors are responsible for over 90% of fieldwork. The other side of the coin, however, is that aspects of current professional practice make a mockery of some things we are required to do in universities.

Gary Lock is professor of archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology and at the Department for Continuing Education, University of Oxford.

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