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

my archaeology

The accidental archaeologist

Under Neil MacGregor's directorship the British Museum has been transformed into a vibrant, international player: the Sunday Telegraph recently named MacGregor the 16th most powerful person in British culture. But what is he doing for the past?

April 2008, Hadrian launch

In April, Neil MacGregor launches the display of a bronze bust of Hadrian at Segedunum, in advance of the British Museum's major exhibition, Hadrian: Empire & Conflict (Jul 24–Oct 26 2008)

Growing up in Glasgow where the museum and art gallery were in the same building, it was one generic experience that ran from polar bears through Roman antiquities to Salvador Dali. But it was a huge change [in 2002] moving from being responsible for paintings at the National Gallery to the British Museum. The museum of course has supreme works of art, but the purpose of the place is not to tell the story of art, but to tell the story of societies.

It's one of the things that makes the British Museum so different from either the Louvre or the Metropolitan, which are both art museums. It's why it's such a precious resource now, when those questions need to be thought about in a world context. The British Museum was always intended, from 1753 on, to enable people to make sense of the world now – not just about the past, but what are the implications of that understanding of the past for understanding now?

Collecting is essential. How are we telling the story of the 20th century? How do we document the contemporary Middle East? And we need to keep acquiring the older past, because we need evidence for the narratives we can't tell. The way the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure Act feed into acquisition is very important, not just for the BM – we normally see ourselves as the collector of last resort – but if there's a new discovery that affects the history and will change the narrative, it's essential that that be acquired by a museum.

The Portable Antiquities is the model for a museum of British archaeology, where you have nationwide activity – research – knowledge – co-ordinated and structured centrally through the British Museum. It is transforming the archaeological record of England and Wales. That model is precisely the one we would like to see being taken forward.

The BM played an important part in getting the archaeologists, the metal detectorists, the museums, the dealers and the landowners all together, into a dialogue that allowed the scheme to result. The growth and the success of the scheme shows what a very very wide public reach archaeology has. It's been extremely important to the government to understand what a wide range of different sorts of people are interested in archaeology in Britain. It is regarded as an astonishing achievement by the rest of the world.

Neil MacGregor

At Carrawburgh fort on Hadrian's Wall

We urgently need to know what the government's plans are to fund PAS and how they intend to do it. We know that everybody involved in the scheme wants it to grow, because it is so useful and so valuable. The only question is how the resources are going to be provided, and we're waiting for the Department for Culture Media and Sport to address that issue.

One of the many excitements about working at the BM at the moment is the extraordinary public interest in archaeology, and the explosion in that over the last 10 to 20 years. There's never been a more exciting moment for the museum in terms of knowing that when we address archaeological issues, there will be a very large public – whether that's about the Olduvai Gorge material that's been touring the country, or the 850,000 people who came to see the First Emperor. Unheard of. That was presented as an archaeological exhibition, where the only evidence from the reign of the First Emperor is the objects that have been excavated. It was a real demonstration of the power of archaeology. The BBC film on it at its first showing was seen by over four million people (see also online image gallery). These are enormous numbers.

We've all become much more aware of the fragility of the landscape and the built environment: we've also become much more interested in thinking about its past. We believe we can all be archaeologists, everybody might be able to make a contribution. I will never be able to read a cuneiform tablet, but I might find something in the ground. Everybody could be part of this – it's possible to be an accidental archaeologist. That is very beguiling.

Interview Mike Pitts

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