The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 105

Issue 105

Mar / Apr 2009



Welsh find may be key to mysterious mounds

Sissinghurst Castle has Elizabethan pavilion

Engraved stone found at ancient ritual site in Cheshire

In the press

In Brief & Phase 2


THE BIG DIG: Catholme
Henry Chapman on extraordinary prehistoric earthwork remains in Staffordshire

The bad teeth dividend
Karen Hardy reports important new evidence in how poor oral hygiene is key to understanding early diets

Wroxeter (Viroconium)
Roger White on 150 years since the first dig at Roman town

Shopping and Digging - NEW
James Dixon explains an unexpected archaeological story behind the changing faces of our towns


Pension advice from an archaeologist – theory you can trust


Our fourth annual celebration of antiquity lovers who have died in 2008

on the web

Recommended websites
The new CBA website and Caroline Wickham-Jones goes in search of world heritage sites


your views and responses

Archaeology in Britain

Mike Heyworth takes stock in very difficult times with a special focus on the crisis


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

features – CBA Correspondent

The future of archaeology in Britain: it all seemed so good

How will the recession hit archaeology? We entered 2009 with stalled heritage legislation, museums in crisis, a fragmented profession and over one in 10 archaeologists likely to lose their jobs. But as Mike Heyworth explains, as he takes stock in very difficult times, the strength of public interest and activity show all is not lost.

2008 closed darkly on British archaeology. An important heritage bill was dropped, and the shrinking economy threatened to cut the heart out of commercial fieldwork. With talk of over 1,000 due to lose their jobs, the cold start to 2009 matched the mood amongst many British archaeologists.

Yet not everyone feels this, and there are still good stories to report. The huge public interest in archaeology continues, and community archaeology is growing. So how can we move forward, despite the economic gloom? How can we prepare for the recovery?

Protecting our heritage

On December 3 the Queen read out the UK government's plans for the new session of parliament. The speech said nothing about the heritage protection bill, or the hope of signing up to an international agreement to protect cultural property in war.

Whilst the promised legislation for England and Wales dealt mainly with national "heritage assets" (principally scheduled ancient monuments and listed buildings), it had been widely welcomed (see News, May/Jun 2007) and offered real reforms. These included statutory status for local historic environment records (HERs); protection for early prehistoric sites and palaeoenvironmental deposits; the start of the end of class consents, which allow scheduled monuments to be plough-damaged; statutory protection for key battlefield sites; and protection for heritage at sea.

What will survive without primary legislation remains unclear, especially in Wales where there seems to be greater reluctance to change the status quo. On the same day in Scotland, the government announced that it was planning limited legislation, having previously said that it would not follow Westminster's reforms. One test of national commitment will be whether protection for the historic environment can be added to the marine and coastal access bill now being debated at Westminster. That protection is badly needed, not just for wrecks, but for the historic landscapes preserved under our seas (see News, Jan/Feb).

English Heritage issues an annual Heritage at Risk report. Last July this revealed that a variety of factors, including farming, neglect and natural processes such as coastal erosion, offered significant threats to archaeological sites of national importance. To protect these sites we need legislation, and other measures for conservation. And we need skilled and experienced staff, who must be of an appropriately senior level and free to express their views, to translate policy into local action. Elected members in local authorities and within government need to understand the value of the historic environment, and the significance of threats.

The delay of new legislation sends all the wrong signals, particularly to local authorities. English Heritage must boost its investment in HERs to prepare for future reforms, and show their importance. We await the Scottish government's proposals with interest.

Claims to international leadership in culture are undermined by inaction. The Hague convention for the protection of cultural property during times of armed conflict was launched in 1954, mostly recently adding a protocol in 1999 (see feature, Nov/Dec 2008). Another UNESCO convention, on the protection of the underwater cultural heritage, came into force on January 2. Britain has ratified neither of these. After the government abandoned a major scheme for Stonehenge late in 2007 (feature, Mar/Apr 2008), we must surely see agreement in 2009 on ways to improve the presentation of this world heritage site and preserve its "outstanding universal value".

Planning for the past

Deprived of major legislative reforms (except apparently in Scotland), we are to be offered a new Westminster heritage vision. Crucially, this includes a draft planning policy statement (PPS) for England, and presumably one for Wales too. Consultation on the English proposals starts before Easter.

Some heritage protection reform can be undertaken without legislation, but the PPS is particularly important. Planning policy guidance notes (PPG15 and 16) have shaped archaeology for nearly 20 years, leading annually to over £150m of fieldwork across the UK (and over half the profession's employment). Now these will be combined – and perhaps transformed – in the new policy statement. This will affect the whole historic environment, not just sites with national protection. In England it will give hard-pressed local authorities the tools to manage threats to archaeology. The wording of the new PPS and its guidance is therefore of fundamental importance. We must not allow any reduction in levels of protection, or a change to the wellestablished developer pays principle.

The new PPS is an opportunity to seek further developer funding to enhance public benefit. There are far too many examples of archaeological work undertaken with little or no public output or contribution to knowledge, or indeed with any opportunity for people to engage. This is not always appropriate, but it can happen, and local authority curators need better resourcing: firstly to demand higher quality work, and then to see that the new standards are met.

The current market-based approach, with archaeological consultancies competing on price, is not necessarily the best. The Institute for Archaeologists (IfA) still has some way to go to prove the effectiveness of its accreditation system. But it deserves our full support, as such a system must be in the long term interests of the professional discipline. In appropriate circumstances, it could become part of the PPS, setting a quality standard. This must be achieved without damaging the flourishing voluntary sector.

Full publication of archaeological work is needed, not just technical reports which fail to analyse and interpret what was found (the infamous "grey literature"). The results of fieldwork need to be available to researchers, properly archived in a publicly-funded local museum.

Sadly, the consultation draft of Scottish planning policy 23 (planning and the historic environment – see February 2008 and October 2008 documents) shows the opportunity to achieve any of this appears to have been missed in Scotland. The government must engage with the heritage sector during the drafting stage, to incorporate our experience, and we in turn must work together across the UK.

Quality in archaeology

Employment chart
Aided by heritage legislation, the archaeological profession continued to grow after the 1990s recession, and was never stronger than in 2007. Concerted action is needed for study of the past and public enjoyment of our heritage to maintain that growth and quality. An Institute for Archaeologists survey published on Jan 20 suggests staff loss of 11.8% at commercial practices since the latest figures in this graph (Aug 2007)

Significant public and private money goes into archaeology, and the public should expect benefits. Work must be of the highest quality with wisdom, experience and judgement exercised at all stages. Archaeology can never be just a mechanical process, it must be founded on knowledge and understanding.

Most archaeologists possess an undergraduate degree, and many a postgraduate qualification: the latest survey (see end note) shows that some 12% have doctorates. Yet many archaeological employers still complain that new staff often require significant training in field techniques or practical skills, and in working in a commercial environment. This should cause no surprise. A degree is not vocational, nor intended to produce professional archaeologists. Training is required to enhance academic knowledge.

We have recently seen a welcome start to workplace learning schemes and other apprenticeships which enable young professionals to develop their skills. We need more such schemes, and we need to find new ways for people to become archaeologists.

One of the greatest concerns at a time of recession, is that businesses will lose key individuals who may never return to the discipline, taking their skills with them. High quality management will be required to maintain the skills base through such troubled times.

The national occupational standards for archaeological practice, and the new national vocational qualification developed through the work of the Archaeology Training Forum and its members (particularly the IfA), are a sound basis for a developing discipline. But employers and employees both need to understand the benefits of these. There still needs to be more communication between higher education and business, facilitated by the Archaeology Training Forum.

Always learning

The university research assessment exercise (RAE) was published in December, the first one since 2001. This is a detailed study of how research is conducted in UK higher education. Archaeology was seen as vibrant and of high standard: across all subjects, it ranked second-only to economics. Yet undergraduate numbers have been falling in recent years, and many departments depend on students attracted to postgraduate taught courses, believing this to be a way to achieve a related job (not always a reasonable assumption). Archaeology departments across the UK must work together to promote the many good reasons for studying their subject as a first degree.

The remoteness of many academics from British archaeology is another cause for concern. This distancing is partly linked to the RAE's high valuation of international research (often mistakenly understood to mean work conducted internationally – rather than work of international quality, which can be very local). With a small number of notable exceptions, very few academics are engaging with the vast amount of new research from excavations within the UK.

People attending both of the big annual meetings, the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference (usually based in academic institutions) and the IfA's Archaeology in Britain conference, can often be counted on the fingers of one hand. The deep division between theory and practice is surely not a sign of a healthy discipline. We need a stronger vocational element to degree courses, teaching transferable skills; and we need ways for staff to move around the sector, so that everyone involved in archaeology can both teach and conduct research.

The diminishing involvement of higher education in life-long learning, largely due to funding cutbacks, is a particular tragedy for archaeology. Extramural teaching was the key non-academic route into archaeology until recently, and there is still a thirst for knowledge which needs to be satisfied.

However, rising costs, and the move to compulsory certificated courses requiring examinations, have not surprisingly damaged enrolment. Many universities have been forced to close most of their courses. It has even been suggested that there is no longer a need for lifelong learning as most people have access to Wikipedia! Perhaps the time has come for archaeology to recognise its abilities and facilities, and establish its own courses.

Bringing young people into archaeology is particularly vital. The Young Archaeologists' Club continues to grow and flourish. There is a new AS/A level in archaeology, with positive changes to the school curricula across the UK (for example, prehistory can now be taught in England's secondary schools). The important national education projects, learning outside the classroom and engaging places, both encourage schools to make greater use of the historic environment. Archaeology also has a voice in the development of the new humanities and social sciences diploma for 14–19 education. More young people will discover archaeology over the next few years than ever before.

Detecting history

The results of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) in England and Wales have proved fruitful for academic researchers. The scheme adds to local authority HERs, and can help identify archaeological sites which need to be monitored in the planning process. There has been good cooperation among those involved, encouraged by the PAS's regional finds liaison officers (or FLOs). This has been a real success story.

After a period of considerable uncertainty in 2008, the PAS now has a more secure short-term future after a review was undertaken and its positive outcome accepted by the government (see News, Jan/Feb 2008; Jan/Feb 2009). However the scheme's status remains uncertain; it is funded largely through the Museums, Libraries and Archives council (MLA), whose budget has been significantly cut, and which may well be broken up in the next few years. The British Museum, led by Neil MacGregor (The Times's 2008 Briton of the year: see My archaeology, Jul/Aug 2008), is surely a more secure and appropriate host for the PAS.

Most detectorists follow the code of practice for responsible metal detecting in England and Wales but there are still problems caused by criminals who loot archaeological sites for profit (see feature, Jan/Feb 2008). We need the law enforcement agencies to take these activities more seriously, to provide a greater deterrent.

The focus on "treasure", particularly in the media, continues to be unhelpful. Archaeologists and detectorists and need to work together to show how the real rewards of searching lie not in cash (most detector finds have no sale value), but in understanding past lives. Removing an object from its archaeological context without proper record leads to material loss.

A government review is needed of the legislation linked to the Treasure Act across the UK in 2009. This should include consideration of the antiquities sales market, which encourages many treasure hunters. The Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act of 2002 has proved ineffective (to date there have been no prosecutions). There needs to be more discouragement to those who act illegally, or knowingly come into possession of looted material.

Museums in crisis?

Public access to antiquities is a vital service provided by museums: here people can learn directly about archaeological finds in their historical context. Displays inform and entertain a wide audience. Well-curated archives, as well as displays, are essential for researchers to pursue and improve our understanding of the past.

Large developer-funded excavations can generate highly significant new local collections. Yet many museums have now run out of storage space. New material often remains with those who excavated the sites, at their expense and without proper facilities for curation or public access.

Within museums the role of specialist curators, the people who know their collections and can interpret them for the public, continues to diminish – while marketing, PR and facilities managers grow in strength. Such skills have their place in museums alongside, not instead of, curatorial responsibilities. Money is a key issue, but the museum role as long-term repository is not well served if collections are neglected.

Regional resource centres offer benefits of scale, and could house major archaeological archives at reduced cost, yet still make them fully accessible. The London Archaeological Archive and Resource Centre shows the way others could follow.

We need a powerful advocate for our public museums as thriving research institutions with a strong ethos of curating, to add to our knowledge and to preserve their collections for future generations. If the MLA is not able to fulfil this role, then perhaps we need a national body which can.

Community action

CAF screenshot

The CBA's Community Archaeology Forum website currently hosts pages for 37 different projects

One of many reasons why museums are so important to us is that they are often the starting point for people with a curiosity about the archaeology of their area. A passive, perhaps passing, interest can be ignited by an exciting presentation and a new understanding not just of what has been done, but of local archaeological questions which remain unanswered. In the past 15 years, Time Team has similarly inspired millions of viewers.

Traditionally the next step for anyone wishing to get more actively engaged in practical archaeology is a local society. Many still flourish across the UK, but most limit their activities to conventional programmes of talks and visits.

In recent years, particularly enhanced by opportunities through the Heritage Lottery Fund, there has been a growth in what have come to be called community archaeology groups. These are usually led and directed by local volunteers, and often work closely with local professional archaeologists. They are typically more active than older archaeological societies, conducting excavation, field survey and historical research, and enhancing public access and interpretation at local sites. They offer great opportunities for more people to get involved in archaeology.

The work of the voluntary sector in active research deserves much wider recognition, not least among professional archaeologists. Standards are often very high. As can be seen from the showcase provided by the CBA's Community Archaeology Forum (see On the web, May/Jun 2007) the variety, depth and scale of the work are often considerable. With support from the Headley Trust, in 2009 the CBA will be offering help to active groups, and encouraging them to publicise their work and ensure that the highest standards are maintained through to publication and archiving. Training courses are planned across the country.

In Northern Ireland, where the voluntary sector has been less prominent due to stronger regulation and excavation licensing, we have seen the recent establishment of a new NI Archaeology Forum. This aims to promote archaeology and encourage greater participation. It has a key role in showing how active community archaeology can flourish even within a strongly regulated system. If we can enhance archaeological protection and conservation, and still encourage professional and voluntary participation to further our knowledge of the past, then Northern Ireland could become an exemplar for other parts of the UK.

What would you do?

Challenges remain and improvements are needed. Yet we should not lose track of the huge achievements of the last 30 years. Anyone working in archaeology in the 1960s and 70s would have been astonished at many of the opportunities and resources now available in Britain. Equally dramatic is the enhanced public and political interest. The all party parliamentary archaeology group at Westminster has been a particularly welcome development, recently proving to be effective in lobbying for the subject.

To move on still further, we must focus on two issues: the public benefits of archaeological work and the stories and interpretations that the latest research makes possible; and improving the protection and conservation of the archaeological resource. This will be achieved by people working together, professionals and volunteers, to high standards throughout the UK, with its devolved and varied legislation and public policies. And it will be underpinned by a strengthened role for archaeology in education, encouraging a new generation of informed public interest (see CBA correspondent, Nov/Dec 2008).

We have to deal most urgently with the fragmentation of our discipline. We have a relatively small band of professionals (some 7,500 across the UK): we all need to collaborate more effectively, and also with the increasingly thriving voluntary sector in archaeology.

The only body in archaeology that spans all areas – academic, local authority, contractors, museums, societies, special interest groups and national agencies – and works across the whole United Kingdom is the Council for British Archaeology. Through the pages of its British Archaeology magazine, its website: see On the web, this issue), the Community Archaeology Forum and email lists, the CBA is a channel for debate and communication. The CBA works closely with other organisations right across the heritage sector (for example, in its role as a national amenity society), and also maintains contacts with the environment sector.

Anyone with an interest in archaeology should join and get involved in the CBA's national and regional groups. Write to tell us how you think the challenges should be faced: we will need a considered and coordinated response to archaeology in 2009. In partnership with others, the CBA is ready to set the lead.

Mike Heyworth is director of the Council for British Archaeology, chairman of the Archaeology Training Forum and a trustee of Heritage Link, which represents the voluntary heritage sector in England. Archaeology Labour Market Intelligence: Profiling the Profession 2007/08, by K Aitchison & R Edwards (IfA 2008), ISBN 9780948393945

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