British Archaeology, no 11, February 1996: Letters

Defending SMRs

From Mr Nigel Clubb

Sir: In Tim Darvill's article on his experiences of using Sites and Monuments Records (SMRs) in the MARS project (`Researching archaeology? That's tough', November) a sub-heading announced `there is no such thing as a national archaeological database'. This may be viewed as a surprising statement by many who have worked on compiling archaeological inventories. What Darvill actually said was `there is no such thing as a fully comprehensive integrated national archaeological database' (my italics).

The RCHME is responsible for the National Monuments Record (NMR) in England and has a lead role for SMRs held in local government. While it is true that we do not incorporate in the NMR the entire contents of SMRs in terms of depth, we are incorporating all SMR entries at an index level to ensure that national searches can take place on the basis of breadth. This was agreed with SMRs as long ago as 1975.

One of Darvill's central concerns focused on the lack of consistent standards in SMRs. This problem has been well documented over the last ten years. We have addressed this, with our heritage partners, through the development of data standards at national and international levels, including a comprehensive monument thesaurus to provide vocabulary control. Where possible, we have tried to make funds available towards the costs of implementation. Darvill also advocates the use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) as the way forward for SMRs. We support this view and are in discussion with the Department of National Heritage, English Heritage, and the Associations of County and District Archaeological Officers on establishing common standards for GIS usage. Our aim is to develop within the NMR a national index to monuments fully accessible through both spatial and textual searches so that they can, indeed, be plotted easily on maps. We therefore share the aim of Darvill's vision and are actively taking the steps necessary to see it implemented before the start of the new millennium. Far from hitching a `rickety old cart' to the `powerful new engine of GIS', we are engineering the vehicles which will ride on the new Information Superhighway.

Yours faithfully,
Director, NMR
7 December

From Dr Martin Brown

Sir: While Tim Darvill is correct to identify both the problems encountered in SMRs, and the need for strategic thinking by our national archaeological bodies, he fails to highlight the major problem. The past few years have seen relentless cuts in local government caused by under-resourcing and capping by the Government. Politicians are rightly loath to cut high- profile services, and when cuts have to made, it is services such as archaeology which are affected. Staff are made redundant or not replaced, systems are not upgraded, and so on. If funds for maintenance of SMRs, let alone their development, are being squeezed, what chance have we of achieving Darvill's dream of integrated operations offering a powerful new service? Unless people who care about archaeology begin to lobby for adequate funding and staffing of archaeological services at the local level, the situation described in your pages will only get worse.

Yours sincerely,
13 November

From Ms Linda Smith

Sir: Misconceptions about SMRs are legion, not least from the MARS project. In many counties the SMR Officer is the person responsible for development control, and so enhancement of the database is out of the question. In my case, although I am designated the SMR Officer, my priority is to answer the wide variety of correspondence I receive, as I have an obligation to the county's charge payers and to other users of the system before I can do any updating.

Yours faithfully,
North Yorks County Council
14 November

BAB and costs

From Ms Jean Mellor

Sir: With reference to Mike Heyworth's call for more people to read British Archaeological Bibliography (`Why are archaeologists not reading?', October; Letters, December), I support all that has been said about the value of BAB, but I think the issue is wider than that.

Mike Heyworth dismisses the argument of cost. However, both RESCUE and the Institute of Field Archaeologists have conducted surveys on archaeological wages, and the results are horrifying. In 1994 the average salary for an excavator was UKP8500, about half of the national average wage and less than half the average for professional and technical workers. Many claw this salary together on a series of short contracts with gaps of unemployment. These figures represent a worse situation than that shown in the RESCUE survey of 1991. It is not a question of choosing between BAB and a train fare to visit a library, but BAB and the gas bill. I really cannot be surprised that the subscription rate for individuals is low.

So what about the organisations? As for local authority archaeologists, they often have little say in either their budget or its allocation. Two or three years before the demise of the Leicestershire Archaeological Unit, for which I worked, our book budget was cut - not reduced, but cut completely. Faced with the swingeing cuts taken by local authorities over the last few years, this is what happens. Even when a budget exists it is usually pitifully small and there are competing claims.

As for the commercial contracting units and consultants, many cut their profit margins and tenders to the bone in an attempt to retain a competitive edge. They cut not only books and subscriptions but any sort of training, working conditions, wages, one suspects even health and safety, in an attempt to hang on to specialist staff who are in any case paid in peanuts.

Yours faithfully,
Chairman, RESCUE
11 December

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