British Archaeology, no 13, April 1996: Comment


Facing up to the Lottery's challenge

Lottery money could turn archaeology into a subject of genuine public interest, says Simon Denison

In the first year of its running, the National Lottery has brought nothing but disappointment for archaeology. Local dramatic societies, national opera companies, inner-city activity centres, all these and a thousand other `good causes' have found the Lottery's fat cheques filling their hitherto-empty bank accounts. But archaeology? So far, it has hardly seen a penny.

This exclusion from the Lottery's millions has always seemed rather strange, given that heritage is one of the five good causes eligible by law for Lottery funding (the others are sport, arts, charities, and the millennium celebrations). Yet of the UKP116m disbursed so far by the Heritage Lottery Fund, a mere UKP100,000 or so has been spent on a single excavation. And that - the uncovering of a fossil elephant at West Runton in Norfolk - was not even an archaeological project.

Now, however, it seems better news may be on its way. The doors to the Lottery's golden chambers are creaking open for archaeology, and may soon be flung wide. Senior figures at the Heritage Lottery Fund are privately saying they want to give more to archaeology, and the Fund's guidelines - which at present exclude most archaeological excavations - will be rewritten later this year. Consultations are now taking place on what kinds of project should be eligible, and it is likely that by next year certain types of research excavation and survey will be allowed.

To be fair, it was never the Heritage Lottery Fund's intention to exclude archaeology altogether. Taking its advice from bodies such as English Heritage, the Fund was anxious not to undermine the principle of developer funding for development-led excavations. It was also unsure whether purely research projects were eligible under the terms of the Lottery Act, which specifies that grants should go only to capital projects. The Fund's bold new intention of seeing research as a way of `creating an asset' (and hence as capital funding) is a measure of its goodwill towards archaeology and its desire to bring the subject into the fold.

Let it be said, the possible advent of Lottery funding provides a magnificent opportunity for archaeology - offering the chance of more public funding than the subject has ever seen before. But before archaeologists start throwing their trowels into the air in glee, they have to understand that Lottery funding would also bring with it an unusually challenging obligation.

It is all very well for funds from `academic' sources to be spent on obscure studies into the details of the past. But the people who finance the Lottery, not through taxation but for pleasure, quite rightly expect to benefit directly from projects that it pays for. As a result, archaeologists who apply for grants will, one hopes, be turned down flat unless they can argue a clear public interest in their propos-als. Self-important claims that all archaeological research is ultimately for the public good should be rejected out of hand.

Lottery money should only be spent on projects that enhance people's lives by opening their eyes to the historic environment in which they live. Decisions have not yet been made, but it is possible to hazard some guesses about what kinds of research might qualify. Projects that attempt to unravel the history of a place? Yes. Microscopic analysis of the composition of Roman paint? No. Investigations of entire classes of visible monument, such as prehistoric roads or medieval harbours? Yes. Studies of the symbolic use of space in the Iron Age? Again, no. The academic value of a project ought to count, but for Lottery money popular appeal must be the driving force.

It goes without saying that, for a project to have popular appeal, its results must be published rapidly in a form that captures the popular imagination. And here lies perhaps the greatest challenge of all for archaeologists, who - despite dealing with some of the most fascinating material available to the human mind - so often seem unable to make it interesting to anyone but themselves.

One of the greatest benefits of Lottery funding could, indeed, be that it forces archaeologists into a new way of thinking about archaeology, which will at once be more detached from the details of the subject and more in touch with ordinary human concerns. If all goes well, the Lottery could be the boot that kicks archae-ology out of its self-absorbed world, and turns it into the subject of genuinely wide public interest that it deserves to be.

Simon Denison is Editor of British Archaeology


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