British Archaeology, no 29, November 1997: Comment

Right and wrong ways to do archaeology

Without research, archaeology is a waste of time and money, writes Richard Morris

Imagine this. A public limited company embarks upon a development project on land which is archaeologically fertile. The company recognises the value of the archaeology, approaches it in a responsible manner, and when their archaeological consultants come up with an imaginative research strategy, they welcome it.

Utopian fantasy? No, the company is BAA plc and the project is Heathrow’s proposed Terminal Five.

For comparison consider a forthcoming project of transport infrastructure which traverses several counties. Different archaeological organisations are contracted to evaluate separate bits of the route without, as yet, any overall research strategy.

Bad dream? No, this is the Channel Tunnel Rail Link – one of the greatest research opportunities that British archaeology has ever seen. We are only months away from its start and no intellectual agenda appears yet to be in place.

The nub of it is that at Heathrow, the archaeologists are empowered to ask questions about people in a landscape, and to propose a strategy for collecting evidence to answer them. The CTRL approach, by contrast, dwells largely on currentlyknown sites. Where a site is identified and deemed important then presumably either the route of the railway will be finessed to avoid it, or it will be dug. In such cases excavation tends to become a kind of neutral process in which the site’s contents are chronicled or carted away in boxes – so-called ‘preservation by record’. Overall intellectual control of the project has been made even more difficult by the fact that the route runs through three archaeological curators’ areas, in London, Essex and Kent.

Heathrow’s question-centred approach requires a certain courage. Being selective, it is also sacrificial: archaeological remains deemed irrelevant to the questions are ignored. But advantages flow from it. Questions can be framed to explore what people were doing in the landscape at large. History was not enacted just in the handful of places which happen to have found their way onto sites and monuments records. The question-driven project also knows what it wants to collect and why it is collecting it. Moreover, the result of the work is likely to be a coherent story, accessible to the public at large.

Yet most developers (and, it has to be said, many curators) still seem to gravitate towards the site-centred approach. This may be partly because ‘research’ is still widely regarded as an add-on. ‘We’ll pay for you to dig up this villa’ it is said, ‘but we draw the line at subsidising your research’.

The irony here is that research-less archaeology is inefficient in the terms most often claimed for it – value for money. ‘Preservation by record’, the chronicling of every detail of a site, rests on the defeatist notion that we can anticipate nothing. It causes those who practise it to amass more material than we know what to do with, on the off-chance that it might tell us something. Only then does anyone sit down to try to make sense of what has been collected, or to calculate what the price of such comprehension might be. Stories rarely emerge. All that happens is that another avalanche of data is added to a largely unconsulted archive which is increasingly unaffordable to store.

This way of working, which is now standard practice in British archaeology, is often therefore both a waste of private and public money, and intellectually pointless.

Even in strictly commercial terms, research-driven archaeology ought to hold powerful appeal. Presumably this is what BAA has discovered. Enlightened patronage is both good for archaeology and cost-effective.

These contrasting approaches have large implications not only for how and where we dig, but also for what we seek to preserve. In the milieu of questiondriven archaeology, the ‘value’ of a piece of ground derives not simply from some objective measure (such as the government criteria for assessing the national importance of archaeological monuments) but from the quality of the questions. A good question can transfigure otherwise mundane deposits. In the same way, slovenly questions (or none) can render even star sites boring.

There is one hopeful sign for the future. English Heritage is at present digesting the comments it has received on its draft Research Agenda. This is a document in which the agency creditably seeks to put question-asking at the centre of its own funding strategy.

This month is the seventh anniversary of PPG16, the government guidance which advocates preservation and makes developers responsible for the archaeological consequences of their schemes. It is clear that PPG16 is a loose framework, which can deliver archaeology both the Heathrow way and the CTRL way. The new task for Government must be to incorporate this lesson into its advice on how, and for what purpose, it expects the planning process to work for the mutual benefit of development, the public, and history, which is our common cause.

Richard Morris is the Director of the CBA

Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage

© Council for British Archaeology, 1997