ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 45, June 1999


An abiding faith in archaeology's worth

Has archaeology changed in 30 years? In some ways not, writes Richard Morris

The other day I took a group of Young Archaeologists' Club branch leaders to York Minster. It was here, three decades ago, that I first became immersed in archaeology.

Today the Minster is calm. In 1971, four years into a colossal programme of emergency engineering, it was a noisy jungle of scaffolding, steelwork and cables, its floors quarried open and spaces resounding to hammers, drills, the clatter of soil conveyors, motors and hoists. For five minutes each noon Great Peter, a solemn tenor bell, added to the din. But everything stopped for choral evensong. After the clamour, the harmony of canticles and psalms seemed miraculous.

The work had a special smell: a mingling of damp mortary earth, the sweet and sour scents of freshly-sawn wood and scorched metal, and newly-poured concrete. The lighting was special, too. In the dark months there was never enough of it, and more than once I found myself trying to make sense of a soil feature which turned out to be the outline of my own shadow. During contractor's teabreaks we scavenged extra lamps, and usually lost them again when hefty counter-raiders turned up to demand their return.

In the midst of all this we were excavating, drawing and photographing the interleaved remains of a great Romanesque cathedral, Roman barrack-blocks with roof tiles evocatively stamped Leg(io) IX Hisp(ana), the graves of clerics, Anglo-Saxon buildings, wells, roads, sculpture. It was, in every way, a sensational time. Those were the days.

Or were they? No, not really. When engineering works started, the initial provision for archaeology was ridiculously small, and much historical material was lost during the several years it took to marshal sufficient funds to assemble a team which could keep pace with the repairs. At times we felt as if we were being allowed to indulge our personal curiosity rather than discharge the Dean and Chapter's responsibility.

We sometimes worked round the clock and were invariably working against it. Night shifts were occasionally relieved when the sub-organist came in to practice, on one occasion obliging with requests from The Sound of Music in the small hours. At the other extreme were the winter nights when we numbly tried to draw with snow blowing into the claritex shelters. Today it would be different.

Except possibly in one respect. Thinking back, one thing hadn't changed. On my recent visit with YAC branch leaders, we were all there on a Saturday. The group had given up their weekend to attend a training course (just as they give up evenings and weekends throughout the year to bring archaeology to young people), and I was there because they were. We all wanted to be there.

I don't know whether biochemists, newsagents or quantity surveyors do this kind of thing in their spare time. I'd like to think so, and if they are amateur archaeologists they almost certainly do. For one defining characteristic of archaeology is that most who practise it do so from the heart as well as the head.

Archaeology's profession is subsumed by the wider discipline, which in turn is driven by a faith. That faith is in the significance of a dimension of human culture which only archaeology can mediate.

Before anyone assumes I am implying that if all else fails archaeologists will work for free, let me say that my point is the opposite. One of the most mistaken reactions to CBA protests against cuts is the assumption that `we would say that, wouldn't we', because we are simply seeking to protect archaeological jobs. We are, of course, but the aim is not to safeguard jobs for their own sake but to secure the study, comprehension and public interpretation of the inheritance that archaeological employment exists to serve.

It is this underlying impulse which explains the frustration in some quarters about inadequate pay and conditions. While archaeology isn't exactly an emergency service, it is a vital service - something indispensible to any society which would call itself civilised. Being so, it is a discipline, cause, faith - call it what you will - upon which few who are involved feel able to turn their backs.

No-one goes into archaeology expecting to become wealthy. Equally, those within the discipline would like to be valued - for if they are not valued (whether as amateur or professional), then archaeology itself cannot be.

Richard Morris is the Director of the CBA

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1999