ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 55, October 2000


It's up to you

The lottery wants to spend more money on archaeology, writes Simon Denison

When the Lottery was launched in 1995 promising huge proceeds for the `heritage' (along with four other good causes), most people who care for archaeology probably thought their beloved subject would one day see some of the benefit.

Now, five years on and, for the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), £1.46 billion in grant-aid down the line, the absence of more than a few archaeological projects with Lottery funding continues to astonish and appall.

According to the HLF's latest annual report, published this summer, £148 million was handed out in 1,872 grants last year. The vast majority went to historic buildings and other conservation schemes and to museums.

Projects with an archaeological dimension in a strict sense - ie, which improve our understanding of the past - numbered at most half a dozen. These included the CBA's own survey of wartime remains, the Defence of Britain project; English Heritage's current excavation at Whitby Abbey; and the creation of the Museum of London's new Archaeological Archive & Research Centre. A few local archaeological societies received small grants.

Of more oblique archaeological benefit were a number of restoration schemes at prehistoric monuments; the `analysis and display' of a Bronze Age shield at Somerset Museum; and Wiltshire Council's production and distribution of an educational CDROM about the county's heritage. I may have missed a couple of things; but that's about it. It hardly amounts to a transformation of the archaeological landscape.

So where are the big new public-interest excavation and survey projects? Where are the grandiose schemes to improve our flagging Sites and Monuments Records (SMRs) and make them comprehensible to the interested layman? Where are the proposals to bring major unpublished excavations into the public domain?

Willing donor

Since the publication of its archaeology guidelines in 1998, the HLF has announced its willingness to finance any of these, as well as other types of archaeological project. Yet, in the main, the proposals have not been forthcoming. Put simply, archaeologists have not been applying for the cash.

The HLF has of course not been blameless. There have been some dubious decisions and administrative blunders. A proposal to improve, link and open up Scotland's National Monuments Record and local SMRs fell apart last year when the HLF changed its requirements at the last minute. The launch of the Local Heritage Initiative this year (BA April) without any major involvement of a body responsible for the historic environment seemed bizarre. Applying for a grant seems needlessly complex and expensive.

There is also the question of the HLF's own rules. For well-intentioned reasons, the HLF will not support worthy but under-resourced existing heritage bodies to do their `usual' work. Instead, organisations have to try and invent one-off projects which meet politically-inspired criteria such as `public access' and `inclusivity'. This means that highly worthwhile work of long-term public benefit can remain starved of funding. Many feel that this rule should be reviewed and made more responsive to what organisations actually need.

Lottery money is also not supposed to replace central or local government funding. This is, again, a well-intentioned rule, but it can present a real barrier. For example, the HLF would like to help make SMRs more accessible to the public. But many SMRs have been so severely reduced by budget cuts that they are struggling to survive. Greater physical access is genuinely difficult to provide in an SMR's cramped offices. To be fair, senior figures at the HLF are aware that government funding cuts may be hampering some bids, and seem anxious to help if they can within their own guidelines.

Nonetheless, these problems aside, the fact remains that for innovative new projects not normally in receipt of government funding the Lottery's doors stand open.

Time to ask

Perhaps the greatest disappointment has been the shortage of Lottery-funded research projects. The HLF would balk at proposals to finance research of purely academic interest; but projects of conspicuous public benefit, employing plenty of volunteers, are a different matter entirely. Universities and other archaeological bodies should be leaping at this opportunity. But they are not doing so. Even the Whitby Abbey excavations were not proposed for their own sake but received funding on the back of a scheme for a new visitor centre.

Slowly, some archaeologists may be beginning to catch on. The first publication proposal is now under discussion at HLF, two English SMRs have recently put in bids, and Scotland's NMR is preparing a revised proposal after last year's fiasco.

But there's a long way to go. Forget `It could be you'. The slogan should now be `It's up to you'.

Simon Denison is the Editor of British Archaeology

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