Hunting for cave art
Archaeology of industry
Editor Simon Denison
The future that British archaeology deserves
In his final article, award-winning editor Simon Denison considers how archaeology in Britain has changed since British Archaeology magazine was launched in 1995
It is nearly nine years since I edited the first issue of British Archaeology in February 1995, and 72 issues down the line, I am sometimes asked how I think archaeology in Britain has changed over this period.
Where politics have been involved, things have changed amazingly slowly. The whole Stonehenge issue was first raised around 1995, and is still not finally resolved. Nor is the question of what to do with the Seahenge timbers, five years after they were discovered. Most of this magazine's calls on the Government to beef up its approach to heritage matters, for example in agriculture and education, have had a fairly minimal impact. The one major achievement, in my view, has been the transformation of attitudes towards portable antiquities - particularly with the voluntary reporting scheme, set up in 1997, which continues to produce magnificent results (see News, page 7)
Archaeology's main business, of course, is the interpretation of discoveries - the telling of stories about the past - and on that level there has certainly been no reduction in the number of tales to tell. The sheer range of news and features we carry in this magazine makes the point. As a research discipline, archaeology remains in vigorous good health.
But have the types of stories changed? To some degree, maybe. As Paul Bahn writes elsewhere in this magazine (page 8), as soon as something is found once, it starts to be seen elsewhere - and a number of stories seem to have become more common since the mid-90s. Martin Millett's ideas, for example, on the uneven Romanisation of Britain were hugely influential in the 90s, and spawned numerous finds of 'native' culture resiliently surviving in the Roman period. Palaeolithic archaeology seems to have become far more interesting since the Boxgrove excavations, just ending in the mid-90s, which inspired more imaginative interpretations of flint scatters across Britain than were heard before.
The longevity of the landscape has become another major theme, and as soon as archaeologists began, in the later 1990s, to notice settlements or cemeteries focused on an earlier monument, these types of site began to be seen everywhere (see News, page 6).
Some other ideas, which seemed fresh, almost revolutionary, in the mid-90s, have now settled into a kind of consensus - for example, the long survival of Roman culture in Britain after the end of the Roman period, or the 'unsettled' nature of the British Neolithic. Paradoxically, this same period has seen a huge increase in finds of Neolithic houses, even settlements, especially in Ireland and Orkney (BA, July; and News, page 5).
So research continues to build its grand towers - but, worryingly, some of the foundations remain weak. It may seem, from our news pages, that British archaeologists are digging an endless supply of good sites. We try, of course, to keep things interesting here - but we have to hunt quite hard to find material of an adequate standard. Probably two out of three field units I contact tell me that there is nothing much of interest to report. 'Just standard developer-funded stuff,' they say sadly.
I can't say that this response has become more common than before. If anything, archaeologists have become more canny about what might interest the outside world. But, at a time when more money than ever is being poured into archaeology through developer funding, it raises questions about the relationship between archaeology's total input and its output, at least the output that matters. Optimistic ideas, in the 90s, that the results of small developer-funded excavations would be pieced together by a national agency to produce meaningful new information have come to - well, not very much.
Since the mid-90s, archaeology has enjoyed its highest ever public profile, thanks largely to Time Team launched in 1994. Nowadays, scarcely a week goes by without archaeology on television and in the major newspapers. But this media obsession with archaeology is a fashion that will change - and sooner rather than later, in my opinion. TV reviewers, I notice, scoff at archaeology programmes more regularly now than they did five years ago (and often with good reason).
While it lasts, this media popularity greatly increases archaeology's chances of influencing politicians and encouraging public participation. Time will tell if popular interest - and Government goodwill - can be sustained when TV producers start making shows about something else.
Unfortunately, there is every chance that archaeology will squander its opportunities because, like most professions, it has a fatal tendency towards introversion and self-importance. In the end, only if archaeology can see itself as others do, and keep on producing the stories that non-archaeologists will enjoy, will it have - I believe - the shining future that it deserves.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005