British

Archaeology

The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 96

Issue 96

September/October 2007

Contents

news

Ambassador sees peace message in museum

Archaeologist who fought for history's underdogs dies

Roman fort found in Cornwall

Full scale of ancient Welsh stone quarry revealed

In Brief & Phase 2

features

More travels - This is not just a walk, this is an archaeological walk
John Cannon considers places to see in County Durham

Green treasures from the magic mountains
Alison Sheridan describes exciting new French project on Jade Axes

Fading star: Star Carr
Fieldwork at the iconic mesolithic site reveals new fears

opinion

Let Lucy sparkle

on the web

Recommended websites
Who's blogging? And the Society of Antiquaries of London

letters

Views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Mike Heyworth wonders what lies ahead for archaeology

 

ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

CBA correspondent

What will the new archaeology have to offer, asks Mike Heyworth?

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA

Having looked back at developments in British archaeology over the last 10 years (feature, Jul/Aug), in tune with our new prime minister we should now be looking forward. If we could anticipate a "new" archaeology what would we like to see? What will the next 10 years bring?

We've been here before. In November 1994 then CBA director Richard Morris commented in British Archaeological News (as this magazine was then called) on the publication of planning guidance on archaeology. This had shifted archaeological practice from rescuing sites towards leaving them alone. Morris proposed four key strategies:
• Integrate evaluations into research programmes
• Re-involve the voluntary sector
• State agencies should conduct or assist flagship research projects
• We should ignite and sustain the curiosity of children

These strategies, Morris argued, would bring "coherence, buoyancy, and confidence for the future" and would go some way to negate PPG16's unwelcome side-effects (the quality of the archaeology delivered, the rickety underpinning for the system, the stunting of the subject's development and minimal impact on generating new knowledge).

So, 13 years later, how far have we got?

There is certainly good news on the voluntary sector.

"Community archaeology" has been aided by the Heritage Lottery Fund and its local heritage initiative (though sadly the LHI has now ended). Last year's London and Manchester conferences, which the CBA supported, showcased the excellent work of local groups. The CBA's recently launched Community Archaeology Forum (www.britarch.ac.uk/caf; On the web, May/Jun) is a growing resource. We will shortly be launching an award with the Marsh Christian Trust for high quality community-led archaeology. Opportunities for public participation in archaeology are increasing, and with the prospect of major climate change we need more trained and involved people to monitor impacts on our historic environment: the excellent work of the SCAPE Trust (Letters, this issue) is a good example.

The Young Archaeologists' Club thrives. People aged eight to 16 around the UK can engage with archaeology through some 700 events each year. Increasingly YAC branches are involved with fieldwork. There is at least one week-long holiday each year, with the opportunity to take part in an excavation and develop practical fieldwork skills. If only we could encourage more teachers to use archaeology: there is so much potential in a variety of subjects. The CBA is hoping to develop a major new education project, with a report on opportunities to use the historic environment in teaching at key stage 3, and encouraging more teachers to offer AS/A level archaeology options. More resources are required to promote the opportunities for engaging young people.

The picture is less rosy as regards research and fieldwork contributions to new knowledge. Many good examples have featured in this magazine, but we need to improve the way in which archaeology undertaken in advance of development relates to research themes, and is communicated widely. PPG16's conservation aim can still appear baffling to the public, as in the recent case of the Herefordshire "Rotherwas ribbon" (www.rotherwasribbon.com). The "very fragile" bronze age site will apparently be preserved under the new road whose works revealed it, in line with planning philosophy. Yet there was considerable local surprise when the county's archaeological curator expressed his support for this strategy. Local non-archaeologists appeared keener to learn more about the site and explore its tourism potential (although inevitably local politics are involved, and the site's archaeology has yet to be fully understood).

Richard Bradley (Books, this issue) has pulled together recent work undertaken through contract archaeology, claiming that much of the currently accepted prehistoric narrative is out-of-date. We must ensure that evaluation and other "grey literature" reports from developer-funded archaeology are more widely available through initiatives such as oasis (Online AccesS to the Index of archaeological InvestigationS: ads.ahds.ac.uk/project/oasis). But we also need structures to allow contracting staff to work on wider syntheses. One option would be to create opportunities for secondments between different parts of our discipline, which is increasingly divided into unhelpful "silos" (curators, contractors, academics etc). Far too many young professional archaeologists are leaving the discipline, frustrated with the poor pay and conditions, the lack of career opportunities and the limited options to develop their expertise. We need to raise our ambitions.

Major excavations, like those at Heathrow's Terminal 5, are achieving high quality, question-orientated commercial work. But we need ways to link bread and butter archaeology with research frameworks, and we need to engage wider public interest, perhaps through high profile flagship excavations of unthreatened sites aimed at investigating major issues in the past. In some cases developers may be prepared to pay for additional archaeological work to allow deeper deposits to be explored and further questions answered. Heritage-led regeneration has been shown to be very effective, and there are good pr angles for sympathetic developers. Questions have been raised about leaving sites "preserved in situ" under developments, when changes in ground water levels and other burial conditions caused by construction methods (such as piling) may lead to loss of archaeological evidence before the site can be explored again (Science, Jan/Feb 2005). If we are truly adopting the precautionary principle, then more research and monitoring of sites is needed.

Archaeology has had a high media profile over the last 10 years. We have been extraordinarily fortunate in the mainstream television exposure provided by Time Team, Meet the Ancestors and more. But will this dissipate as broadcasting fragments into a myriad of specialist channels? We will need to find other ways to bring our work to a wider public, discussing the big questions such as the impact of millennia of human activity on the environment. Currently we spend more time excavating less significant sites with minimal impact on understanding, and leaving richer sites untouched for an uncertain future.

Martin Biddle, again in British Archaeological News (Mar 1994), was quite clear that "if archaeological knowledge is to advance... there must be a reasonable balance between preservation and investigation. The pendulum has swung too far in one direction and needs to be corrected".

Is this the case? Is it really correct that the most widespread potential for research-based excavations lies within the thriving voluntary sector of community archaeologists? No bad thing perhaps, especially as many such groups are working to high professional standards, but we also need to find better ways to maximise the public and research benefits of developer-funded work.

Does the CBA have a role here, at the very least as a debating forum? What about the state agencies, and even more pertinently, what about the universities? We would be very interested to hear your views.

Mike Heyworth is director of the CBA

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