A Brief History of the CBA
In 1943 the tide of war had turned and archaeologists in Britain were beginning to contemplate the magnitude of tasks and opportunities that would confront them at the end of hostilities. In London alone more than 50 acres of the City lay in ruins awaiting redevelopment, while the historic centres of Bristol, Canterbury, Exeter, Southampton, and many other towns had suffered devastation.
In response to a resolution from the Oxford Meeting of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, Sir Alfred Clapham, then President of the Society of Antiquaries of London, called a meeting of the Congress of Archaeological Societies (founded in 1898) ‘to discuss the requirements of archaeology in the post-war period’. As a result, it was agreed to form a ‘Council for British Archaeology’ to promote, both collectively and through its members, British archaeology in all its aspects.
The new Council defined one of its objectives as the ‘safeguarding of all kinds of archaeological material and the strengthening of existing measures for the care of ancient and historic buildings, monuments, and antiquities’. Following its first meeting in March 1944 under Clapham’s Presidency (he was succeeded later that year by Sir Cyril Fox), the Council initiated local excavation committees in a number of war-damaged towns, began to seek information about reconstruction projects, and set its Regional Groups the task of watching sites of all kinds. It also recognised the archaeological potential of the aerial photographic cover of all Britain carried out by the RAF during the war and began negotiations to make these available to archaeologists.
The importance of gaining public support for and understanding of archaeology was immediately realised. Ambitious plans for popularising archaeology had to be curtailed owing to lack of funds, but a famous poster was produced for the CBA by Brian Hope-Taylor and widely displayed in public libraries and similar institutions across the country. Intensive efforts were made to introduce archaeology into school courses.
The Congress of Archaeological Societies was quickly wound up, and one of the tasks that the CBA inherited from it was the drawing up of a Survey and Policy for Field Research, which was seen as fundamental to an integrated approach to the exploration of Britain’s heritage. This monumental task was undertaken by Christopher Hawkes and Stuart Piggott (both subsequently CBA Presidents) and the first volume appeared in 1948. The CBA also recognised the need for adequate bibliographical backup for British archaeology, and the first volume of its regular Archaeological Bulletin (later renamed Archaeological Bibliography) appeared in 1949.
Thus, within five years the CBA had laid down the main lines of its programme, lines which have persisted up to the present: the role as a forum, relaying and where appropriate representing the views, ideas and policies of British archaeology to government, the media, and the public; ensuring that archaeology figures prominently at all levels in education; the promotion and enabling of research, for professionals and amateurs alike; services in information, providing both a current awareness facility and a massive research database; and publications for both specialists and the general reader.
Today British archaeology is served by scores of specialist and thematic societies and groups. This busy scene did not exist in the early 1950s, when the Council set up six period-based Research Committees, spanning the whole of Britain’s past from the Palaeolithic to the post-medieval period which, along with the Natural Sciences Panel (set up as early as 1945) had the remit of coordinating earlier initiatives, providing guidance where required, and establishing new projects on a national basis. In 1959 the CBA set up the first Industrial Archaeology Committee in the world. In 1965, the CBA’s response to the Buchanan report on traffic in towns introduced the concept of historic urban areas, as opposed to individual buildings or sites. The list of historic towns which it then identified, although long since overtaken by other more formal designations, is still cited.
Through conferences and publications the CBA’s period committees played a valuable role in the development of British archaeology during the 1950s and 1960s. However, by the early 1970s most had either completed their work programmes or had achieved autonomy in other guises, such as the Society for Medieval Archaeology.
Down the years the CBA initiated projects which led to the establishment of a number of independent bodies of this kind. The CBA was co-sponsor of the study that led to the establishment of the York Archaeological Trust in 1972. The Standing Conference of Archaeological Unit Managers grew out of a CBA Working Party in the 1970s, as to an extent did the Institute of Field Archaeologists. In 1988 the Chapels Society was brought into being by the CBA’s Working Party on Nonconformist Places of Worship. Most recently, the CBA has helped in the formation of the Society for Church Archaeology.
From the later 1960s a new series of CBA specialist Committees was established. These were thematic rather than period based and concerned Aerial Archaeology, Archaeological Science, Churches, Countryside, Historic Buildings, Industrial Archaeology, Nautical Archaeology (formed by the absorption into the CBA of the former Council for Nautical Archaeology in the mid 1980s), and Urban Research. The Committees served the CBA’s role as a forum for ideas and discussion, in ways which built on our tradition of focusing on themes and topics which bridge gaps in existing knowledge, or integrate periods or branches of the discipline normally considered in isolation. One of the strengths of the CBA’s specialist committees was that they provided for the formation and expression of independent, subject centred views. Another was their capacity for bringing together otherwise dispersed expertise. Their rotating composition (members served for three year terms) ensured a dynamic approach to their work of organising conferences and meetings, the production of publications, and the promotion of their respective interests through consultation and casework. The erosion of history, produced in 1972 by the Urban Research Committee, played a seminal role in the development of urban archaeology – and not in Britain alone, since its approach was followed in several European countries. More recently the emphasis switched to the rural environment: changes in agricultural and land use policies in Britain in response to European Community directives involved the Countryside Committee in a spate of consultations, to encourage a proper place for archaeology in new legislation relating to Environmentally Sensitive Areas, set aside, increased afforestation, and Environmental Assessment. The effects of the Churches Committee included a series of significant publications, the establishment of a system of diocesan and presbytery archaeological advisers, and a parallel network for cathedrals. The effects of several of these initiatives have since been reflected in ecclesiastical legislation.
In the mid 1990s the CBA moved on again, winding up many of its nine specialist committees, some of which developed into independent bodies (eg the Society for Church Archaeology and the Implement Petrology Group).
The CBA has been a pioneer in other fields. British Archaeological Abstracts was initiated in 1968, taking over the functions of the Archaeological Bibliography in 1981, and was the first comprehensive archaeological abstracts service anywhere in the world. Since that time it has found imitators, who accord full credit to the CBA, in Poland, the Nordic countries, Switzerland, and elsewhere. In 1990 the Abstracts were superseded by the British Archaeological Bibliography (BAB), funded by a consortium of partners including the CBA, which set up a computer based bibliographic database for British archaeology as well as publishing regular volumes containing abstracts of new publications. In 1997 the BAB consortium was joined by the Irish Heritage Council, becoming the British and Irish Archaeological Bibliography. This is now a free online service available to all at www.biab.ac.uk with over 200,000 bibliographic references.
The CBA has become a substantial publisher. Well over a hundred Research Reports, conference proceedings, and thematic studies have appeared since 1955, most of them in the past twenty years. By arrangement with English Heritage the CBA publishes reports on the work of the York Archaeological Trust, and with the support of English Heritage and Cadw the Council also publishes a number of excavation reports each year. CBA Practical Handbooks help amateurs, extra mural students and professionals alike to play their part in studying Britain’s past. A programme of digitisation is has enabled electronic access to everything the CBA has published since 1945 – see www.britarch.ac.uk.
Education has been in the forefront of the CBA’s thinking since its foundation. The CBA has, for example, been closely involved with the development of archaeological syllabuses for GCSE examinations, and argued vigorously and successfully for the inclusion of an archaeological dimension within the English National History Curriculum. Publications such as Teaching Archaeology: a UK Directory of Resources, Archaeology and the National Curriculum in Wales, and Archaeology in the English National Curriculum have been produced for the assistance of teachers.
In parallel, the CBA now provides a permanent home for the Young Archaeologists’ Club, which is for young people aged between 8 and 16. The Club today has over 70 branches UK-wide, and its quarterly magazine Young Archaeologist circulates to a membership of over 2,000 children, families and schools.
The CBA coordinates an annual flagship event, the Festival of British Archaeology, a fortnight long extravaganza that takes place across the UK with over 760 archaeologically themed events held by museums, heritage sites, societies, universities and other organisations around the UK, with the aim of encouraging everyone to visit sites of interest, take part in activities on sites and so take a more active role in the appreciation and care of our historic environment. It began in 1990 as a weekend long event and over 20 years has expanded to the impressive size it is today.
In 1995 the CBA’s newsletter British Archaeological News was relaunched as British Archaeology: a news-magazine that sets out to be lively and well-written enough for the general reader, but also sufficiently rigorous for the academic. Now available for sale in bookshops and other retail outlets across the UK and abroad, articles in the bi-monthly British Archaeology are regularly picked up by the national and local media, and some of its stories have gone round the world. Included in the magazine is CBA Briefing, an information supplement which lists excavations open to participation, conferences, exhibitions and much else.
Both British Archaeology and CBA Briefing are available on the Internet, via the CBA’s web site at www.britarch.ac.uk. The CBA pioneers electronic access to archaeological materials, information, interpretations and discussion – the latter including BRITARCH, an electronic forum which has attracted over 1,700 members since its launch in 1996 (see www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/britarch.html). The CBA also publishes an electronic journal, Internet Archaeology.
The importance of the work carried out by the CBA was acknowledged in 1949 when it was given a Grant in Aid by HM Treasury, which permitted the appointment of Beatrice de Cardi as the Council’s first permanent secretary. Since 1950 this grant, which today accounts for about 30% of the CBA’s income, has been paid through the British Academy. Other income sources include membership subscriptions, the sale of publications, the provision of services (such as the CBA’s group insurance scheme) and grants for projects and specific areas of work. The CBA also gives grants, most notably to assist publication, and in support of original research by amateur and independent archaeologists.
Until 1993 membership of the Council was limited to societies and organisations. Today there are some 600 affiliate members, which range from village archaeological groups to museums, county societies, universities, units and national bodies. Individual membership has climbed steadily since its introduction in 1993, and now exceeds 4,600. Through the twelve English Regional Groups, CBA Wales/Cymru and its federated partner, the Archaeology Scotland (all of which have individual membership), the CBA provides a unique forum for the British archaeological community, and the public beyond.
The scope of the CBA’s work is large, but decisively channelled through the five core functional areas described above: research, conservation, education, information, and publication. Most recently the CBA has adopted the strapline: archaeology for all, and is focusing its energies to involve more people in archaeology, working in partnership with many other heritage bodies across the UK. The small, dedicated permanent staff at the York headquarters keep abreast of the CBA’s responsibilities with the voluntary support of the Council’s Officers and Board, members of committees, and the active enthusiasm of the Regions. The list of those who have served the CBA over more than half a century is a roll-call of the discipline since the war. Nowhere in the world is there another organisation which so effectively brings archaeologists together and enjoys the support, affection and involvement of so many of them.
Threats to the archaeological inheritance since 1944 have changed in form, but have grown in scale. The CBA’s work is aimed not at negative preservation but at positive support for, and wide participation in, the study and care of Britain’s historic environment. By joining, members strengthen British archaeology in that purpose.
If you have stories or recollections about your involvement with the CBA, please let us know.
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