Participating in the Past

The results of an investigation by a Council for British Archaeology Working Party chaired by Mike Farley

Published September 2003


1 Preface

Physical remains are an important key to understanding the past, whether that past is remote and before written records, or within living memory. Coming into direct contact with elements of the past whether by standing on a Bronze Age burial mound, seeing locally-found objects in a museum, visiting a disused coalmine or handling family heirlooms, has an immediacy which it is hard to match by any other means.

The past was once seen as the preserve of specialists and to be found in particular locations, but increasingly a broader public has become aware that the past is not just in special ‘ancient’ defined places, but is literally all around us. Each locality has its own unique historic character whether a town, a wood, a piece of shoreline, a village or even a street or back garden. The visible history of a place, its buildings, earthworks and vegetation, together with its below-ground remains, all help to define the nature of this character. No single person can ‘own’ the elements of such historic character which is the result of countless generations interacting with their environment in a highly individual manner.

Over recent decades, better appreciation of the historic environment has led to a considerable increase in the number of professional workers in the heritage field, many of whom now work outside the public sector. Such individuals and organisations may, however, because of operational considerations which are discussed further on, have little commitment to the local communities within which they are temporarily operating. Likewise, those within the public sector often find their activities severely constrained by budgets and targets which may not necessarily mirror the specific needs or desires of local communities. Heritage-linked services have often been seen as a soft budgetary option in comparison with, for example, provision for the elderly. These factors when linked with substantial media coverage of archaeological matters and an increasing general interest by the public in their local heritage, can lead to a degree of frustration on all sides over the issue of public participation.

The Council for British Archaeology is a broad-based heritage organisation whose membership consists of individuals, and local, regional, and national groups with an interest in the historic environment. Its members’ interests cover all aspects of the past whether above or below ground, on dry land or under water. Recent membership concerns have included the issue of public participation. The CBA and its regional groups, both important public information providers, are only too familiar with the question ‘how do I get involved?’.

A number of recent government papers focusing on the historic environment have recently been produced such as Power of place (2000) and The historic environment: a force for our future (2001) etc, and there has also been an important survey of public concerns by the All-Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group (APPAG 2003). The CBA thus considered it timely to initiate a survey on the issue of public participation in archaeology.

Public participation in archaeology takes place at several different levels and degrees of complexity. Even today, many members of the public are surprised to find that people are actually paid to work as archaeologists; possibly because they recognise that it is such an interesting area to be working in. The roots of archaeology lie in a long and honourable tradition of amateur work dating back several hundred years and it remains an area where those for whom archaeology remains a hobby, can still make important contributions to the development of the subject at local, regional or national level.

The survey, which is described below, has thrown up a number of issues which it is hoped will be of interest to professional and amateur archaeologists and to a broader public who would like the opportunity to become involved.

Following a description of the results of the survey, indicating both the strengths and weaknesses of the present situation, there is a list of practical suggestions, followed by some recommendations for action.

Throughout this report the term ‘national’ is used in reference to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Where the word ‘professional’ is used as a noun, it is to define those individuals who earn their living working as archaeologists. Where ‘professional’ is used as an adjective eg ‘professional standards’ it is used in the context of quality of work. It is not intended to imply that that only those employed in archaeology apply professional standards.