29 Jul 2022
by Neil Redfern

This is Archaeology

Good morning and welcome to “A Day In Archaeology”, our annual celebration of what it means to call yourself an archaeologist. Throughout the day archaeologists will be uploading blogs about their experiences in archaeology and what it means to them. Originally intended to capture activity on a single day in the life of an archaeologist, blogs now range from talking about specific activities to wider consideration of the issues that face us today.

This shift to a wider perspective is essential if archaeology is to remain relevant and meaningful to people today. It is now 2 years since I became Executive Director of the Council for British Archaeology and in that time the work has faced some extraordinary challenges from the global pandemic to the climate emergency; from the invasion of Ukraine to the daily images of refugees struggling to find a safe place to live. How does archaeology relate to these issues?

Archaeology and Lived Experienced

I firmly believe that archaeology is a richer and more rounded activity when we understand how our own lived experience can contribute to understanding the world around us and to the narratives or stories we create through archaeology. Furthermore, this understanding becomes even more meaningful and powerful when we open up our processes to the widest possible engagement and participation. Archaeology and archaeologists need to challenge our perceptions of what we do, how we do it and who we do ‘archaeology’ for. I have been struck in my first 2 years in post at how good we have become as archaeologists at talking to each other and of claiming relevancy to wider society, but not really opening up our processes and thoughts to what wider society’s lived experience can contribute. There are many projects that are starting to do this, but they are not the norm and we still primarily undertake archaeology as a process of mitigation in advance of development. Changing this emphasis is essential if we are to remain relevant in the future.

Seeking New Perceptions

Archaeology is relevant to our daily lives. If I did not believe this, I would not do the job I have today. For me archaeology is the process through which we understand what it means to be human, on this planet, at this moment in time. Whilst we use the past as our reference material it is a process that speaks more about who we are today, rather than about the future, although we like to say it is. By grounding archaeology in the present, we can make a huge contribution to debates around climate change, sustainability and community resilience. By engaging with society, by actively bringing them into our process, by understanding what society can contribute to archaeology, we can develop more meaningful and relevant archaeological processes.

I have always enjoyed talking about archaeology to non-archaeologists and this year I walked Hadrian’s Wall over 9 days in May. The many people I met on the way opened my eyes to how the wall shapes their lives, sense of place. Their stories are just as important to our understanding of the wall as any archaeological report.

With these processes centered around people the outcomes are more engaging and fun!

A Day in Archaeology

So, as you write and read these blogs today, I ask you to think about how our approach to archaeology might have different outcomes, if we shift our perceptions and emphasis. Valuable outcomes could include inspiring imagination and creativity and raising hopes and aspirations. How might we create inclusive processes that empower everyone to participate, as is their societal right? Above all how do we create a stronger and more people-centered approach, as archaeology is nothing without people. Perhaps we could think less of mitigation and more about participation - how we, collectively, create the collage of place, memory and meaning: This, I believe, Is Archaeology!

Have a wonderful day everyone.

Neil Redfern

CBA

Neil is the Executive Director at the CBA

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