Before turning freelance, I spent a decade working in the commercial archaeology sector, and have seen a fair number of archaeological projects over the years. Some great archaeology done by fantastic archaeologists, and post-excavation analysis done to the highest standards. But, what is the point of it, if all that work brings very little benefit back to the communities who live near the site in question? If the results of the project eventually, after many months or even years, end up as a spiral-bound report lodged in the local council offices of an Historic Environment Record (HER) or Sites and Monuments Record (SMR), is that it, and is that OK?
Picture yourself living in a town, and word gets around that there’s a dig going on. Everyone loves to hear news like that, and everyone wants to know what’s been discovered. But what happens when they find out that the dig is going on behind high hoarding, and nothing can be seen? And then nobody tells them what’s going on. Suddenly archaeology is a lot less sexy than we see on the TV. It’s exclusive, done behind closed doors. Now, to say that all excavations are carried out like that is nonsense, and there are some great examples where community involvement has been open-armed. But these examples are rare given the thousands of archaeological investigations that take place across the UK each year.
A lot more can be done.
It could be argued that archaeology is in crisis. Jobs in archaeology have become uncertain, with many hundreds of people being laid off during the last three years. I was one of them. Cuts elsewhere have affected English Heritage and other heritage organisations.
In 2010 David Cameron said about the £115billion brought into the UK through tourism:
The last government underplayed our tourist industry. There were eight different ministers with responsibility for tourism in just 13 years. They just didn’t get our heritage. They raided the national lottery, taking money from heritage because it didn’t go with their image of ‘cool Britannia’,” he said, referring to the brash popular culture of the late 90s, especially music and art, sometimes co-opted by the Blair government. (source)
There’s a fair bit of fixing to do in the heritage sector, and nobody is going to do it for us.
I propose that commercial archaeology units start taking public benefit a lot more seriously. When I used to chase people for details about their projects to put online, so very few wanted to. There was a belief that “the client won’t let us” – often without even asking them. I don’t think that the most appropriate people to talk to each other about putting archaeological information online are archaeological managers and their equivalents in a construction firm. Archaeology is treated like any other pollutant – it must be removed before construction can begin, and that’s it.
Archaeology has great value in so many areas. As well as informing people about their pasts, it has huge potential for inclusion in marketing materials. The PR departments of every firm need to know what excavations are going on, and talk to outreach staff at the commercial archaeology units. These are the people who need to talk with each other. A (nearly) statutory obligation to fulfil planning criteria is not a means to an end.
The default contracts of commercial archaeology units need to be altered to include a statement about openness and inclusion of archaeological information. They need to state that the results of the project, in realtime if possible (security caveats permitting), will be published online, in full, unless the client opts out. Put posters on the hoardings, or a blackboard – whatever low-tech and available solution is around to tell the local community what’s going on. Call a local reporter, get it in the paper. The client looks good, and people are happy.
I know the question that most people who work in archaeology will ask at this point. The “That’s All Very Well But Who’s Going To Pay For It” one. That old chestnut, and the elephant in the room. There are many answers. It could do us a lot of favours to be as visible as possible in archaeology, and forge stronger links with the tourism industry. If our profession becomes irrelevant, then nobody will want to pay for it at all. We need to want to do this and make it happen by being inventive.
Approaching the Considerate Constructors Scheme with a clear summary of the reasons why archaeology should be publicised could be a good start. They were set up to improve the image of construction, after all. Build costs into contracts. Provide ‘concessions’ for developers with their logos, and liaise with their PR departments. Approach local print/design companies to sponsor banners and posters. Be agile!
I don’t have all of the answers, and I’d love to hear some of your ideas. Does it matter if archaeology continues to be largely invisible with fading relevance? Leave a comment below and let’s see where this goes.