Archaeology at the Crossroads

Article excerpt

Archaeology has changed, is changing, but needs to change even more. This was the consensus among speakers at a conference held in November at Lincoln's history-layered castle and cathedral hilltop. The conference, promoted by the English Historic Towns Forum and the Association of Local Government Archaeology Officers, came almost exactly seven years after an earlier EHTF conference there, at which the then responsible minister, Lady Blatch, unveiled a new planning policy guidance note on archaeology.

That guidance note, `PPG16', has revolutionised the aims and practice of field archaeology in Britain. It laid down that developers, by an extension of the `polluter pays' principle, should pay for pre-development examination of their sites under the supervision and to the satisfaction of the local planning authority. In the financial year 1996-97, their spending on this totalled some 35 [pounds sterling] million. By 1990, as a speaker at that earlier conference remarked, archaeology had already become a considerable business rather than the pursuit of dilettantes. It is now big business.

The thoroughgoing nature of this change was pinpointed at November's conference by Richard Morris, Director of the Council for British Archaeology. The CBA, he said, received about 2,000 phone calls each year from people wanting to work as volunteers on archaeological digs. They were almost all destined to disappointment. Archaeology has become a very professional exercise. In urban development sites at least, it is working to such stringent specifications and timetable that it cannot afford to employ volunteers.

The 'industrialisation' of field archaeology, ho ever, has other, even less palatable results. By making the developer the paymaster of pre-development examination, it has brought archaeological practices face to face with the harsh world of competitive tendering. The complaint here -- uncannily echoing the long-standing lament of architects -- is that price competition erodes quality. Long-established local archaeological trusts with a wealth of local knowledge and impressive track record quite often lose out to a competing contractor from the other end of Britain; the winner has no first-hand knowledge of local characteristics and past finds. This upsets not just the undercut local archaeologist but the local authority 'client' archaeologist who is charged with ensuring the work comes up to standard. As one county archaeologist put it, 'If they've underbid to van the job, I'm pushing them to do things they can't afford to do without making a loss. …