Editorial

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


* Talk of world recession brings fears for a commercial archaeology just getting into its stride, and inevitably reminds some of us of job creation schemes. Not all the memories are bad. The initiatives in USA and Europe between the wars threw open hectares of archaeology, gave a meaning to the idea of archaeological landscapes and to some extent laid the foundations for a field profession. The Works Program Administration (WPA), part of the New Deal to alleviate unemployment, operated from 1935 to 1943. Numerous archaeological sites were recorded in the Mississippi basin, most of them reported in a standardised manner thanks to the supervision of William Webb, so making the information comparable and usable by other archaeologists. The idea of significance, with the 'archaeological feature' as its defining entity, can probably also be traced to this time. The River Basin program that followed (1945-1969) included a series of reservoirs constructed under the jurisdiction of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The archaeology programme, administered by the National Parks Service, was tailored to record 'historical and archaeological data which might otherwise be lost as the result of the construction of a dam'. As well as underlying the influential roles of the US Army Corps of Engineers and the National Parks Service in North American archaeology, these programmes laid the foundations of the project-based and knowledge-driven procurement scheme of assessment, response and oversight which was to be incorporated in compliance archaeology (established in Section 106 of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA)). This scheme is naturally attractive for countries who like the deregulated approach, or at least have reservations about managing their archaeology solely through the state. In Britain we remember with mixed feelings the job creation schemes of the 1970s and 80s, the YOP (Youth Opportunities Programme) designed to get young people into work as soon as possible and the MSC (Manpower Services Scheme); both of these workforces carried out a lot of archaeology and supplied a nascent profession with much new talent.

But the legacy was not all good--and we should be on the alert if another round of job creation is about to begin. Many of the previous campaigns--especially in continental Europe in the 1930s--aimed at clearing and exhibiting monuments, rather than generating new knowledge. Standardisation of recording, at first so useful in managing a large scale emergency, has grown into a inflexible procedure which privileges data over understanding, and maybe serves the client report better than the research report.

But we are making progress. The last few years of professional work has almost seen the beginnings of a career structure in a number of countries. And although university and commercial archaeologists still treat each other with a certain suspicion, and drink in different bars, there is a growing feeling amongst the younger generation that compliance archaeology can be research rich and that research archaeology ought to be compliant. In other words we are in the same game. Don't let's throw this away, whatever the future brings.

* The world's learned societies need to meet, and soon, to work out a new standard way of labelling past time. We all agree that it is a shambles. Systems dependent on the weather or vegetation (Holocene, sub-Boreal, Zone VIIb) have vied with those dependent on artefact typology. The Three Age system has become increasingly myopic and confused--and some felt it always was: "I regret to say that I hold very different opinions to my friend Dr Worsaae," J.M. Kemble remarked in his final lecture at Dublin in 1857, pointing out that the assignment of date on the basis of whether graves contain stone, bronze or iron objects must be erroneous, since the 'Barbarians' used them all. And yet we have proceeded to use the three ages as though they happened one after another and/or everywhere at the same time. …

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