Editorial

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


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* The G20 meeting in London raised expectations of large-scale government investment designed to get the global economy moving--and let's hope it does. Meanwhile the priority is to save existing jobs, create new ones and spend priming money wisely. We should insist that archaeology scores on all counts. We have ways of valuing the historic environment and making it safe for the future undreamt of 50 years ago. These rely not on gifted amateurs, but on a new kind of person--just as dedicated, just as inspired, but diligent and paid. We need to make sure this person survives. The government mission now should be to rescue the commercial archaeology profession by making sure it has something to do.

This should be attractive and affordable. In every country there are a thousand 'heritage' tasks which are only waiting for a political breather to get them done--and which in turn will streamline procedures when market confidence returns. To speak only of Britain, we have 300 historic towns each sitting on a heap of what the French would call 'the archives of the earth', only a handful of which already have their deposit model or their urban archaeological data base. There are tracts of countryside where roads and house-building is destined to come. Why not instigate predictive surveys as Glen Foard did for Northamptonshire, all those years ago? Why don't we get ahead of planning for once, instead of responding to it, too little, too late, and with endemic research frustration?

It isn't only mapping our resources for the better avoidance of damage that demands our attention. From Kent to Shetland there are places of outstanding natural beauty where outstanding archaeology also survives. But you wouldn't know it. There are a thousand guides to write, paths to lay, signs to erect. And while we are about it, why not invest in a few large-scale research excavations that might help us make sense of the million fragments unearthed by the industry each year? It would certainly be good to know what a Bronze Age harbour or an Anglo-Saxon temple looked like. And instead of nibbling it to death over 30 years, let's strip it bare in one glorious job-saving gesture. We have heard of mending the roof while the sun is shining--well since the weather is poor, why not decorate the living-room and tidy the desk?

* Emerging in the earliest days of archaeology's trajectory towards the market place was that purest form of the archaeology professional, the independent specialist. These redoubtable and passionate enthusiasts formed a kind of cottage industry, working from home, with an attic full of mortaria or brooches, or a garage stacked high with animal bones, while colleagues from the academy and the industry came and went, bringing specimens and cheques. In some ways these were the only true experts that archaeology has; in another they were right at the end of the financial food chain. So when the industry stumbles, expertise is the first thing to go.

These thoughts were prompted by the sad news of the early death of Alan Vince, a prominent figure in medieval Britain and its leading pottery specialist (see In Memoriam, online at http://antiquity.ac.uk/memoriam/memoriam.html). In any other country Alan would have been in a research institute or a university, not just publishing pottery but using it to prepare the books on urbanism and the early state that we all knew he should write. But in the nation of shopkeepers you are defined by what you can sell, and in Alan's case this was the pottery report--pottery identified and explained, reports expeditiously delivered, pottery du jour like new laid eggs. But while an egg is only for breakfast, a pottery report nourishes a more permanent and broader kind of being. Alan's big book on how the English town came about never got written, and we are the losers.

* Readers will know something of the plans in the Emirates to found giant Western style museums well furnished with objects from Western antiquity.

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