Editorial

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


Britain and the USA are two countries that have semi-privatised the business of archaeology, so that although the state remains nominally in charge of keeping the material assets of the past (aka the 'heritage') in trust for the unborn, its research, curation and rescue are devolved to other agencies--universities, associations, firms, developers, individuals. Whether this is part of the democratic philosophy, or a by-product of the Atlantic love-affair with the market place, it is too early to say. One thing is certain--the system won't go away. No-one is going to wake up one morning and find we have returned to a cosy centrism where the value of archaeology is not in doubt and everyone in it is employed by the state. On the contrary, it seems more likely than not that formerly totalitarian block countries will drift in the same direction, as all governments try and reduce their responsibilities and increase their income by delegation and deregulation.

Of course the big problem in turning archaeology over to the market is deciding who wants to buy it and why. Mitigating the effects of development on the resource--i.e. rescuing archaeological sites from the bulldozer--is a multi-million pound industry, employing thousands in the private sector. But what is it selling? At the IFA (1) conference in Reading this April, Catherine Scanlon from the London School of Economics explained to a large hall of delegates from government and the British commercial sector that the answer was actually 'nothing at all'. In economic terms, archaeology was graded as having a 'non-use value'. It happened only because the government said it must: take that away and there was no obvious reason to do it. This was not exactly news to most people, but it certainly needs saying: basically it means that archaeologists are being paid for the wrong reason: not to rescue the archaeology from the developer, but to rescue the developer from the archaeology.

Many archaeologists, including your editor, have never been in the slightest doubt of the true product for which millions of dollars, euros and pounds are dispensed each year: it is research, knowledge, understanding more about the past. What was special about the Reading meeting was the almost universal acceptance of this by a room full of civil servants and (professional) archaeologists hitherto happy to sign up to the concept of preservation by record. The change of mood, and it was a major change, was owed in the first place to the issue of new guide lines for planners drawn up by English Heritage and known as PPS5 (2), but more specifically to the initiative of a small group of senior players led by Taryn Nixon of the Museum of London Archaeological Service. This is known as the Southport Group, since Southport is where they first convened, and it would be difficult to exaggerate their importance. If their message is heard, then a whole new system of procurement will come into being. Sites will be routinely evaluated as before, but only excavated for research purposes. This means that fieldwork will be commissioned on the basis of its design-what it intends to find out--not its price. If anyone is about to claim that is what already happens--dream on: where developers are obliged to do something that has no use-value, they will pay as little as possible, and insist, rightly, on competitive tender. But where the product is redefined as research, then they, or a combination of developer and research councils, should pay for the design that best serves the archaeological opportunity.

Of course there is a lot to do. Developers should be given tax sweeteners for contributing to the public good. Project designs should be placed on public view in planning offices to ensure planners and developers are not getting archaeology on the cheap. Archaeology firms should focus on maximum research output rather than maximum income from days on site. Universities should join in and get dirty. …

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