Editorial

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


Is fieldwork a graduate profession? In some traditions, work on site is carried out by a technician grade that does the shovelling, trowelling and recording, while academics (the officer class), visit with instructions and interpretations. Here is Noel Myres' recollection of Mortimer Wheeler (fearsome champion of the hands-on director) at Brecon Gaer in 1924: "Rik himself treated the excavation as the agreeable background to a fishing holiday. He would begin the day by directing Christopher [Hawkes] and myself of what we were to find, and then disappear in the direction of the river. In the evening he would return, not always overburdened with the trophies of the chase, listen to what we told him of the day's work on the dig and explain to us what he thought it meant." (1) British excavators recoiled from this division in archaeology, as in other walks of life, after World War II and by the 1970s there was a new style comradeship of shared labour and shared speculations (revived 25 years later in the 'reflexive' school of digging with its video clips and multi-author effusions). When the profession arrived, it found it had to earn its living doing what it was told, like everybody else. This required a stern intellectual and financial discipline--you stated what you intended to do in a design document, did it, reported the outcome and got paid (you hope). As the funding base of the new profession moved from government to the private sector, it was naturally susceptible to the hierarchies of each--but on the whole has resisted them. There is a division of labour, but mutual dependence and still no enforced ranking. The downside is that there is not much of a career structure either. Directors 'emerge' from the workforce, theoretically because they are good managers of people, projects and clients, and can get the work done within budget and keep the firm afloat. In this scene we often encounter a fierce nostalgia for the non-graduate route into archaeology--and perhaps the untutored mind is indeed more open to discovery, readier for surprise, and just as good at management.

The problem, aired again at this years IfA conference at Oxford in April, is that the universities and the mitigation profession have drifted apart. One sector is paid to research and the other to manage the historic environment (aka the research resource) and they are regulated or (in Britain) micromanaged by different ministries. Both are subject to new constraints of operation, so while the commercial sector must conform to the ethos of payment for a product, the universities are being toughened up to perform as businesses too--the business of generating fame and profit for UK Plc. Some delegates at Oxford confronted the schism by saying both sides were dedicated to research and were having an equally rough time--basically we are all in the same boat. This is an optimistic interpretation; the academic and commercial sectors are in different boats sailing in different directions, neither of which is headed towards long-term productive research. In a few large commercial organisations (doing large projects), the proceeds are sufficient to allow a generous interpretation of 'mitigation'--resulting in capacious reports and a big research dividend. But in most firms the problem has not budged: they are not paid to do research so they don't do any. No-one is more frustrated by this than the archaeology graduate, a large proportion of whom now enter the commercial profession. They leave university inspired by ancient peoples and places, driven to find out more and devise better ways of doing it; but often find themselves at the mercy of a poor supervisor executing an unimaginative programme using mindless recording systems. In this muddy wasteland, new knowledge of the past and creative ways of bringing it to life are the last things on anybody's mind.

One remedy--perhaps the only one--is to change the 'product' from mitigation to research. …

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