Time for a Last Quick One?

By Fowler, Peter | Antiquity, September 2001 | Go to article overview
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Time for a Last Quick One?


Fowler, Peter, Antiquity


No put-down, this; rather an expression of how intriguing it is to observe the process by which the times through which one has lived are transmuted into acceptable history. It is good that so influential a contemporary as Geoffrey Wainwright (2000) has turned to autobiography as, like myself, he drains his glass; for, whatever future historians may judge, it appears to us who have been involved with British archaeology virtually throughout the second half of the 20th century that it was a significant period for our subject in this place, not least because of the very considerable achievement of our autobiographer in his official role.

It would be unfortunate, however, were Wainwright's narrative accepted as the, or even a, definitive history about British archaeology 1960-2000. I am not at all content, for example and obviously, with his dismissal of the post-1960s role of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England), but his prejudice and my subjectivity can await discussion elsewhere. He omits some key events, for example the digging-out of the MPs' car park at Westminster which with almost unbelievable ineptitude handed Rescue protagonists a golden opportunity to have the dire archaeological situation in the country discussed in Parliament in a blaze of unprompted -- of course -- national media attention. So authentic are Wainwright's memories, however, and such his authority as pragmatist, scholar and first-hand witness, that his view of the later 20th-century could become standard archaeological history; yet we should mark his own insistence that he cannot possibly be objective, that his substantial paper is but a personal perspective, and that he relies on memory, not research (which is clearly not absolutely true). I therefore enter three mild caveats.

Academia, specifically universities, hardly appears in his overview. Perhaps he genuinely scorns it, perhaps genuinely thinks universities were of little significance in British archaeology during his career. Either way this is a pity, because the story of universities and archaeology over those 50 or so years is of interest in itself, and it is a story yet to be told even if it did not impinge much on the young impresario in the field or on the increasingly machiavellian, grey eminence indoors. Yet, university academics as well as their institutions saw their role in archaeology change radically in those years, not least in relation to central government archaeology. Wainwright mentions universities only in passing, however, and only as teaching places (the exception is the network of university-based laboratories developed for archaeological science). More significantly, he misses completely a subtle but profound shift, though his own text is silent witness to the point: as university provision in archaeology increased, with more and more archaeological staff in post, so the academic world contributed less and less to the formulation of official policy, to the guidance of state-provision in British archaeology. Up until the '70s, it was assumed that academics were in general extremely knowledgeable about their subject (in a way that Civil Servants could not be) and were therefore somehow able and willing to give impartial advice to government; and they, for their part, recognising their privileged position in the public sector, gave of their time and judgements, freely and with the approval of their employers. The high point of this state of affairs in English archaeology was during the proliferation of committees in the 1970s. Wainwright's description fails to mention that most of the official ones were dominated by academics trying to help the new DoE enter the new world of public archaeology within an academic framework. That heyday came and went. Though university-based archaeologists continued to help what was soon to become English Heritage, their role in general changed to that of paid consultant, hired to do a specific job in a specific time rather than be the dispenser of altruistic (though not necessarily correct) advice.

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