Last Orders?

By Baker, David; Morris, Richard | Antiquity, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Last Orders?

Baker, David, Morris, Richard, Antiquity

Professor Geoffrey Wainwright's perspective on the last half-century of British archaeology (`Time please', ANTIQUITY 74 (2000): 909-43 -- below TP) was an explicitly personal account of a remarkable series of developments in which he played an influential part. This equally personal comment reflects mainly on the world of archaeology's collision with market forces.

The world of archaeology

The world of archaeology's `intensely tribal love of gatherings, feastings and vendettas' is both a strength and an Achilles' heel. Until the 1980s, economic irrelevance allowed the discipline to develop internal philosophies, methodologies and practices which were largely unconditioned by either external paymasters or wider social obligations. Perhaps no bad thing in itself, this had a downside in weak structural and intellectual contact with the rest of humanity.

A classic example was the abortive attempt to create a regional structure of field archaeology units in the 1970s. TP over-estimates the influence of archaeologists on its outcome, even to the extent of assuming that one of us engineered its collapse. The reality was messier, and more prosaic.

The Department of the Environment's proposal was not preceded by consultation with the Association of County Councils (ACC) about what naively amounted to central direction of how locally-raised taxes should be spent, and an assumption that local authorities would cheerfully fund something which would often be based and working outside their own borders. The ACC sought advice from the newly-founded Association of County Archaeological Officers (ACAO) which found itself trying to limit damage while persuading puzzled ACC lawyers that good men had made the proposals in good faith in an entirely worthy cause. ACAO opposed the regional proposal, not to safeguard local positions but because it was impracticable. The interests of research and the span to achieve critical organizational mass did indeed point temptingly towards regional arrangements, but these would neither have served, nor have been served by, a local government system with responsibilities in planning, museums and education at county or district level. Today, with regional government back on the political agenda, it is timely to remember this.

The sixteenth PPG -- Planning and Archaeology (PPG-16)

TP rightly celebrates the genesis of PPG-16, which successfully integrated a mechanism for archaeological conservation into development control and planning policy, but does not face up to its inherent limitations. PPG-16 is not a strategic blueprint for a knowledge-based activity, and nor should it be; in those terms it is tactical, an environmental land-use planning document for managing threats to the material inheritance. It is not designed to provide wider access to results through the social purposes of research, education, tourism or community interest. In the absence of parallel provision for such access, economic forces to which archaeology is secondary have sapped the discipline's primary strength as a knowledge-based activity, while doing nothing to improve what TP acknowledges as a poor record in non-academic communication.

The plight of Sites and Monuments Records (SMRs) illustrates the point. The pioneering Oxfordshire system created by Don Benson in the mid 1960s was based in a County Museum service, and sought to inform the good folk of Oxfordshire as much as land-use planning. Yet as SMRs spread with the steady appointment of County (and later District) archaeologists, mostly in planning departments, increasing pressures and reducing resources made wider dissemination of information holdings almost impossible without an institutional framework, such as a museum, dedicated to such activities. An assessment of English SMRs in 1998-99 showed that most were run by one person; that usage was mainly internal, planning-related and largely disconnected from the wider social uses which politically justified the planning constraint in the first place. …

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