People and Place: Don Henson Explains the Importance of Archaeology in Today's Social and Political Environment. (Today's History)

By Henson, Don | History Today, December 2001 | Go to article overview

People and Place: Don Henson Explains the Importance of Archaeology in Today's Social and Political Environment. (Today's History)


Henson, Don, History Today


REMAINS OF THE PAST are all around us; we connect with recent times through the passage of our own lives, our parents and grand-parents; the past is constantly used as a reference point by politicians and others; and it is also a fascinating other world that many wish to explore. Yet, we also live at a time when the past seems to be under threat from the headlong rush towards a modern future. Those who study it past need to restate its importance for future generations.

Fortunately, we have powerful allies who wish us well: the public. Enthusiasm for the past is unabated. Direct involvement in history or archaeology through researching family or local history, through membership of local societies, through the CBA's Young Archaeologists' Club or through attendance at evening classes, day schools and summer schools testifies to this. Television programmes like Time Team, Meet the Ancestors, Journeys to the Bottom of the Sea or Talking Landscapes regularly attract audiences of more than 3 million. The highly publicised programme Son of God attracted over 6 million for its first episode. A poll carried out last year revealed that 98 per cent of people thought that `heritage was important for teaching children about the past, while 85 per cent of people thought heritage played a valuable role in the life of the country. Politicians would sell their souls for support like that!

As Sir Mortimer Wheeler noted in 1954, `the archaeological excavator is not digging up things, he is digging up people'. Modern archaeologists seek to understand human behaviour, how it varies from place to place and how it changes over time. If we rephrase archaeology as the study of people and place in the past, we can make an important statement about its contribution to the present. The political agenda of the twenty-first century has come to be articulated through the idea of quality of life, encompassing such matters as social inclusion, environmental protection and sustainable development; all fundamentally matters of people and place in the present and future. Archaeology has therefore a great deal of relevance for today's society as a mediator between past and present or future. The political drive to modernise is always taken with one eye looking backwards. Just as the future of archaeology lies with the public, so the future of the public partly lies with the past.

Archaeology's greatest value lies both in its understanding of the past and in its practice as a discipline that can involve people directly in its investigation. Both can contribute towards the improvement of people's quality of life through social inclusion, protecting the environment and sustainability. Examples of how it can do so are listed opposite.

A growing number of archaeologists are becoming involved in the life of local communities through regeneration projects and educational activities. Local societies have long involved people in the active investigation of their own locality. They have now been joined by professional archaeologists engaging in a dialogue with the people they serve, making their findings more accessible, their work more visible and opening their doors to volunteers, students and young people. The work of the Young Archaeologists' Club in introducing archaeology to its 3,000 members in its network of nearly seventy local branches is supplemented by the 150 sites taking part in the CBA's National Archaeology Days every July, and out-reach and education officers who take archaeology into schools and the community. Over one thousand part-time courses for adults are available along with GCSE, AS and A level archaeology, and part-time certificate and diploma courses to provide opportunities for lifelong learning. The Portable Antiquities Scheme is now reaching out to the numerous metal detector users who gain pleasure from their search for the remains of the past, and who contribute so much to our knowledge of particular periods by recording their finds. …

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