Public Awareness and Archaeology: A Task for the Voluntary Sector

Article excerpt

Volunteer associations in the field of heritage conservation, and particularly their international platform, the European Forum of Heritage Association, must concentrate on communicating with the general public, to heighten public awareness of the value of the archaeological heritage and the risks of its extinction, more than they have done so far. I will argue for a reinforcement of this lobbyist side of our programme with the help of a number of arguments.

First of all, the economic and political order in Europe is changing rapidly. This will without doubt have an impact on the landscape and, in particular, on that portion of the cultural heritage that still lies in the ground. How great will that impact be and what can we do to prevent irreparable damage?

Secondly, at this very moment new national and international legislation is being drafted which proposes entirely new ways of heritage management. Archaeological volunteers have a role to play in the public and parliamentary debates that will take place everywhere in the course of the next few years.

Thirdly, archaeology itself is rapidly changing. Instead of the traditional preoccupation with objects, sites, and isolated monuments, we now see archaeological research moving towards an integrated approach to the material past, which explicitly includes spatial contexts. It is the spatial relationship between artefacts and the environment, between, within and outside sites, that is a growing concern of archaeologists. Survey, research, heritage management, preservation and education will therefore focus more and more on these complex relationships and with wider perspectives than on isolated objects, sites and monuments. The success of such integrated approaches to history and preservation depends very much on the public awareness of the values involved.

I shall draw some parallels with the environmental lobby - the 'Green' movement. Legislation is one thing, but public support, which is essential for parliamentary approval and effective implementation of the laws, is something else.

Finally, I will try to explain in some detail the new perspectives for European cultural heritage management, which in my view call for instant action on the part of the volunteer world - not because the new European Convention constitutes a threat to the heritage, but because it will need wide support, public control and continuous feedback, at least from that segment of society which is most closely involved with the heritage: the volunteer movement.

The background to my comments is particular. In trying to convince some major Dutch archaeological volunteer associations to join the Forum, I had no clear answer to their direct question: what use is the Forum to us? It is my belief that unified action by archaeological associations directed at the political side of European cultural heritage is necessitated by external factors, such as the continuing destruction of the heritage and the imminent new legislations. At the same time actions of this kind can have significant positive effects on the internal quality of the various archaeological associations, since discussion and co-ordinated action form a source of inspiration and intellectual stimulation that will benefit all their members.

The present situation in Europe

When one era has ended but the next has not yet begun, to paraphrase the words of the famous Dutch historian Huyzinga, the future appears pregnant with exciting possibilities, but also with darkness. European archaeology in the 1990s may well be one such case.

We must all be aware that Europe is in a state of economic, political and cultural upheaval. We must also be convinced, I hope, that in the old world, which we see increasingly burdened by population, industrial development and environmental pressure, the attitude of society towards the common cultural heritage will be one of conflict. We may have to contemplate the wholesale destruction of landscapes in central and eastern Europe in the name of economic revival, and to witness the dismembering of large rural areas in western Europe in order to pave the way for such torch-bearers of progress as international high-speed train networks and new underground megasystems for the transport of oil, gas, traffic and telecommunications. …