On Archaeological Value

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, March 1996 | Go to article overview

On Archaeological Value


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


The present system of English resource management relies on legal protected status given to a pre-designated group of monuments. When it is replaced by an adversarial debate between social values, hosted by the planning system, archaeology will need to arm itself with a definition of 'archaeological value'. The new management system would favour research rather than monumentality as the principal asset of the heritage.

With the political changes that have occurred in Europe during the last few decades, many of the values that were previously taken for granted have been challenged, or have at least been exposed to public debate, and the values of the past are no exception. Many archaeologists who have dedicated their lives to creating or protecting the perceived permanent assets of the past, have been disturbed to be told that material culture does not offer objective evidence or that we are not objective observers (Hodder 1982; Shanks & Tilley 1987; Carver 1989). The new values implied by these theoretical positions, and by the contemporary politics which inspired them, are slowly but inevitably affecting the business of heritage management too. For much of archaeology's scientific history, the audit and control of archaeological resources has been the business of states, and decisions about the fate of an archaeological site have been the responsibility of officers of the state, guided by legislation. This of course remains largely true in Europe; but the current mood is towards deregulation of state functions towards the market-place or the forum of opinion. Decisions which would once have been taken by experts on behalf of the state are now to be taken as a result of public debate or competitive pricing. Rightly or wrongly, this is seen as a democratizing process.

Such deregulation has already penetrated the archaeological community in the United States and to some extent in Britain, where we have seen project funding, developer funding and competitive tendering in fieldwork, and the intended liberation of the national resource management programme by moving it out of a government ministry into a quasi-independent agency, English Heritage. The fate of archaeological sites is no longer the exclusive preserve of an inspector, but has come to depend on the outcome of a debate between several groups of players - developers, planners, community taxpayers, and academics. This debate is informed by, indeed reliant upon, the predictive value that each party can put on a piece of land. So the science of evaluation is born, as the basic brief with which archaeology fights its corner. It is possible, although not of course inevitable, that the value-debate will replace the state archaeological service as the method of delivering archaeological resource management in central and eastern Europe and beyond. If so, it would be worth examining some of the issues involved.

The purpose of this paper is to propose a definition of archaeological value which can serve the debate on behalf of archaeologists. Briefly, it is a definition which seeks to champion the archaeological resource primarily as a research 'asset', and suggests that it would be more appropriate to store this 'asset' in the form of deposits rather than monuments. Legislation providing protection for a pre-selected group of monuments should accordingly give way to one based on the continually negotiated 'exploitation' of deposits. There is a conflict of approaches here, but it should not be exaggerated; even if they are proposed as unsatisfactory as a sole method of storing resources, monuments obviously have a role as the shop window of the subject. The making of monuments should rather be seen as one possible outcome which may result from evaluation.

Introducing the value debate

In a seminal paper in 1984, W.D. Lipe suggested that the business of managing cultural resources in the future would emerge from different interests competing with each other, rather than a set of principles imposed from above. …

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