Carver, Martin, Antiquity
* The archaeology profession, not yet half a century old, has had plenty of ups and downs. Is it now facing an abyss? Maybe it is time to reconsider how we ply our trade--whether what we do should be a function of the state, the university or the market place. Kenny Aitchison's 'Archaeology and the global financial crisis,' published online in this issue (1), is essential reading--especially for the many archaeologists currently earning a living in commercial companies. The industry they belong to--a consequence of using the private sector to rescue archaeological data through the planning system--largely shares its feeding grounds with the building business. Recently, times have been good. In 2004 developers in Britain paid archaeologists round about 144m [pounds sterling] to investigate land in advance of construction. By 2007 there was one archaeologist for every 8750 people in the UK compared with 1 in 46 700 in Germany and a remarkable 1 in 2340 in Ireland. But by the end of 2008 incomes and jobs were on the way down in the UK as in Ireland and Japan. Aitchison describes how the UK industry coped with previous downturns in the 1980s and 1990s, often achieving salvation through large government-funded infrastructure projects--and this may happen again. But we must wonder if this economic roller-coaster, which loses our subject many talented people and jeopardises its rigorous procedures, is also skewing the past. Each generation prides itself in getting by, and in this one, as Aitchison advises, 'individual archaeologists will have to adopt an entrepreneurial attitude to ensure that they are as employable as possible'. Clearly so, but what of the archaeology itself--are our methods of investigation sufficiently robust and self-monitoring to cope with a capricious market in which value does not translate seamlessly into price? Do we want feistier enterprise or more public ownership?
Countries which view the archaeological process as a public service managed by the State can be forgiven a certain smugness at this point--employment and quality control are no doubt safe in their hands. The French state-based Inrap (Institut national de recherches archeologiques preventives) which draws a statutory income from developers, matches costs to tasks rather than to what the market will bear. Here funding is not the major difficulty, but government caps on employment which generate delays, irritating both developers and politicians. Recent attempts to curb these delays by amending the law do not bode well for heritage protection, let alone the respect of national and international legislation. All the same, there are advantages in centralisation. The January Inrap newsletter announced the evaluation phases of the 100km Seine-North Europe canal, which affects an area of 2000 hectares. Together with the follow-up investigations these are expected to comprise 'an ambitious programme for numerous archaeologists who will be mobilised on sites up to 2011'. Echoing Kenny Altchison, our correspondent Nathan Schlanger writes 'it is hoped that archaeologists will be recruited for this purpose, rather than drained away from other regions and projects where they are just as much needed'.
* Late in 2008 British universities were also reminded that they are creatures of the state when the results of the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) were announced. A panel of peer-reviewers read four selected publications from each member of staff produced during the review period. These were given marks, from 4 (internationally excellent) to 1 (not very interesting), and the scores averaged over the department as a whole. The result was a 'profile', i.e. the percentages of 4, 3, 2 and 1 achieved, and the profiles allowed the archaeology departments in the UK (there were 22 assessed) to be put into an order. Durham came top and good luck to them, with Reading as runner up and good luck to them too. …