Editorial

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


* In these times of economic unrest, archaeology needs to decide whether it is a public service, has something to sell or is just an inspiring pastime. While the latter is always true, it's not particularly relevant in the context of maintaining an income. As for the first two, silver-tongued advocacy has employed professional archaeologists as never before, caring for earthworks and old buildings--the conservation sector--and recording everything that is going to be destroyed--the mitigation sector. For most of us, that is as it should be--the case for valuing some of the material past is unanswerable: we do it for the unborn. As with tigers, whales and other endangered animals, we just know we want our children to see them. We are less bothered by endangered mosquitoes--and thereby hangs a tail.

Do politicians, of any colour, agree that we are necessary? I imagined taking one of them, a Mr Fiscal Firebrand, on a little tour, just to hear what he thinks really matters, what needs investment, what could do with some fresh air. First stop Stonehenge, where we were in complete harmony; no disagreement that Stonehenge should be cherished (and that it needs a visitor centre). Harmony too at the towers and walls that provide such a spectacular vista down to the sea at Visby, on Gotland, where this year's Scandinavian Ruins Conference took place. These town walls are not really ruins, but big and coherent things, where children play and traffic passes in and out. Inside Visby are some 19 medieval churches, many in ruins, and the conference took the view that these were all 'heritage' and deserved to be conserved, just as they are, in fossilised authenticity. The imaginative (and successful) attempt of the community to make the roofless church of St Nicholas into a concert hall for hardy audiences attracted criticism from purists: its historic dignity was being distressed by percussive music and purple strobe lighting. This is nonsense of course; buildings like to be used. And beware: for some, including my friend Fiscal, 19 historic churches is 18 too many. If they haven't already, the state agencies will soon feel an icy wind from the south, where every assumption is to be questioned. No ruin gets a free lunch: a castle must earn its keep.

* If the conservation industry is being asked to audit itself with unprecedented severity, the mitigation business feels itself in an even more precarious position, as proclaimed in Archaeology and the global economic crisis (1). This publication may be read by an archaeologist as a feisty bid for survival in hard times--but risks being regarded by my Mr Firebrand as an own-goal. Our source of income is drying up because development has slumped, it says, so we need the state to step in and pay us anyway, otherwise we might lose our skills. That's like the league of embalmers complaining there aren't enough dead people. It might have been easier to make the case that mitigation archaeology in Britain is really a public service, if it hadn't already been commandeered by companies operating like giant businesses at national and international level. The document also makes some questionable claims about the high standards of mitigation fieldwork, which in practice is too often rushed, messy and perfunctory; and some snooty comments about supposedly unproductive 'cottage industry researchers'. Nevertheless, Nathan Schlanger, aided by an impressive metaphorical menagerie of guineapigs, Trojan horses, red herrings and canaries, paints a picture of a lively and articulate workforce ready for new adventures in new lands (2). And perhaps that's a key to the future.

* Looking for reasons to support our business, I might present Mr Firebrand with a copy of the new international journal The Historic Environment Policy and Practice. (3) It was not a bad idea to decide that history has an 'environment', so that its conservation can attract the kind of sentiment we give to tigers and whales. …

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