Carver, Martin, Antiquity
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an archaeologist in possession of a research idea must be in need of a large sum of money. Ideas that win such grants are intended to support rather more than a wife and a mother-in-law: a veritable posse of new employees is acquired by the home university as well as kudos and ranking. As the research councils see it, cash makes knowledge; the more adventurous the idea, the larger the sum required to achieve the breakthrough. Thus national and international competitions are staged to attract applications from all and sundry and award the most 'sexy' with sums that would once have been thought unreal. This process is one of the more addictive in our time. Writers, sculptors and talent show competitors are made or broken by these random encounters with obscene amounts of surplus cash--so why not archaeologists?
It was not always like this. Archaeological projects used to grow like gardens, adding value now and then in the form of unexpected finds or the gradual dawn of a new paradigm. That was when we were empiricists, and exploring the past was a compulsion rather than an earner. Emeritus Professor Harumpher, now retired to the country, likes to boast that he has never received a grant for anything at all. That never stopped him from carrying out over 30 excavations, which he is now getting down to publishing in between telephone calls to nieces and long walks with the dog. His excavations were staffed by volunteers and students, whose principal asset was loyalty, and whose reward was the excitement of taking part, supplemented by the occasional sandwich. "In all the life-enhancing activity of humans, the amateur excels over the professional" that is another of his favourite sayings--though not of course applicable to his own 36 years of teaching.
If archaeological research needs fieldwork, then it has certainly got more expensive. It has also got more disciplined, more productive, more credible and more rewarding--more professional in fact. We can see more, and know more, thanks to precision digging, a battery of new onsite techniques and a willingness to match the area opened to the question posed. But the new field research is programmed through design, itself fed by evaluation where an idea is first tested against the terrain and the resources available. A field project can thus be initiated by quite modest sums, and becomes eligible for implementation at professional level, with consequent costs, only when the design has been completed and preferably reviewed through public exposure in advance of its implementation.
This procedure does not fit too well with the process of awarding research grants, which rarely allows a phase of prior evaluation; on the contrary, many of the councils seeking sexiness won't give grants to a project that has already started, or to study the results of one that remains unpublished. Thus when a million euros are offered to do a dig, they are often offered blind. Most applicants have understood this, so avoid including excavation, archaeology's prime research instrument, in their package. If started, it's ineligible, if not started, it's too risky. This is not at all satisfactory, but it is up to us to educate the research councils. Ground-breaking archaeology nearly always requires us to break ground; and this delving in the earth always needs a pilot study to determine the size of the excavation, the methods to be employed and ipso facto, the cost. Moreover, the wealth of new knowledge is not necessarily related to the size of the grant. Universities might like the award to be as large as possible, but the researcher is looking for funds to match the objective, not a massive windfall destined to submerge her/him in administration. Big questions can be addressed with small sums, and there are thousands of new ideas out there, sprouting in unexpected places. This is the academic reality. Meanwhile the economic and political reality is that persons of every walk of life shall compete for a government bonanza, whatever the subject, whatever the purpose, whatever the outcome, provided it has the 'wow factor'. …