Weathering the storm

There is no corner of these islands that is not stuffed full to bursting with physical, material evidence of the people and human processes that shape our sense of place. Britain is also fortunate in having a grand and proud archaeological tradition, both voluntary and professional, and a planning system that acknowledges archaeology and heritage. Yet 2016 is shaping up to be a difficult year for archaeology in Britain. Why?

Doug’s latest blogging carnival asks us to consider ‘What are the grand challenges facing your archaeology?’. So here’s my answer.

Culture secretary John Whittingdale said recently that: “Removing places and things that have helped to give people a shared sense of history and identity helps to undermine social cohesion”. A sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. But he wasn’t talking about this country. He was launching a government-funded initiative to “protect cultural sites from the destructive forces of war and ISIL terrorists”. A worthy cause. Yet in his own backyard, history is under threat.

“Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing”

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

I’d like to add a third to Rebecca Solnit’s list: losing potential, the loss of the yet-to-be-known. I recently saw an excavation on the edge of a substantial Roman site; sadly, the bulk of it had disappeared beneath a 1960s housing estate. The builders must have been pulling out Roman pottery by the barrowload. We’ll never know what was lost. Thankfully, this sort of occurrence is rare now, but it’s back on the rise.

To explain how and why, here’s a brief background: in Britain, archaeology is dealt with in the planning system under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This is a slimmed-down replacement for the Planning Policy Guidance (1990-2010) and Planning Policy Statements (2010-2012). It means that:

  • Planning applications are checked against a database of known and suspected sites of archaeological interest. These databases are usually known as ‘Historic Environment Records’ or ‘Sites and Monuments Records’, and are held and updated by local authorities.
  • ‘Designated’ sites like listed buildings and scheduled ancient monuments have special protection, but the vast majority of sites of archaeological interest are not scheduled or listed.
  • A qualified and experienced planning archaeologist should look at the potential impact of any planning application on sites of interest. Sensible developers will often conduct exploratory works before submitting an application. The planning archaeologist should work with developer and planners to try to minimise disturbance.
  • Where disturbance is necessary, the planning archaeologist will ‘recommend’ that a condition be attached to the planning permission requiring the developer to pay for any archaeological works – the ‘polluter pays’ principle.
  • The fieldwork will be undertaken by specialist commercial units: some are private sector, some charitable trusts, some attached to local authorities or universities. Sometimes, especially on complex projects, the developer will employ a specialist archaeological consultant to advise them.

Most archaeologists in the UK work within this system, to at least some degree. Unfortunately, with some notable exceptions, the processes and discoveries are often poorly communicated to the public; we archaeologists have only ourselves to blame for this. Francis Pryor has recently written an excellent piece on the shortcomings of archaeologists’ public communication, and of the need for creative, individual thinking. Personally, I don’t believe archaeologists of my generation are any less capable of capturing public interest than those of his. The high volume of top-notch public outreach coming from early career researchers in British universities is testament to this.

However, I do believe that one of the drawbacks of the developer-funded system is that it has led to the belief that we can exist in a bubble, and don’t have to rely on public support: the planning applications will keep coming, and the work will flow. This is dangerously narcissistic, and the foundation of its core belief – that the planning system will rumble on unchanged, and continue tipping its hat to archaeology – is now looking decidedly shaky.

Planning-led archaeology has generated a staggering amount of archaeological research over the last 26 years, summarised in this recent Historic England document. Other fantastic projects like the Rural Settlement of Roman Britain have used the resulting data to transform our understanding of our history. Every archaeologist will tell you that the system has many flaws. Controversies over Old Oswestry Hillfort are a prime example. But broadly speaking, the principle is sound: knowledgeable, passionate people are supposed act as guardians of their local heritage.

pit alignment

Iron Age pit alignment investigated during developer-funded evaluation, Worcestershire, 2014

Increasingly, though, that’s under threat. In some parts of England, as a result of Local Authority funding cuts, there’s no archaeological advice being given to councils. 2016 has brought more cuts, more consultations – Lancashire and Norfolk face the axe. Our region has lost more than half its local authority archaeologists. Restructure follows restructure. Here’s what that means: in the last couple of years our service alone has lost over 100 years worth of experience, passion and expertise in the history and archaeology of our county. A voluntary redundancy here, posts deleted… This is how it happens, not with a bang – most councils are fearful of the reputational damage that follows a wholesale axing of services (although that is precisely what is on the cards in Lancashire) – but with a grim, inexorable slide. Withering through neglect.

Of course, services should be efficiently run, and provide good value for money. Yet these are services that tend to punch well above their cost in terms of generating revenue for their councils and ploughing money back into the local economy. Not even the most optimistic councillor could imagine that cutting an archaeology service will solve the shortfall in adult social care; the gain is miniscule but the loss has far-reaching consequences for those who value their local heritage.

There’s sometimes a perception among hard-bitten commercial archaeologists that local authority archaeologists have it easy. Public sector, they say. Easy money, good pension, job for life. They sneer, at a perceived lack of grit. “Half of them wouldn’t know an Iron Age pit if they fell down one”, grumble grumble. I know. I’ve been on that side of the fence. At times, I might have done some grumbling. But it’s unhelpful. Without these people working furiously to take a stand and fight for archaeology’s role in an indifferent planning system, commercial archaeology wouldn’t exist. It affects everybody – if there’s no-one to scrutinise that planning application with a seasoned eye, there’s no resulting excavation or building recording, no work for anyone and, more to the point, a site or building is lost forever under the tracks of a bulldozer.

And this is happening. Right now. In Britain, archaeological sites are being destroyed without record because there’s no-one left to scrutinise applications, or those that remain are too hard-pressed to check that council planning departments are heeding their recommendations. No-one has clear figures yet, and it will take a while for the effect of cuts to be felt: the planning system can move at glacial pace. But we face an unjust imbalance, in which innovative services with sympathetic, forward-thinking managers are able, as we have been, to weather the storm, bruised but still in the ring (thus far), whereas others less lucky are gutted or disbanded, leaving councils unable to fulfil their statutory obligations to safeguard our heritage.

Frankly, I don’t care who owns/runs local archaeology services. Charitable trusts, arms-length joint service groups, councils themselves… If it’s a sensible, sustainable non-profit model, then I don’t much care what it’s called. What’s important is having skilled, experienced archaeologists with local knowledge and passion. The government have recently funded experiments in ‘big data’ modelling, predictive algorithms – who needs a planning archaeologist when we can solve it all with software? Well, it’s the human elements that matter – the subtleties and nuances. Two gravel terraces beside a river: to a developer’s eye, they look the same, but one is littered with prehistoric settlement, the other not. It’s a feeling you get for a landscape. It’s what those years of experience are for. Stick that in your algorithm and smoke it.

I’m pleased that John Whittingdale recognises that neglecting heritage undermines social cohesion, but would encourage him to apply that maxim closer to home; a medieval mill or Bronze Age farm may not have the visual appeal of Palmyra, but all have a role in the construction and negotiation of our identities, in our sense of place, and in our appreciation of the scale of human achievement.

What can you do? For starters, get involved. Use your local services. Find out more about the place you call home. And if you’re worried about what’s going on, take a look at the CBA’s Local Heritage Engagement Network. They can help. But if we are to weather the storm, archaeology needs our support.

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4 thoughts on “Weathering the storm

  1. Pingback: What do we, archaeologists, see as our grand challenges | Doug's Archaeology

    • Haha, no, I completely agree with you! I concur that we need to “put a little imagination, a little poetry, back into archaeological communication”, as you say. I also agree that we’ve lost the skill of public communication. For years we’ve been encouraged to bury our imagination under spoilheaps of jargon written for grey lit that ‘nobody will read’. I think many of my generation have become lazy, and lost sight of who we’re really supposed to be doing this for. If we don’t pull our socks up, developer-funded archaeology risks being a footnote in planning history. But I am encouraged by the many I see doing it well – Must Farm, for example, where the publicity has brought the human element of the site alive to millions.

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