Counting newts and toppling brutes

With much fanfare and a new fatuous 3-word slogan, Boris Johnson announced yesterday… well, very little of substance. Except maybe that the £12 billion funding for housing announced in the budget earlier this year would be stretched over 8 years rather than 5. In case your head is still spinning with the circular brilliance of ‘build build build’, like the figures in an Escher drawing trying to work out how one stops the country and gets off, he also talked about newts. Specifically, he promised that:

“this government will shortly bring forward the most radical reforms to our planning system since the end of the second world war… time is money, and the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country” Boris Johnson, 30/06/2020

Unfortunately, as people were quick to point out, it’s not regulation that slows down house building. In 2017-18, planning permission was granted for 382,997 homes, well in excess of the government’s target of 300,000 homes a year. But developers aren’t building them. There’s a comprehensive 2018 report by Sir Oliver Letwin setting out exactly where the issues lie. But Johnson is ripping that up, possibly because it was commissioned by that notoriously partisan body, the… er, Conservative Government.

So why tear up the rulebook? It’s about whose heritage you value. In the same speech, he also said:

“I don’t believe in tearing people down any more than I believe in tearing down statues that are part of our heritage” Boris Johnson, 30/06/2020

In defending statues and trashing environmental protections, the government’s message is clear: whose heritage matters? Not yours.

The cold edifice of a man who inherited a fortune and bloated it further through the traffic in human lives? Heritage.

The wildflower meadows your grandparents played in? The Roman town whose walls hold the stories of the people who came from across the empire to live, love, and work there? The shop your parents set up; the street you were born on; the dock where your husband’s family first set eyes upon this country? Nah. Bulldoze them. Sweep them away for a cluster of naff executive homes, ready to lie empty as their cheap mortar crumbles because no-one can afford to buy them. Call them Roman Way or Windrush Close, the last faint echoes on the breeze. And who knows, maybe someday a child will dig up a few scattered Roman potsherds and wonder what stood before. Maybe a grandson will stand before a locked gate and peer through the railings, straining for a glimpse of a dock basin before the security guard hustles him along.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot said that “any historical narrative is a bundle of silences”. Whose story gets told? Whose story does not?

“History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.” Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995)

Take a look at the statue of Rhodes. Of Colston. Ask yourself, who do these statues represent? Is it you?

Many of you who value the heritage and environmental protections of our existing planning system will also abhor the removal of statues. I’ve written before about statues: how they become a flashpoint, a comfortable symbol to defend because they insulate us from darker and less comfortable contradictions buried in our own local and family histories. But, after all, Colston was Grade 2 listed. If I care about heritage protection, should I not deplore his sudden immersion? No. Heritage is not fossilisation: places are for people. But where will it end, you might ask? It ends when everyone’s stories are told. It ends when the silences in our historical narratives are broken by the voices of people we have marginalised and othered for too long. It ends when we understand how power is distributed unequally. It ends when we expose its roots.

Pencil sketch of Gloucester Docks

Field sketch of Gloucester Docks.

This is Gloucester docks: stunning industrial heritage, and a great example of the collision of heritage, planning, and inequality. They are now a thriving and desirable mix of apartments and commercial development. Their survival and regeneration owes much to the warehouses’ status as listed buildings. But the docks owe their 19th century prosperity to the investment of Samuel Baker and Thomas Philpotts, whose profits came from the backs of slaves; they received £4283 in 1834 (equivalent to £561,000 in today’s prices), in compensation for the freedom of 240 slaves upon abolition. The docks stand as a monument to the tangled, pervasive web of racial inequality, and tell that story in a far more powerful and nuanced fashion than a lump of Bronze on a tall plinth ever could. Baker later went on to purchase Thorngove House, near Grimley. I cycled past it last night, oblivious to that link. I never knew. The roots run deep and wide.

Heritage and environmental regulations are not perfect; there’s room for improvement. But they do put some of the power in the hands of those who would champion the small but valuable corners of our country: the distinctive, the local. The places and the stories that matter to people. The untold stories. They are a brake on the excesses of unchecked profiteering. They are a mechanism through which we are able to fill the gaps, to add voices, to ensure the histories of the extraordinary everyday are told and re-evaluated with each new discovery.

Black Lives Matter. Heritage matters. These are not contradictory statements. It’s the same fight. The same argument for value, respect, and representation. The cold dead stare of a statue and the cold hard cash of unregulated development are two sides of the same coin: they are marks of power, and a signal that, left to its own devices, power cares nothing for people, and nothing for place. Interrogate that power. Hold it to account, for the sake of all whose lives are held in its grip.


At this time of year, I’d usually be at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference, getting my annual dose of theory. But this year I can’t make it, due to parenting commitments. I’m sorry to miss it, as it sounds like there have been some brilliant sessions. But I’m following from afar, and reflecting on a funny old year. In the Spring I finally got my knee put back together. As a finds archaeologist it amuses me that my left leg is now partly ceramic! I’ve had some time off, seen many good colleagues made redundant, and gone back to work part-time.

And last month I got a few more letters after my name: MCIfA. Member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists. I should be delighted. I am, in a way. It’s nice to be recognised by one’s peers, and I put a lot of work into the application. But it comes with a sense of responsibility, too.

It took a lot of work: collate a portfolio; compile a list of over 200 examples of my reports, papers, lectures, and resources; draw up a statement of competence; and update all my professional development records and plans. But I got it done. Almost immediately, I fell into a complete panic. I went through the CIfA yearbook. I looked at all the MCIfAs. Surely I didn’t belong in their company? And I saw all the people I respect and admire who aren’t at that grade. If they weren’t, what right did I have to presume that I belonged? I almost convinced myself that they would reject me, that I should apologise and withdraw my application.

They didn’t reject me. And it is satisfying that a group of people, who don’t know me, took a look at my work and thought I’d earned those letters.

But professionally, archaeological institutions have been mired in controversy lately. Earlier this year, ripples from across the Atlantic were widely discussed in UK archaeological circles. The Society for American Archaeology badly mishandled a situation in which an archaeologist banned from his university for sexual misconduct was permitted to attend their conference. And then, on this side of the pond, came a weekend in which members of the Society of Antiquaries voted against the ejection of a convicted abuser, and a young researcher received an award for her work on sexual harrassment to a soundtrack of laughter from the audience.

Given that our whole discipline is devoted to recognising change in patterns of human behaviour, we’re remarkably myopic when it comes to ourselves. I’ve seen a good many comment pieces on the working life of an archaeologist, but in truth no-one has hit the nail on the head for the British/Irish workforce quite so well as Stuart Rathbone in this article. It rang painfully true, and still does. Many great people, brilliant in many respects but curiously inept in others. Low rates of union membership and employees with little collective bargaining power. And a set of working conditions that bakes-in poor health and precarity, within which abuse can thrive.

It’s not just in commercial archaeology: museums, planning departments, HERs — anywhere you’ll find archaeologists you’ll find a maze of temporary posts, staff ‘acting-up’, recruitment freezes, overwork, and poor pay. There’s a perception among many of my generation that things are, at least, substantially better than they were 30 years ago. That may be true for some. But for the striking MOLA archaeologists, pay in real terms is 30% less than it was in 1989. In my own local authority, pay across most grades has fallen below 1989 levels once you account for inflation. And that’s before you even factor in the cost of housing, which has leapt by 69% above the rate of inflation in that period.

These situations create the spaces in which the rotten fruit can poison the barrel. Power inequalities and precarity lead to chronic under-reporting of abusive behaviour. If your contracts are measured in weeks, you don’t want to rock the boat. Perpetrators of abuse can move freely between organisations without much scrutiny. Academia was once the promised land, to which one might hope to escape to the promise of a healthy salary and a degree of permanence. But, as the striking university staff of the UCU can testify, conditions for the majority of the peripatetic early career academics who carry so much of the universities’ teaching load are every bit as hand-to-mouth as the rest of the sector.

It gladdens my heart to see many organisations investing in staff. There’s a new breed of small, dynamic outfits who recognise that the work they do can only ever be as good as the people they employ to do it; a workforce of archaeologists with security, stability and professional development will move mountains. But too many still view staff as at best a commodity, and at worst an expensive liability.

It feels, in short, like the time is ripe for a new generation to step up and lead. But to be brutally honest, it’s hard work just keeping afloat. Many of my generation of archaeologists have exerted so much just to tread water that the prospect of a battle for the soul of the profession is daunting. I don’t honestly know how long I can afford to stick around, especially with the prospect of workers’ rights joining the bonfire of the environmental protection regulations which underpin much of today’s archaeology sector. There seems little doubt that the government will pursue economic growth through a feast of deregulation. A rising tide raises all ships, the doctrine goes. But as I skirt the floodwaters of the River Severn on my way to work, it’s not much help if you’re holed below the waterline.

Swans on the swollen Severn

Swans on the swollen Severn

But while I’m here, and now I have those letters after my name, I’ve got a responsibility to do what I can to set the tone and set the course for those that come after. There are many who view organisations like CIfA as too compromised, and will not join. That’s a position I respect. But my view is that the culture of an organisation is set by its membership, and if change is to take root, it has to be championed from within.

Join your union. And if you’re one of those people to whom I look up, and you’ve been putting off your CIfA paperwork, dust it off over Christmas. I don’t know how much longer any of us have got in this game, but while we’re here, let’s look out for each other.