Archaeology in England 1999


Paul Blinkhorn and Chris Cumberpatch (Independent Consultants, UK)

Background

During the last decade, archaeology in England has undergone a number of significant changes. In 1990 archaeological intervention was established as an element in the planning process, enshrined in a non-statutory advice note Planning Policy Guidance note 16 (PPG 16). As a result, the developer was deemed liable to ensure that due consideration was given to the archaeological potential of a site, prior to its redevelopment or exploitation (Biddle 1994). This initiative led to the emergence of a system of competitive tendering and the proliferation of project-funded independent archaeological units. Some are based on units formerly funded by local authorities, while others operate from universities or museums. Many of the smaller ones are newly established ‘independents’. There are a considerable number of these organizations, with the largest employing scores of archaeologists. Some restrict themselves to geographical territories, while others will work anywhere within the United Kingdom. Some have tendered for, and won, contracts in Europe, and others have acted in at least a consultancy capacity in the Caribbean and Asia. More specialized organizations, in areas such as geophysics, have also been established. At the lowest level are individual consultants, particularly artefact analysts.

Parallel to this, the responsibilities formerly held by the government were handed over to a quasi-autonomous government agency, English Heritage, in 1984. This organisation has a wide range of responsibilities, only one of which is archaeology. Space precludes a full discussion of the role of English Heritage and details can be obtained from the organisation’s website (www.eng-h.gov.uk). From the point of view of archaeology, one critical role is the provision of a series of standards documents and guidance notes which have come to form an important part of the structure of British archaeology. These include Management of Archaeological Projects, second edition (English Heritage 1991a), better known as MAP 2, Exploring our Past (English Heritage 1991b), Frameworks for our past (Olivier 1996) and the Draft Research Agenda (English Heritage 1997).

As a result of these innovations, most field archaeology is now driven by the requirements of the construction industry, with the vast majority of projects carried out in response to the threat of destruction by building work, mining and quarrying or road construction. In practical terms the system works as follows (with minor regional and institutional variations).

The possible impact of a planning application on the archaeology of a region is monitored by archaeologists employed (mostly) by local authority planning departments to maintain a database of known archaeological remains, usually within a county, called the Sites and Monuments Records (SMR). Under PPG 16, these archaeologists can place conditions on planning applications whereby the developer must undertake to make provision to deal with any archaeology in accordance with a brief issued by the development control archaeologist. At this point, the developer requests tenders from archaeological contractors, with their final choice of contractor being made without reference to the planning authorities.

Before the work is undertaken, a written brief is issued by the development control officer specifying the extent of the work. This can range from the monitoring the development through to full excavation and publication, depending upon the perceived significance of any remains. Figure 1 below represents an attempt to summarise a typical sequence of events. To some extent this over-simplifies the situation and other arrangements, involving ongoing fieldwork in advance of progressive destruction (in advance of long-term quarrying and mining for example) are possible.

Excavation is not the only solution possible under PPG 16. So-called ‘mitigation’ strategies are sometimes employed, where buildings are constructed upon piles or rafts which, it is claimed, preserves the archaeology for future investigation. At present both of these alternatives, together with other strategies, are of unproven reliability and very little data exists to assess the effects of them on the archaeological strata.

Planning application

Brief issued by curatorial archaeologist

Response by developer: issuing of request for tenders to archaeological contractors

Evaluation excavation, survey or other archaeological response in line with brief and tender agreement

Report including assessment by relevant specialists

No further work

Report submitted to client and curatorial archaeologists with assessment of the archaeological potential

Brief for further work

Tenders for further work issued by developers in line with the brief

Excavation, survey, recording according to brief and tender agreement

Report submitted to developers and curatorial archaeologists. Deposited in County Sites and Monuments Record

Deposition of excavation archive (records, finds, site report) in local museum

Figure 1. The process.

This necessarily brief sketch of the situation perhaps conceals some of the problems which have arisen as a result of the system. Some specific areas of concern have been already discussed, both in prints and, less formally, at conferences and on the internet (eg. Biddle 1994, Chadwick 1998, in prep., Carrington 1993, Cumberpatch and Thorpe, in prep., Blinkhorn and Cumberpatch 1997, Cumberpatch and Blinkhorn 1997), as have broader criticisms of the mechanistic mode of many commercial operations and the lack of opportunities for contributions by fieldworkers and specialists (Cumberpatch and Blinkhorn 1997, Blinkhorn and Cumberpatch 1997, Challands et al. 1998). Examples of the ongoing nature of the debate can be found in the journals Rescue News, British Archaeology and the Bulletin published by the Institute of Field Archaeologists.

The Problems

The current structure, outlined above and in Table 1, attempts to offer both value for money to the developer and a degree of protection for the archaeology. However, there are a number of problems, some of which were unforeseen when PPG 16 was introduced in 1990.

Regionality

This stems from the varied nature of past human action. Hitherto, county-based units were able to build up a detailed local knowledge of the archaeology of their local areas, allowing a flexible, informed response to most situations. The advent of units working impartially across the country has tended to erode this local knowledge-base and, as a result, responses have tended to become formulaic, with a rise in situations where ignorance of local issues has led to erroneous conclusions. For example, artefactually-poor Iron Age sites in Yorkshire can appear incomprehensible to those more accustomed to working on sites of similar date in southern England, where material culture played a major role in social activity.

Cuts in the museum service

Recently, it has become clear that museums are being targeted for cost-cutting by the local authorities that fund them. Staff have been sacked, facilities reduced or closed and the functions of many museums progressively degraded. In Sheffield, for example, the local authority handed control of the local museums and galleries to an unelected, democratically unaccountable Trust who have shifted the emphasis from archaeology and human history towards the art galleries, replacing three members of staff with one. This kind of action has serious consequences as museums are not only the ‘first stop’ for amateurs and enthusiasts seeking information about the past in general and archaeology in particular, but are also the final repositories for archaeological archives – the surviving traces of sites destroyed during the process of excavation. The situation is now so critical that a number of museums are refusing to accept finds from developer-funded excavations as they do not have the time, space or staff to deal with them.

Lack of specialist archaeological knowledge amongst curators

Many archaeological curators do not have a background in either archaeological theory or fieldwork practice, nor are they able to keep abreast with the latest developments in either area. This is not due to laziness. Most have a crippling workload due to the fact that they are often seen as dispensable by the same councils that are cutting museum staff. Consequently, they are unable to afford the ‘luxury’ (in terms of time) of attending conferences which do not deal directly with anything other than planning legislation, and the implementation of it in an archaeological context. For example, the concept of the structured deposition of artefacts on Iron Age sites is now well-established, yet few curators seem aware of it and continue to set briefs where only 1 or 2% of ditches are excavated. This results in artefact assemblages which are far too small to allow identification of anything other than the very broadest chronology and preclude all meaningful insight into the social or economic practices which led to the creation of the archaeological record.

Lack of research opportunities

The institution of a contract-tender system has led to a situation where ‘research’ has become a taboo subject, primarily due to the fact that it is often seen by developers as being beyond their remit. Indeed, as Richard Morris noted (1998), at least one contracting unit advertises the fact that it will not undertake any sort of research element during excavation work. This reluctance to acknowledge the importance of research questions exists in spite of the fact that most excavations inevitably entail a research element, in that artefact and ecofact-based analysis is necessary to make sense of the results of archaeological interventions. This has led to a split between commercial archaeology and ‘pure research’ .

This situation has resulted many individual projects having a somewhat ‘unfinished’ or incomplete nature. The requirement to stick closely to a pre-defined brief, often written on the basis of a limited evaluative exercise, largely precludes the investigation of remains which were not defined in advance (Blinkhorn and Cumberpatch 1997). While the provision of contingency clauses can alleviate this situation, in practice this is rarely (in the authors’ experience) satisfactory and sites are often completed to a degree which fulfils the brief, but does little to resolve archaeological problems (Cumberpatch 1998:32, 62). In an effort to conform to an artificial model of practice dictated by the market and market forces, the essentially investigative nature of the archaeological enterprise has been overlooked, with the result that information has been lost and opportunities for the significant enhancement of knowledge have been squandered.

This is inadequate. A failure to acknowledge the fact that the complexity of the archaeological record requires a broad, research-based approach leads inevitably to a tendency to tackle only the immediate problems and a neglect of the wider implications for a town or region, which themselves can affect the prioritization of investigative options at a specific site. The context of a particular site is of critical importance at all stages of a project, from excavation to publication.

This has wider effects, particularly amongst those employed ‘at the coal-face’, who perceive that they are engaged in nothing more than a continuous damage limitation exercise. The adoption of modern management techniques, which can be said to place their main emphasis on presentation, does little to motivate staff, resulting in low morale, nihilistic attitudes and a leaking away of experienced and talented practitioners at all levels.

The situation has been compounded by the commercialization of the universities. Here, the demands of financiers and other bureaucrats has led to a reduction in the time available to students (even those who are self-funded) to complete Masters and doctoral theses. Thus, a mechanism which should support and enhance the results obtained from the excavation of threatened sites has been subverted by similar commercial pressures to those which have reduced the research effectiveness of archaeological units. Simultaneously, the demands upon university staff to take on roles better performed by business managers and bureaucrats have cut into time which should be spent engaging in research. In both cases, the opportunities for links to be made between academia and field archaeology have been curtailed, to the detriment of the understanding of the information gained by developer-funded projects.

The role of English Heritage in funding research and in setting research objectives must not be underestimated. Generally however, these initiatives are problem-orientated and essentially reactive, although a number of the initiatives set out in the recent Draft Research Agenda (English Heritage 1997) do appear to acknowledge the importance of pure research in establishing the framework for future work. The forthcoming revision of this document (to be published on the English Heritage Archaeology division website) will be of particular importance in this regard and will, no doubt, generate a debate of considerable value.

Lack of training and career development

The problems of the lack of a clear career structure, of low pay, poor accommodation and short term contracts have been widely discussed both in print and at conferences. In general terms, the lack of any sort of clear employment structure within field archaeology has effectively precluded the development of training programmes aimed at increasing the effectiveness of field technicians. Such training as there is inevitably takes place ad hoc. The contract-tender system, due mainly to the seasonality of excavation, has resulted in what are euphemistically known as ‘flexible working practices’; i.e. short-term contracts and no job security. This is perhaps the principal factor in the alienation of the majority of field staff, who see themselves considered as expendable ‘trowel fodder’ in whom investment is a wasted asset. Few unit managers can justify spending money on the training of staff who might well be laid off a week or two later. The situation is similar amongst specialists, who, it seems, are expected to spring from the void, fully formed and ready to provide a range of services without any formal training. One small sign of hope in this bleak picture has been the readiness of English Heritage to subsidize a number of training courses aimed at specific groups of specialists. While this has been of great benefit (to the authors, amongst others), it is clear that the numbers of people entering the profession with a marketable skill (ceramics, faunal analysis, environmental archaeology, metalwork etc) is falling. At present the authors know of only two ‘in house’ trainees in the field of ceramics and concern has been expressed by at least one unit manager at the dearth of specialists in key areas.

Even amongst those institutions which maintain some degree of core-funding, training budgets, along with budgets for books and journals, have been slashed. Increasingly staff are expected to attend conferences at their own expense and in their own time, including that of the Institute of Field Archaeologists, despite the fact that most organizations prefer employees to be members of the Institute. Meetings of special interest groups such as the Medieval Pottery Research Group are frequently disrupted by the absence of key committee members whose available annual leave has run out. Such groups have a key role in establishing and maintaining professional standards and so even such an apparently minor point can be seen to have significant long-term implications.

The Institute of Field Archaeologists is currently producing a set of guidelines with regard to training and career development, although how effective these will be remains to be seen. In the past, it has set recommendations for minimum pay, yet still certified organizations which did not adhere to its guidelines.

Under-funding and lack of resources

The general reduction of core funding to a variety of bodies has had important effects in precluding organizations from maintaining the kind of up-to-date approach necessary in a rapidly changing field such as archaeology. Taken together with the decline in opportunities for training (whether through formal courses or participation in conferences, day-schools etc), the decline in such resources poses a threat to the continued effectiveness of archaeological curators. This is not to blame those employed in such posts – strenuous efforts are made by some individuals to maintain an overview of ongoing professional debate. Such efforts are not well served by a situation which was only partly envisaged by those who enthusiastically embraced the contract-tender system.

The way forward

In this article we have sketched out a gloomy scenario. Without wishing to represent the situation in England as worse than it is (and we are very aware that the situation is far worse elsewhere in the world), we are motivated by a concern for the future of archaeology and for the people employed within it. Thanks to its early inception and the scale of public and private investment over the years, archaeology in England has a considerable world-wide reputation. This, we believe, is in jeopardy unless action is taken to reverse the trends which we have outlined above. This is not the place to advance a comprehensive manifesto for change, but we feel that the following points must be taken into consideration if the current situation is not to worsen dramatically in the next few years. It might be that some of these suggestions have resonance in other countries – in which case, a global movement towards the raising of standards might be considered relevant.

The following needs must be acknowledged and addressed:

The need for the improved resourcing of curatorial archaeologists – including the raising of staffing levels, the provision of in-service training, the improvement of communication with the rest of the profession and the inclusion of specialists in the formulation of regional and local research strategies.
The need to integrate specialists into the early stages of resource management, project design and implementation and thus to tackle the increasing problem of fragmentation within the discipline and the marginalisation of specialists.
The need for core funding of field units (over and above the project funding provided by developers) to permit the establishment of a regime including in-service training, a career structure and professional development. This must also marry the short-term demands of seasonal employment with the necessity to maintain a motivated, committed workforce, able to exploit the potential of archaeology in the most effective manner.
The need for a strong, unified body to represent the diversity of viewpoints within archaeology effectively and powerfully. Such a body must also be able to set standards for practice within the profession, independent of established power blocs, the development lobby and government.
The need to maintain and enhance the network of regional and national museums whose stores house the accumulated artefactual, ecofactual, documentary and other archives which constitute the archaeology of the country.

Further information

Many of the issues raised in this paper have been discussed at greater length in a variety of articles, letters and polemical pieces in archaeological periodicals. Readers wishing to follow up particular points might find the following web sites useful as starting points:

Council for British Archaeology: http://new.archaeologyuk.org/
English Heritage:
Institute of Field Archaeologists: http://www.archaeologists.net
Rescue – The British Archaeological Trust: http://web.archive.org/web/20160523085629/http://www.rescue-archaeology.freeserve.co.uk:80/

References cited

Biddle, M. 1994 What future for British Archaeology? Archaeology in Britain conference 1994 / Oxbow Lecture 1. Oxbow Books.

Blinkhorn, P.W. and Cumberpatch, C.G. 1997 The interpretation of artefacts and the tyranny of the field archaeologist. Assemblage http://www/shef/ac/uk/assem/3/3comment.html

Carrington, P. 1993 Evaluations in rescue archaeology; PPG 16 three years on. Chester Archaeological Service / Chester City Council.

Chadwick, A.M. in prep. British Archaeology at the end of the second millennium. A personal view of the state of the art.

Chadwick, A.M. 1998 Archaeology at the edge of chaos: Further towards reflexive excavation methodologies. Assemblage.

Challands, N. et al. 1998 Don’t think…Dig! Paper presented at the twentieth meeting of the Theoretical Archaeology Group, Birmingham 1998.

Cumberpatch, C.G. 1998 The pottery. In P. Carne Leazes Bowl, Durham City Archaeological Excavations 1996. Unpublished archive report. Archaeological Services, University of Durham.

Cumberpatch, C.G. and Blinkhorn, P.W. Introduction. In Cumberpatch, C.G. and Blinkhorn, P.W. (eds) Not so much a pot, more a way of life. Oxbow Monograph 83.

Cumberpatch, C.G. and Thorpe R. in prep. Some notes towards a characterisation of archaeology as a social practice.

English Heritage 1991a Management of Archaeological Projects. English Heritage, London.

English Heritage 1991b Exploring our past. English Heritage, London.

English Heritage 1997 English Heritage Archaeology Division Research Agenda (Draft). English Heritage, London.

Morris, R, 1998 Building Roads to Intellectual Nowhere. British Archaeology 36

Olivier, A. 1996 Frameworks for our past. A review of research frameworks, strategies and perceptions. English Heritage, London.