Image Credit : Markus Milligan
‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce’ – Karl Marx
The human species is still very young, yet we have expanded to every corner of the earth like a chemical reaction. It’s the human big bang; we have made small steps and giant leaps, only to be confronted with the same issues, presented as innovative and new, a ‘new economic downturn’. We as a modern world tend to dress up age-old issues in the finery of modern understanding. Archaeology traces this evolution; it is up to the modern world to give it relevance.
Archaeology in Britain is perched on the edge of a dark future, while it fights so hard to remember our past. Periodically, spending cuts land blow upon blow to archaeology and heritage management in Britain. Some universities are just beginning to tentatively cut archaeology from their teaching prospectus. It will only get worse.
Rising fees and the slimming down of the archaeological canon are raising concerns. It’s seen by authorities as an area of study with no clear directive, and no tangible results that are applicable to finance, or to the rose tinted view of progress. It is seen as expendable and of no true consequence. Archaeology is now seen by some aspiring students as an unsafe choice to take, however one gauges passion. Instead they are now tending towards safer, more secure options that will at least bear the slim promise of a career. The study of life is ironically compounded by the worry of the continuance of it.
Yet we must remember nobody escapes this life alive. Archaeology ensures that the narrative of human history, all of its lessons, all of its woes and wares, are kept within our consciousness. Past people deserve to be remembered, because we like to think that we do too. We cannot predict the future, but we can use the past to prepare for whatever it may bring. Archaeology ensures that tomorrow is better prepared to stare down today. We base our entire evolution on learning from what happened before, on rectifying mistakes. Archaeology holds the hope that maybe one day; mistakes will be a thing of the past.
In recent years, the protection of heritage has slowly yet unavoidably slid down the priorities list of national government. As a consequence, local government has also been forced to attempt to broach the flow of economic strain, and has left many monuments unprotected, yet Cultural Tourism in Britain equates to roughly £38 billion a year. English Heritage, the National Trust etc are all playing whatever role they can, but they are pushing against ever larger tides. This trend will continue. It will give rise to louder voices being spoken out against archaeology and all of its modes of subsequent protection. These physical embodiments of the past are in danger of being lost to the neglect of short-sightedness.
Heritage cannot be redeemed, it cannot be re-spawned. Once the damage has been done, the damage will be irrevocable and permanent. To many it may just be a lump of stones in a soggy old field, but it’s our lump of soggy stones. It belongs to tomorrow.
Yet still construction and expansion plans of the use of heritage sites in Britain are being drawn and re-drawn. The great Neolithic monument of Stonehenge, arguably Britain’s most famous megalith, is finally being ensured for future generations. Construction is now under way to further turn it into a viable tourist site, without compromising the integrity of the monument. This is a great step forward, as it shows although the wheels turn slowly, they do turn. Projects are in place all over the country, leading to believe that where there is the encroachment of darkness, there are always beams of light.
The development led-archaeological level is hit extremely hard too; thousands of archaeologists live on the flint-edge, wondering if their jobs will be there tomorrow, or next week. In this harsh and bitter economic ice age, archaeologists are hanging up their trowels for pastures new. Of course there are always jobs to be had; it’s just the slog to jostle a position at the archaeological table. This is a major blow for, specifically, pre-historic sites where no literary evidence exists. This period of our history is steeped in erudition and a pivotal shift in our cultural evolution, and we rely on archaeology to shed light on it. Pre-history is in danger of being drowned out by the more colorful and more bombastic visual archaeology that is provided by its Roman and Medieval counterparts. There is far more scope in pre-history, as this is where an identity Britain can be proud of may emerge.
The death of Time Team on British screens is a blow to the heritage sector. However, the show sparked a wealth of interest that is vital to the continuation of discovery. Archaeology is not a static discipline, like any other science it’s purely driven by passion. It’s this passion that even under economic pressures, the trudgery of excavation continues all over the country, yielding great results. From the Mesolithic to the Medieval, Britain’s heritage is being uncovered and documented.
The entire world is feeling some form of hardship, yet on each inhabited space of our ever shrinking planet, there are people who deem the past worthy enough of their present. In community archaeology lays the answer. The enthusiasm and sheer interest is infectious, and visible to all but the echelons which could deem it worthy of further protection. Community archaeology has long been waiting in the wings. It has grown over the course of the evolution of archaeology itself, and has provided legion upon legion of ardent archaeological survivalists. Local community groups are being started all over the country in earnest. People no longer think of archaeology as complicated by its language. Knowledge of the past is not purely of benefit only to those specially trained in its use, but at belonging to everybody.
Community involvement is something thousands work tirelessly for. The casual day trips to see a castle or an historical festival are still mainstays of British societies, although a dwindling one. When there is an historical event anniversary, people will still heed the call of tradition. They will flock to help and be involved, because history is an occasion, and some of the best moments in history after all, were quite the occasion themselves. We must not take history’s silence for ignorance, it still breathes in every day of every month.
The celebration of birthdays, weddings, funerals, all are traditions that have carved who we are. People care about their history, whether grand or trivial people are proud of it, wherever they are in the world. A case in point is the recent furore over the search for the remains of King Richard III in Leicester, UK; genuine and fevered interest is shown across the board. In that interest lays the relevance of the past, the genuine care people place on it. We are never far removed from our ancient counterparts, but in the case of traditional value, there is no real difference at all.
‘Operation Nightingale’ is an archaeological initiative in partnership with the Ministry of Defence that is raised to help injured servicemen and women recover from their injures, both physical and mental. This is done so through archaeology and great work has been done so far by the great teams of volunteers and professionals, with each scrape of their trowels shows more and more the relevance archaeology can have. Not just the results, but the act of archaeology itself can be utilized in many varied and enriching ways.
The SHARP (Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project) based in Norfolk, UK is just one great project that is thriving on its energetic and eager army of volunteers, students and professionals. It investigates human habitation of a small but important piece of historical landscape, nestled in the heart of England. It offers an excellent training scheme to educate and expand the knowledge involved in the fascinating subject of archaeology. It’s relatively inexpensive to attend, and it promotes something very important in archaeology: a sense of camaraderie and attachment.
Another great project is ‘A Town Unearthed’. An HLF funded Community Archaeology research project that is shedding more light on Roman Villa site and its Iron Age pre-cursor in Kent, UK. It has counted amongst its ranks over seven hundred volunteers and to date over ten thousand visitors have passed through its gates. The reaction to archaeology and heritage is staggering, yet still the blind eye is prone to be turned.
There are hundreds of other projects like this across the UK, and even though some may struggle, they are weathering the storm. Community archaeology is helping to truly carry archaeology forward, no longer is archaeology a stuffy trivial pursuit; it’s now a social act. One in which entire communities can be become bound together. In a world of the computer, and of the internet, the point that communities still exist is a testament in no small part to their histories.
The Council of British Archaeology‘s ‘Making Archaeology Matter’ development campaign is paving the way for a true and structured strategy through education and support. It produces a very strong argument for the survival of archaeology in Britain:
‘Now more than ever the development of a strong, knowledgeable and skilled community of archaeological champions and enthusiasts is vital for the continued development and protection of archaeology. Without dedicated and passionate individuals, the recording and investigation of archaeology could become neglected with vital, irreplaceable, information being lost forever. We must also ensure that heritage does not slip from the public funding agenda in a tough economic climate.’
History is a living thing; it lives and breathes with us. However, what history tends to do is conscript interesting lifestyles to serve a plot laid out by informed imagination. It focuses on the tall, the mighty, it serves to trivially pursue the intricate minority of the broad brush stroke that is the past. Archaeology is where history can meet science. Working together, archaeology and history can make the past relevant.
This is why we need archaeology; it searches between the lines of history. It discovers people that posterity deemed not worthy of a voice. Sifting through the rubbish of time is as important as arguing about current issues, as they are inexorably linked.
Because the true essence of archaeology and all archaeology is really about is the joy of discovery. The scratched and frozen knuckles, are all worth it for the sheer glee at finding a single piece of ceramic, or a single coin, this is simply because that tiny molecular piece of time in a strand of historic DNA has the potential to re-write entire ideas about entire environments, political and social. Humanity cannot be measured or weighed, but it can be recorded. Archaeology can trace the rise and fall of empires with history you can actually touch and it can lend a weighty punch behind the words of history itself. More importantly, archaeology can ask questions of history and the future, and expect an answer.
As long as there is a search to sate the appetite of curiosity, somebody will be digging a hole, somewhere. Archaeology’s future is currently locked in the past, but that doesn’t mean it has to stay there.
‘Making Archaeology Matter’ via The Council of British Archaeology is a great way to get involved and to learn more. Quote taken from: (accessed 31/10/2012)
‘The Institute of Conservation’ (Icon)
Figures of wealth of British Heritage. (accessed 01/11/2012)
For more information on the wonderful work undertaken by SHARP;
http://www.sedgeford.org.uk/acatalog/Sharp.html (accessed 31/10/2012)