Protecting the future of archaeology

Mike Heywood, Issue 114/10, p14, 01.10.2014
On 14 July, Loyd Grossman announced the biennial British Archaeological Awards at the British Museum. The awards recognise best practice in archaeology in the past two years.

Winners included the Bloomberg project by the Museum of London Archaeology and the work of the Scape Trust in engaging communities with coastal erosion in Scotland, plus an outstanding achievement award for Beatrice de Cardi. The winners list reveals a discipline that continues to thrive, with new discoveries attracting strong public interest.

Yet significant vulnerabilities underlie this picture and concerns are growing about the impact of public sector cuts, particularly at local authority level. One of the first impacts has been a significant reduction in staff based within local authorities who are employed to foster and encourage public engagement with archaeology.

Vital planning advisory services are being threatened as cash-strapped local authorities seek further reductions in their budgets. There are dangers that developments will go ahead without adequate archaeological advice to the planning authority and, as a consequence, we will lose one-off opportunities to investigate key sites for surviving archaeological evidence.

Another crisis is brewing with regard to the lack of space for storing archaeological material from excavations. This material needs to be made available for future study by researchers, as the sites themselves have often been destroyed.

Museums are struggling to cope with the volume of material being recovered from developer-funded excavations. Many of the larger archaeological contractors that undertake the work find themselves looking after a warehouse of material for which they are not necessarily equipped. They do their best, but the situation is not sustainable and not in the public interest.

In these circumstances, we need representative bodies to come together to make the case for archaeology and to work with local partners to ensure that every opportunity is taken to remind decision-makers about the long-term consequences of their actions.

The Council for British Archaeology (CBA) has launched an Archaeology Matters appeal to make the case for the importance of archaeology across the UK and it needs the support of everyone with a passion for our past.

The CBA’s four-year Local Heritage Engagement Network project, funded by the Esmèe Fairbairn Foundation, is working with local groups to help them act as advocates for archaeology.

There is huge public interest in the processes of archaeology, plus the new discoveries and the stories they tell, but we need to encourage everyone to speak out to ensure systems remain in place to sustain archaeology for the benefit of present and future generations.

A positive sign is the number of new community archaeology facilitators across the UK, many trained through the CBA’s Community Archaeology Bursary Project, which is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Skills for the Future programme.

Museums remain a key public gateway to new knowledge about the past. As such, they must be involved in strong local partnerships to allow new finds to be viewed in context within their displays and to guarantee continued access for material held in storage. Experienced staff are vital to ensure this happens and we need to work together to sustain the opportunities for public engagement with our heritage.

Mike Heyworth is the director of the Council for British Archaeology