Saturday, 11 April 2015

Who should archaeologists vote for in the 2015 UK General Election?

In light of the political debates that have dominated the TV screens in the UK, social media and in my office space, I have decided to write a personal view of who archaeologists should vote for, based on available information from party websites and other sources. Despite being a long blog post, I don't consider this an exhaustive list.

For those who want a nice summary (like me), see this link to the Heritage Alliance.

What have the current coalition done for archaeology? Their main achievement for heritage is to tweak previous policies, and not necessarily for the better. Out has gone some of the legal protection for archaeology, in comes non-statutory (read statutory as compulsory) legislation in the form of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This has been interpreted in 2 ways- the IfA's official publication, The Archaeologist (TA), had an article where the Editor and a county archaeologist agreed that for scheduled monuments, there was no real change observed in the planning process (see Archaeology Examined at Appeal in TA 84). Yet its flexibility makes it much harder to enforce when people break the law. In the case of the TA 84 article, no law had been broken, but it was assessing the appeal of a rejected planning proposal on a major site. However, there has been a huge rise in the number of planning applications, and this workload that the county archaeologist has to contend with has been exacerbated by the cuts in the public sector, in particular the local authorities. It is estimated that as of 2012, planning policy (and not, for example, legislation for scheduled monuments as derived from the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 (although some changes are being made as of after 4th April 2015) or the separate legislation for burials, which can become a crime scene if the skeleton is less than 200 years old!) accounted for the only protection for 96-97% of all undesignated archaeology in the UK. If the NPPF can be upheld in court, then we don't have a problem, right?

The other side of the coin is that this is not legally binding, and what everyone defines as nationally or even regionally important archaeology can vary from person to person. The cuts that the coalition and future governments seem obsessed with (although in principle I agree with) have had a huge impact on heritage and archaeology. Jobs in the public heritage sector have been lost, or transferred to private companies. Northamptonshire Archaeology is a good case study, which has the dubious distinction of having gone through both scenarios! Having no county archaeology service means that the archaeological reports are not sent to the council (or at least the numbers are reduced) and these sites cannot be protected, as private commercial firms (as of yet) have no responsibility for protecting sites in a designated area, only to either identify, record or excavate archaeology. Councils and organisations like the CIfA provide the frameworks that these units should aspire to, but these are not legally binding. However, these are the opinions that the law courts look to in order to support the NPPF and uphold decisions like these.

On the other side of the coin, it is possible to misinterpret the NPPF, as the definitions of what heritage is and it significant are relative and vary from person to person and require previous cases to make British Common Law work (it becomes a chicken and egg situation). In previous years, developers have also been crafty in exploiting plot holes in the planning system, so that planning applications only go through either local councils or county councils, so the responsibility of deciding how important the local archaeology is, or even tendering a contract for identifying archaeology, may not be authorised by the county archaeologist. Additionally, what if someone goes ahead without any prior planning and retrospectively discovers that they have irreplaceably damaged a monument? This has happened a number of times under previous governments, not just this one, and in the age of social media, it is easier than ever before to identify when this happens, such as the destruction of a 50 yards stretch of Offa's Dyke in 2014, which the offender stated they didn't know it existed ( But the law now no longer makes it so easy to prosecute these offenders, and even though it’s a scheduled monument with the highest level of archaeological protection in the UK alongside Stonehenge, the police couldn't prosecute the offender because of a "lack of evidence" (the offender simply claimed he didn't know what Offa's Dyke was). This has been called a "defence of ignorance" argument. This strikes me as ironic, as an archaeologist's job is to collect evidence, and while people can be completely ignorant of something, there are so many rules for planning applications, it’s hard to believe they couldn't prosecute him for any other number of reasons, like deliberately obstructing footpaths, not undertaking an ecological survey, etc.! Based on this worrying development, I can only conclude that if the entire population of the United Kingdom plays dumb about the importance or even the very existence of archaeology, then no archaeology is safe. Denying the existence of something blatantly obvious is akin to the Armenian Genocide denial currently practised by the Turkish government (it's been 100 years since the Armenian Genocide, by the way). This archaeological situation needs to change.

Additionally, outsourcing work could be more expensive in the long run, although for Northants, they at least have the knowledge of having got some money for selling their unit to another company.  (On a personal level, I feel Northants is essentially being run like a private enterprise rather than a council, which brings to mind Serj Tankian's lyrics from his song Jeffrey are you Listening: "Nations and their governments should provide, protect and serve its citizens, not the interests of the multinationals"). Although this isn't necessarily a bad thing, in the TA85 (The IfA Debate: What is the Future for Local Planning Authorities and Archaeology? pages 25-29), Jan Wills states that the commercial service needs to be adequate.  However, Northants is just one county with issues with spending cuts and archaeology. Try speaking to those areas which have had no principal archaeologist or archaeology service for the last few years, like Portsmouth, Southampton, Merseyside, Walsall and those councils which consistently seem to undermine their own heritage, like Teesside. Other councils are having to merge their archaeology units with other divisions, so that the position of county archaeologist may not have to be a qualified archaeologist!

More vital services, such as the Historic Environment (HER) offices, which each county should have, are also at risk from cuts. In Northamptonshire, the HER officer will probably lose their job and be replaced by the HER Assistant, which represents a significant pay cut and a loss of knowledge, less manpower for recording sites and increasing the risk of unnecessary and potentially illegal damage to irreplaceable archaeological sites. On top of this, there will also be less outreach projects, a vital component in educating the public and local communities about their past. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) clearly states that Local Authorities should either maintain or have access to archaeological information in an HER as well as expert advice to inform its planning decisions. Surely this contradicts the council's plan for 2014-2019, which says that they will 'continue to celebrate Northamptonshire’s rich cultural heritage' and 'continue to strive to connect [local residents] with the county’s rich cultural heritage and unique identity’ ( They won't be able to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Northants if it's all been built over or excavated out of the ground, especially when Northampton Borough Council's museums will get no funding from Arts England until at least 2019 because of the Sekhemha statue incident! If the council continue to cut publivc services, the museum's nationally important knowledge and resource for shoes will be lost, potentially for ever (Northampton also being a Victorian centre for shoe-making, among other things).

So why should we preserve this vast quantity of archaeology? From a commercial point of view, one of the reasons is that we've seen a rapid shift in our beliefs in interpreting archaeological evidence since the 1990's, providing new ways of looking at the past. This can be largely attributed to the sheer quantity of archaeological data coming out of the ground, and not necessarily to do with changing beliefs in society as a whole (although these are important too). Larger areas of archaeology have been discovered, and most hasn't been excavated, in keeping with the principle of in-situ conservation (which is often the best way to preserve the archaeology). Some of the knowledge accrued is also to do with some excellent research projects from Universities and others (although Universities are also suffering major cuts to funding, particularly the humanities). To summarise our changing views on just a few of Britain's archaeological periods based mostly on evidence from commercial excavations, I've created a summary table below:

Historical period (BP beginning from 1950 AD)
Conventional view before planning protection (PPG16) 
Conventional view today
Anglo-Saxons (1,540-984BP)
Germanic invasions dictate settlement patterns, Viking invasions, King Alfred, largely illuminated by religious sources e.g. Bede, Cuthbert
Greater understanding of relations between "invaders" and local communities, greater number of settlements known (particularly towns (wics), greater understanding of burial practices and settlements built over or near to prehistoric settlements, showing continuity with communities over hundreds of years/
Romans (2,007-1,540BP
Invaders who implemented their own culture into the existing communities. Large areas of undeveloped land exploited
Romans did have large economic impact, but also incorporated a lot of existing infrastructure into their development e.g. roads and settlements, migration from all across the empire into Britain and vice versa. A large amount of "undeveloped land" may well have been used already but archaeological trace is more difficult to spot.
Iron Age (c.2,000-3,000 BP)
Lived in small communities, warriors and burials, Asterix and Obelix-style feasting, some developed roads and possible proto-states
Large aggregated villages, well-developed roads and field boundaries, many Roman roads developed from existing Iron Age routes, some proto-states functioning as states in their own right, improved knowledge of burials (e.g. Wetwang chariot burial), and settlements may have lasted for hundreds of years.
Bronze Age (c.3,000-4,000 BP)
Stonehenge! Field systems, warriors and burials, all external influences from central Europe, more gradual changes from burial culture to 
Greater exploitation of maritime sources and links with European neighbours (e.g. Cornish tin in Germany, skeletons near Stonehenge were from continental Europe (Amesbury Archer)), greater variety of settlements and greater changes across the period. Settlements may have lasted for hundreds of years.
Neolithic (c.4,000-6,000 BP)
Greater exploitation of maritime sources and trade, greater understanding of Neolithic religion and settlement. Settlements may have lasted for hundreds of years.
Mesolithic (c.6,000-12,000 BP)
Hunter-gatherer lifestyle, Britain largely forested
Possibly exploited early farming methods and created houses with no external influence from migrants, maybe some evidence for man-made clearings?
Palaeolithic (c.12,000 BP up to almost 1 million years ago)
Almost no knowledge of this period, presumed uninhabitable except in very warm periods. Limited knowledge of known hominin species in Britain.
Extended knowledge of ice age occupation of Britain by several hundreds of thousands of years, Britain was inhabitable for much longer than anticipated. Multiple Hominin species must have been in Britain based on palaeological evidence. 

My point is that no major party since the introduction of PPG16 has appeared to either anticipate this quantity of data, or how to preserve it for future generations, excepting the principle of in-situ preservation. As archaeology is so fundamental for education, why has it been considered that the only industry to benefit from archaeology is the tourism sector (maybe it's because there aren't enough archaeologists as a whole)? It needs greater protection so that we may have the opportunity to have changing views on the past and to educate the public about its importance. A more pressing issue is that if it was all excavated, we would quickly have a crisis in storing all of the finds from commercial excavations (we have one already but it simply isn't reported. If you think we have it bad, spare a thought for Italian archaeologists!). No party has offered a solution, believing that the voluntary sector can take this workload if it falls apart.

Should we be leaving heritage to volunteers to replace the paid services? I don't agree with that view but the Conservatives seem to be taking us down this route, potentially losing large amounts of skilled archaeologists. There is also a current culture within some sections of commercial archaeology where there is a "race to the bottom", where market forces dictate the costs of archaeological work, forcing companies to outbid each other for work, which in turn reduces the money available for training, recruitment and repairs, which in turn reduces the efficiency of the workforce and in turn reduces how much money is available for bidding for contracts. This vicious cycle needs to be stopped and the CIfA, for all that it has Registered Organisations paying a minimum wage and providing training, is not a compulsory thing for all archaeological firms. However, this would limit the opportunities for innovation in the sector and not everyone agrees with the way the IfA is run (it's not a charity, so it is not strictly apolitical), or its mission statement. On the subject of minimum wage, for the over-qualified subject that we are, many of us are hilariously under-paid. Many of my colleagues have Master's degrees and earn less than £20,000 P/A. That is £5,000 LESS than the average UK earner, regardless of qualification! We really do this job for love and not for money, although I wouldn't say that is the problem. Its managers who are not taught how to run businesses properly, or who don't appreciate heritage (having not studied archaeology) who are ruining the firms. Personally I am in favour of an overarching organisation that could force some regulation of the market. The archaeologists trade union, the CIfA, have a conference on the future of the profession in mid-April 2015. But if it now recognised by the government as the regulatory body of the profession, (TA 94), where does that leave other archaeological professions who are not accredited in this way? More worryingly, some older members of the profession (ironically some of these are lecturers) question why the CIfA should even be advertising to archaeology students, when many won't become archaeologists at all! While this is true, the vast majority of new archaeologists come through the University route. The opinions expressed by some members of the CIfA seem self-defeatist and appear to neglect the future of the profession.

Where do Historic England (the new statutory part of English Heritage) stand? English Heritage is the UK government’s advisor on heritage matters, but in reality their position is the same as before, if not weaker for not having the funds from their old properties (which are in EH hands). This leaves Scotland as the only nation in the UK where the Historic buildings and statutory body as the same organisation, an interesting situation that could have dramatic consequences for both sides of the border. The Council for British Archaeologists? As a charity they have to be politically neutral but they have been around for a long time and have a number of respected individuals, and they did pioneer the Young Archaeologists club and currently help organise a number of World War One memorial projects. Most importantly though, they are the most active in showing the public how important archaeology is, and allowing the public a way of legitimately protecting their archaeology in a national network, through the Local Heritage Engagement Network (LHEN). While this is open to the accusation of using volunteer labour in place of professional archaeologists, it allows the public to get involved in their local archaeology without losing the professional advice of archaeologists. The LHEN provides free advice for volunteers to help promote and protect their archaeology. Other professional charities and institutes, as far as I can discern, are too small to have a unified voice for the archaeological profession.

Some firms seem to be monopolising the market by virtue of being larger than others, or being part of a developer or other construction-based company, so they can run other firms into the ground with either money or manpower (look at Birmingham Archaeology and other University archaeology departments, as well as council-run firms). The future could be very bleak if this continues, leaving archaeology in a position where developers will simply force archaeologists off-site halfway through excavation simply because they have overrun their agreed contract through lack of manpower etc., leaving archaeology discovered but permanently lost. This is arguably worse than the 1970's, when volunteers ran to sites to stop them being developed at the 11th hour so they could excavate it before the archaeology was lost forever. Academia is not going to cover the commercial sector on its own and volunteers can't provide the necessary manpower to do this job. Combined? Even then, commercial archaeologists are paid to do this job. They will be far more committed and knowledgeable in the cause than both sectors put together through regular fieldwork and research.

So what have manifestos and policies offer archaeologists? Generally speaking, NONE of the main parties (even that is a relative definition these days) seem to have a concerted plan for heritage in England, although the main parties in Wales and Scotland, including Plaid Cyrmu and the SNP, have more emphasis on archaeology, and their local councils support archaeology more readily. Additionally Wales is already passing legislation for June 2015 (regardless of the election result) that will remove the defence of ignorance argument I mentioned above when it comes to scheduled monuments, and will be make more archaeological monuments protected by legal statute.

The Tories? Guarantee housing, Increase minimum wage (albeit by less than the other parties), and continue to build away, while tinkering with an education system that probably didn't need tampering in the first place. Labour? Guarantee housing, stop HS2 and minimum wage up to £8/hour. Interestingly, this webchat by Chris Bryant (then MP) gives support to the 1954 Hague convention, which would protect cultural property in a time of war. But not to the white paper that was scrapped before the 2010 election that would have given greater weighting to the HERs (something that is currently being assessed by English Heritage, having contracted MOLA and possibly others to help assess the situation with research new ways of storing and accessing data for future consumption). UKIP? Only to stop HS2, scrap tax for minimum wage earners and stop illegal migrants (only a small proportion of archaeologists are from outside the UK, although the EU would rather we had more foreign workers in our profession, but archaeology is a knowledge-intensive subject whichever way you cut it so the migrants have to be skilled). Greens? Minimum wage up to £10/hour. And Lib Dems? Greater minimum wage (mostly for apprentices), some support for housing.

So they all promise more houses, ring-fencing or increasing the NHS budget, but only Labour seems to be offering anything like the support needed for archaeology (and that is only from one informal source). There is no promise to revise the NPPF plan. No plan to promote archaeology in the education curriculum or to integrate it into the planning protection, to end the conventional wisdom of a Levi-Strauss-like dialectic of archaeology versus the developer, archaeology as a drain on economic resources rather than an enabler of jobs, archaeology that can only be enjoyed as a tourism attraction as opposed to education, and archaeology that shouldn't be legally protected like it was under PPG16 or PPS5. Additionally the main parties in England all seem to be focused on London centric figures i.e. their leaders were born, bred, educated and worked around south eastern England, and so don't understand the true character of the United Kingdom. They all plan to continue to cut services to some extent, so we will see more public sector job losses. While I personally want to see the deficit come down, it will have to come down somewhere. The main issue for archaeologists is that we simply get overlooked. Whoever gets voted in, the government will focus on building houses, but not on those who have to do the groundwork, such as archaeologists, builders, ecologists, etc. If it satisfies the majority, it doesn't matter. The government get the vote it needs to stay in power. But I'm not saying don't vote! There's only so many of us, and we need to fight together. The trouble is that no one is offering us a formal political solution.

In conclusion, I worry for the future of commercial archaeology. If you build something and claim you didn't know it existed, it seems that non-statutory protection will not be able to prosecute you. Even more worrying is that no political party seems to be offering a long-term solution to this, and this has been identified as a major issue for the last few years by the IfA. The exception are the parties that oppose HS2 (Greens, Labour, UKIP), although on the flip side it has provided some work for archaeologists. The current business model of a number of archaeological units needs to change their business model, and we need to do it in a collective manner. The real enemy are those who allow this to happen, like the developers, who continue to accept rock bottom prices, and the parties at Westminster, who offer nothing for archaeologists. As a sector, we need to be more proactive in recruiting the next generation with a promising career that is not only rewarding for finding out more about archaeology, but also a fair wage and fair working standards by going against some of the received wisdom. This future can allow community  archaeology to exist alongside commercial work, and this has been done successfully many times in the past, but the commercial sector fills out the backbones, muscle and flesh of British archaeology, and gets little credit for it. Vote for what gives you a fairer society.

To make your own informed decisions, I will be uploading links to the official manifestos for each party (in alphabetical order) as and when I can find them:


Greens :

Liberal Democrats:



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