Just how popular is archaeology? Over the May Day holiday, I took part in two very different events with two very different answers.
For three days we had a stand at Who Do You Think You Are – the National History Show at Olympia, sponsored by the web site Ancestry.co.uk. It was dominated by the genealogists, the students of family history, with numerous magazines, computer programmes and local family history societies having stands and attracting numerous visitors.
We tend to think that archaeology equals heritage, and that when people talk of the heritage and the size of the heritage sector, they are also talking about the number of archaeologists. Oh no! A visit to this exhibition soon brought one down with bump. There were lots of visitors paying £25 a head to get in, but most of them were thronging the family history stands.
Second to family history came military history, with tanks and guns on display and numerous exhibitors dressed up as World War II soldiers, reminding me of my days doing National Service.
Compared to this, archaeology had a very small section. True, the CBA had laid on a very successful theatre with 40 or so seats, and they had a continuous programme of popular speakers who kept the theatre filled, with standing room only at the back. The Portable Antiquities Scheme also had a popular stand identifying objects, and we were very glad to meet some of our friends from the travel industry, Annabel Lawson from Andante and Peter Sommer from his eponymous travel firm and it was good to see Lampeter University with a very colourful stand, displaying their new range of opportunities for distance learning. But archaeology was very small compared to the more popular parts of the heritage.
On the Saturday, however, I had a very different viewpoint, attending a Workshop on Looking into the Future of Medieval Archaeology, organised by the Society for Medieval Archaeology as part of its 50 anniversary celebrations. About 50 medieval archaeologist attended and we heard a number of lectures and then divided up into ‘breakouts’, the fashionable new name for dividing up into groups of about half a dozen who break out from the main meeting, discuss problems, and then report back.
Two main problems predominated: the first was the split between finds specialists and academics – how do you integrate finds specialists with the actual diggers, and how to integrate both with the academic community? Many units do not have their own in-house finds experts but sub-contract finds analysis to outside specialists: these specialists – usually single individieuals, may be few in number, but they are at the cutting edge of archaeological research, and their expertise far exceeds that of the average academic. Knowledge of finds within the units is not always perfect; one pottery researcher said he had recently received a parcel of pottery from a Medieval rural excavation on which he had been commissioned to report. One glance told him that it was all Roman – the excavators thought they were digging a medieval barn when in fact they had been digging a Romano-British villa.
The other major concern concerned research frameworks and here Rumsfeldian analysis was to the fore. It is all very well preparing a framework based on the known knowns, but how about all the unknown unknowns? However, English Heritage is very keen to have research frameworks covering every period and wants the frameworks to be prepared by outside bodies: being a cynic I always suspect they do this to protect their own backs. Nevertheless it is extremely valuable when faced with a recalcitrant developer to be able to point to a research design which provides the reason why a development site should be fully excavated first.
Virtually all the discussion was based on the premise that funding in the future would continue to come almost entirely from the government, and all policies should be based on bending the government’s ear: there was no thought of trying to get funding from outside sources. Since the death of Robert Kiln there has been no major source of outside funding apart from the Leverhulme Trust and indeed the Robert Kiln Trust. We have no foundation such as the Packard Humanities Institute in America which carries out archaeological research. Perhaps indeed we speak the wrong language to attract outside funding, for the language that appeals to government is very different from the language that appeals to billionaires.
But is medieval archaeology at last firmly established as a proper part of archaeology, or is it, as Richard Rees calls it, the pastime of failed historians? The most successful source of outside funding for archaeology has been the Time Team, and the Time Team has certainly found that medieval archaeology ‘sells’. A fascinating chart was produced by Carenza Lewis showing the different periods investigated by Time Team: the majority are in fact medieval with Roman close behind and prehistoric and post-medieval lagging in the background. Indeed, the average archaeological unit digs up more medieval and post-medieval pottery that any other period: the practising professional archaeologist must have a firm grounding in medieval archaeology. Clearly therefore the Society for Medieval Archaeology has been successful, and has changed the face of archaeology in precisely the way that its founders envisaged. Today it is clearly flourishing: long may it continue!
(Anyone can join: details from Maney Publishing, Suite 1C, Joseph’s Well, Hanover Walk, Leeds, LS3 1AB)