In 2002, launching the first ever ‘Heritage Counts’ digest of statistics on the health of the historic environment, Tessa Jowell, then Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, pulled a surprise speech out of her back pocket: ‘I am launching a thorough review of heritage protection laws,’ she said, ‘with the aim of making them more transparent and accountable.’
Seven years on, after exhaustive consultation, legal drafting, impact assessment and select committee scrutiny, just as the ‘once-in-a-generation’ Heritage Protection Bill was ready to be placed before Parliament, Andy Burnham, the current Secretary of State, used the launch of the 2008 ‘Heritage Counts’ to warn that the Bill might be a victim of the so-called ‘credit crunch’. Instead of debating archaeology during the 2008/2009 session of Parliament, it looks as if MPs and peers will instead be passing their time voting on emergency measures to keep the country’s banking industry afloat.
Reaping community benefits
Frustration amongst the heritage community at the dashed expectations has been tempered by the need to fight an even more potentially damaging impact of the credit crunch. The two pieces of planning guidance that underpin developer-funded archaeology (PPGs 15 and 16) are to be scrapped in favour of a new streamlined Planning Policy Statement (PPS) on the Historic Environment. In its eagerness to encourage house building and development, the Government was planning to publish a short PPS requiring planning authorities to exercise a ‘duty of care’ towards the environment, and leaving it up to them to decide how that duty should be exercised – in effect, removing the ‘polluter pays’ principle, that requires developers to pay for the recording of what they destroy.
Effective lobbying has reminded the Government of just how many jobs are at stake if the millions of pounds of commercial money invested in archaeology every year are lost. It now looks as if a new PPS will not only retain the core principles of the existing guidance, it will also place a welcome emphasis on ensuring that developer-funded archaeology results in tangible community benefits – that the public should be allowed to visit (and even work on) commercial excavations, that the educational opportunities should be exploited and that funding should provide for adequate post-excavation research, publication and display. Out of potential disaster a new era might yet dawn.
A new definition of Britain
Some of the prizes in the British Archaeological Awards 2008 pushed the frontiers of ‘Britain’ out in interesting ways. One very deserving winner was Jan Meulmeester, who took time off from his job as a chef in a care home in the Netherlands to receive the Archaeological Discovery of the Year Award (sponsored by Professor Mick Aston). Not only was his discovery – of 75 Paleolithic hand axes and stone tools – made in the Dutch port of Vlissingen, the tools themselves came from the bed of the North Sea, some 13km off the coast of Norfolk. Jan’s dedicated three-month search for human artefacts in aggregates dredged from the seabed led to the find site being declared a protected marine landscape. Another ‘British’ Award went to the Northern Irish team behind the Nendrum tide mill excavation featured in CA 224: their report on the excavation of the world’s earliest known tide mill (AD 617) was judged Best Scholarly Book (sponsored by the Society of Antiquaries of London) because it set new standards for presenting archaeological fieldwork in an attractive and accessible way.
The River Thames aka the Ganges
Highly commended in the Best Amateur or Independent Archaeological Project category (sponsored by the Robert Kiln Charitable Trust) was the Datchett Village Society for an impressive ten year survey that has resulted in the mapping of an array of hitherto unknown sites of all periods along the banks of the Thames. One class of field-walking finds, though, puzzled Janet Kennish and her team: they could not make sense of terracotta lamps they occasionally found emerging from the riverside mud: the form suggested a Roman date but the fabric seemed more recent. One theory was that these were 18th-century forgeries placed in the river to ‘age’ them and never retrieved.
Then Janet spotted something similar at the Museum of London and the mystery was solved: for London’s Hindu communities, the Thames has become a surrogate for the holy Ganges, and the objects found by the Datchett team were ghee burning lamps used during Diwali celebrations. Just as the river has yielded Bronze Age shields and Iron Age swords, so archaeology has now revealed the unsuspected role that the Thames continues to play in modern society as recipient and bearer of devotional gifts.
Shrine to bohemian London
You might think that Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and the other so-called YBAs (Young British Artists) would have little time for fuddy duddy heritage values, given that BritArt is all about undermining traditional forms of artistic expression. But heritage values come in useful when their favourite after-hours watering hole is under attack: Hirst and Emin are among those who have called on English Heritage to list the Colony Room, the Soho haunt of Dylan Thomas, Francis Bacon, George Melly (and even, on one occasion, of Princess Margaret). The lease on the notoriously bohemian artists’ club, with its bilious green walls, is due for renewal and members fear that the ‘historic’ site will be swept way without statutory protection.
Mayor Boris Johnson is supporting the campaign to get the building listed. In a letter to English Heritage Chief Executive Simon Thurley, he says: ‘it is important for London to preserve venues and collections that bring inspiration and artistic pleasure to local, national and international visitors’. The mind boggles at what Boris might have in mind: coach loads of Japanese tourists applauding as tired and emotional conceptual artists fall down the Colony Room stairs in the early hours of the morning? Perhaps the paparazzi should enter their snaps of booze-soaked celebrities for next year’s Turner Prize.
Blue blood from Boudicca
And how many of those celebrities will be wearing the must-have perfume of 2009, a spray-on scent called ‘Wode’? Unusually, the scent turns your skin blue (to resemble the ancient body colouring) when first applied, but the blue quickly fades leaving ‘a lingering sensuous scent’ described by the makers as ‘strange and spicy, containing herbal notes of juniper berry, cardamon, nutmeg, clary sage, coriander seed, angelica root, hints of black hemlock extract, saffron, tree moss and tuberose’. The manufacturer is an avant garde British designer label called Boudicca (www.boudiccawode.com). Proof, perhaps, that some people think archaeology can be sexy.
World Heritage Sites: Blackpool or Benidorm?
Have Blackpool’s hopes of securing a World Heritage Site nomination as the birthplace of mass tourism been dealt a blow by the entry of Benidorm into the same ring? The Costa Blanca resort is being considered as a World Heritage Site contender not because of its popularity with working class British tourists but, according to French geography Professor Philippe Duhamel, because of the cultural importance of its ‘unique collection of skyscrapers’.
Apparently, the design pioneered in Benidorm, maximising the number of rooms with sea views, has been adopted universally by seaside resorts from Spain to Dubai, and for this reason ‘it has a special place in architectural history as the first high-rise resort in Europe’. Cruelly, the Financial Times commented that Benidorm was to mass tourism what Chernobyl was to nuclear energy: not something you would want to celebrate.
This comes from Diary inm Current Archaeology 226