Jargon: which words would you ban?
The Local Government Association has published a list of words and phrases that it thinks council staff and members should not use because they make it harder for the electorate to understand what councils do. In truth, many of them should simply be banned because they are empty of meaning. Much fun has been had at the expense of one particular phrase — ‘predictors of beaconicity’ — which originated in a Department for Communities and Local Government report of 2007 called: Predictors of Beaconicity: which local authorities are most likely to apply to, be short listed and awarded through the Beacon Scheme.
But while we can all laugh at such hollow government double-speak as ‘place-making’, ‘holistic’, and ‘front-loading’ (which means asking people what they want before decisions are taken rather than the usual government practice of asking us to endorse what they have already decided), perhaps we should also remove the motes in our own eyes.
What would you put on a list of prescribed archaeological terms? We all have our own pet hates, but perhaps we could agree to ban that over-used word ‘contested’, especially when used to describe ideas that you don’t agree with and that you want to make look insubstantial, but are too lazy to spell out the detailed arguments, as in ‘X’s theories about the origins of agriculture are highly contested’.
Or, what about that dread word ‘agency’, about which archaeological theorists have written whole books, without the majority of us being any the wiser about its meaning or its utility as a concept? Then there are ‘process’, ‘performance’, ‘materiality’, ‘duality’, ‘reflexivity’ and ‘multi vocality’ — not to mention the terms beloved of archaeological policy wonks, like ‘benchmarking’, ‘scoping’ ‘facilitation’, ‘best practice’, ‘cross-cutting’, ‘strategic’, ‘over-arching’, ‘capacity building’ and ‘community engagement’.
Think of the benefits of banning such words: since many of these phrases are fundamental to the style and thought processes of so many academic and managerial archaeologists, a ban would leave them literally speechless!
The beauty debate
And then there is the question of whether or not ‘beauty’ is a relevant or useful concept to archaeologists and conservationists. The National Trust certainly thinks it is, and its Chairman, Sir Simon Jenkins, presided over a vigorous debate last month in which four philosophically inclined academics and writers — Roger Scruton, David Starkey, Stephen Bayley and Germaine Greer — argued over the motion that ‘Britain has become indifferent to beauty’.
Predictably, the debate ended up with the four speakers trading their personal notions of beauty and ugliness. Germaine Greer proved that one person’s beauty is another person’s kitsch with her purple paean to the ‘bloom on a child’s cheek, the fawn coming over the hill, the crozier of the unfolding fern, the sheen on the woodland that you can see now as the sap begins to rise, the first swallow…’, while Stephen Bayley seemed to think that teenagers thronging TopShop was evidence of heightened aesthetic sensibility amongst the younger female members of our society.
Thank goodness conservationists banned the notion of beauty a long time ago: think what havoc politicians could wreak if beauty were the chief criterion for designating historical and archaeological monuments — there would be no industrial archaeology, no Blaenavon World Heritage Site, no listed buildings that broke the mould of popular taste — and even Stonehenge would struggle for supporters, aesthetic beauty not being its strong point.
How sensible of legislators to have avoided this minefield of subjectivity in the past and to have decided that historical, archaeological and architectural ‘character’, ‘significance’ and ‘interest’ should be the criteria for deciding which of our landscapes, monuments and buildings to protect and conserve. And as a wise archaeologist once said, ‘there is no such thing as an insignificant archaeological site; it’s the job of an archaeologist to find significance in everything’.
The South Downs: a national park at last
That doesn’t mean to say, of course, that historic landscapes cannot be beautiful: the South Downs certainly are, and you would have thought that there would be universal joy at the news that this glorious swathe of chalk downland — which stretches for 90 miles (140 km), from St Catherine’s Hill, near Winchester, to Beachy Head, in East Sussex — is to be designated as England’s 13th national park.
But anti-park protestors have held the designation up for 62 years, ever since the National Parks Committee, chaired by Sir Arthur Hobhouse, identified the South Downs for national park status in 1947. They argue that national park status will ‘preserve the Downs in aspic and destroy jobs’, whilst in the same breath arguing that ‘the Downs will be swamped by hordes of day trippers’, who will, one assumes, need services that will create jobs. Ah, but that will ‘turn the Downs into little more than tea shops and car parks’, says the National Farmers Union, which adds that its members are ‘horrified’ at the prospect of being cast as ‘yokels and milkmaids in a rural fantasy’, rather than being allowed to get on with being ‘modern commercial farmers’. As its final harrumph against national park status, the NFU (wrongly) says that the South Downs will be ‘managed by an unelected quango’ or by ‘Whitehall apparatchiks’.
So, just like modern commercial farming, then, which is dependent on crop subsidies, price-support mechanisms and quotas managed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs — at a cost to Europe of £45 billion a year (compared to the modest South Downs National Park budget of £15 million). Since farmers (like bankers, or are they one and the same?) live so well off the public purse, you would think they might be a little more subservient to the democratic will.
Kate Ashbrook: heritage hero
Current Archaeology recently profiled the work of the Open Spaces Society (OSS), which, along with the Campaign for Rural England, lobbied long and hard for the creation of the South Downs National Park. Kate Ashbrook, the OSS General Secretary, has just celebrated 25 years in the post, which makes her Britain’s longest-serving national amenity chief.
From her tiny attic office in Bell Street, Henley-on-Thames, Kate has spent nearly half her life leading the society through countless campaigns to protect threatened commons, greens and public paths, winning many a court battle on a shoestring budget. Kate’s celebrations were fittingly marked by the news that Warneford Meadow, 18 acres of tranquil grassland close to the heart of Oxford for which she fought at a public inquiry, has just been designated as a town green, protecting it from development by the Warneford Hospital NHS Trust.
Robin Hood: loathed by the good?
Heritage battles, in which altruistic conservationists with limited resources are pitted against rich but amoral and self-serving corporate bodies, sound just like a latter-day version of Robin Hood. But not everyone sees Robin Hood as a hero. Dr Julian Luxford, of the University of St Andrews, has discovered a previously unknown reference to the outlaw in an English manuscript owned by Eton College. Probably inserted as a marginal note in the 1460s, the 23-word Latin reference says: ‘Around this time, according to popular opinion, a certain outlaw named Robin Hood, with his accomplices, infested Sherwood and other law-abiding areas of England with continuous robberies.’
Commenting on the find in an interview posted on the ‘Medievalists’ website (www.medievalists.net/2009/03/25/interview-with-julian-luxford/), Julian says that the marginal note is ‘uniquely negative’ in its assessment of Hood and his Merry Men. He goes on to suggest that the author of the note was probably a monk associated with the charterhouse in Selwood Forest in Somerset. Ashe was writing at a time when religious communities in the West Country were frequently attacked by outlaws, ‘his environment as well as his vocation may help to explain his hostility towards Robin Hood’.
Anyone for the Dragon’s Den?
Staying with the theme of taking from the rich to give to the poor, the makers of the BBC 2 programme, the Dragons’ Den — in which impoverished entrepreneurs try to persuade wealthy financiers to invest in their business ideas — have been advertising for archaeologists to come forward and participate. The invitation flyer asks ‘do you have a great archaeological business proposal to put to the dragons?’, and goes on to say that ‘the new series of Dragons’ Den is looking for diverse and different investment proposals … an archaeology-related investment proposal would be a real plus to the show!’
Just in case any archaeological entrepreneur out there is lost for ideas, the flyer quotes examples of previous winners: a teddy bear with an integrated multi-media player, the Reggae Reggae range of Caribbean sauces, the non-spill dog bowl. Clearly, archaeology is crying out for similar innovative ideas. A non-spill beer glass and a range of real ales ‘as drunk by Phil Harding’ clearly wouldn’t do, as he’s on the rival TV channel, but is anyone out there interested in pitching a prototype of a metal-detecting trowel disguised as a teddy bear?
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