The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is threatened with a realterms budget cut that might close its central unit and terminate the national database. Five jobs out of 50 are set to go, possibly leaving the scheme’s 39 Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) to be grouped and managed regionally. Many FLOs think this would destroy the scheme.
The central office at the British Museum maintains a national database which has recorded more than 300,000 finds in the scheme’s ten-year life. It is the largest online database of its kind in the world, and is regarded by many other countries as a model. To take one example, the PAS has increased the count of Wiltshire’s known Roman sites by 15% in just three years. The enlarged database means better protection for buried heritage, as archaeologists in county planning departments can propose modifying development plans or have ‘preservation by record’ built into planning consents.
No less important is PAS’s huge public impact. Metal-detectorists, for long treated as pariahs, have been brought into the fold, contributing their expertise and discoveries to national heritage by recording find-spots and bringing artefacts to local FLOs for identification and databasing. Not just detectorists: of 6,216 individuals offering finds for recording in 2006, more than a third were not detectorists but other members of the public. In the same year, a quarter of a million people used the PAS database, and there were almost 82 million user-hits in all, while around 45,000 people attended outreach events involving PAS staff.
So the PAS has come to play a central role in academic, rescue and public archaeology in modern Britain. It is one of our greatest successes of the last decade. So why is it under attack?
Funding comes from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport via the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA). The MLA’s funding is being reduced by more than 25%, and in consequence PAS funding has been frozen at the £1.3 million level, an effective cut allowing for inflation (it needs £1.49 million to maintain current activity). ‘The MLA,’ says Chief Executive Roy Clare, ‘is currently evaluating its own operations and the entire span of its programmes to ensure that every area is delivered effectively and in a way that gains the best value for public money.’ Translated – for the benefit of those who do not know governmentapparatchik Newspeak – this means ‘we are deciding how to make cuts in public services’.
The central office of the PAS has been labelled ‘inefficient’ and in need of a more ‘corporate’ approach. Minimising ‘the downstream effects’ (translation: cuts) will involve ‘some operational linkages with activities in regional museums’ (get rid of the central office), and this will ‘have the potential to strengthen the PAS overall’ (break up the national scheme).
Convenient cover is provided by the EU-inspired ‘Renaissance in the Regions’ programme, allowing Clare to parade as an enemy of centralised power. In reality, the PAS is already one of official archaeology’s most bottomup schemes, and there is no slack in this ultra-streamlined and vital heritage service.
A strong campaign has been launched to save the PAS. The Guardian has carried an article by its own archaeology correspondent Maev Kennedy and a comment piece by Cambridge professor Colin Renfrew. Another Cambridge professor, Martin Millett, has headed up an open letter signed by 17 top academic archaeologists. The National Council for Metal Detecting has encouraged all its members to write to their MPs to prevent a ‘return to where we were more than ten years ago’. The main focus is an Early Day Motion already supported by 68 MPs.
Current Archaeology readers are urged to join the campaign by contacting your local MP rging them to support Early Day Motion 566: Portable Antiquities Scheme, and to sign the online petition at the No. 10 website: http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/PAS-Funding/