Editor in Chief Andrew Selkirk reminisces over 250 issues of Current Archaeology.

Andrew Selkirk

When I launched Current Archaeology, way back in 1967, I never thought I would be around to see CA 250. Mind you, for the first 206 issues, CA was bi-monthly and since it has become monthly, the numbers are adding up rather more rapidly. But nevertheless, it is a great satisfaction to have got 250 issues of the magazine under my belt.

Now, thanks to my son Robert, who has largely taken over, we are continuing to expand. It was more than five years ago that we launched Current World Archaeology, which is doing very well with nearly 10,000 subscribers in this country and a further 20,000 going to our distributors in North America. More recently, we have seen the launch of Military Times, the third magazine in the Current Publishing stable. I am tempted to say that this has nothing to do with me. I am not a military type at all, even though I am the only member of the group who has seen military service — I did my two years National Service in the Intelligence Corps, learning Russian. Nevertheless, Neil Faulkner has taken on the editorship of Military Times with great enthusiasm and his usual panache, and has produced a most splendid magazine.

There appears to be something of a gap in the market for military history. There are a number of magazines on re-enactment or model making, or specific topics, but there is nothing that seems to tackle military history at what might be called the Current Archaeology level, that is appealing to the interested, intelligent amateur, and we hope that Military Times will soon achieve the success of Current Archaeology and Current World Archaeology.

Periods of growth for Current Archaeology

Looking back over the history of Current Archaeology, there were two periods when CA expanded rapidly and the gods looked on us with great favour. The first was when we launched in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By chance, this was a great boom period for amateur archaeology, when amateur archaeological societies were springing up everywhere and expanding rapidly. We sent out the first 5,000 copies of  CA free, and got back 1,000 subscribers almost immediately, and soon reached our target of 5,000 subscribers.

Though I did not realise it at the time, the big change came in 1973. On looking back, 1973 was the most important single year in the history of archaeology in the 20th century: it was the year that saw the main launch of Rescue, the Trust for British Archaeology, the most effective pressure group that British archaeology has ever seen, which turned attention from research to rescue archaeology. It was a very exciting time and I was swept away by the enthusiasm.

The breakthrough came with two remarkable figures: Graham Thomas, a car dealer who went on to found Vodafone, and Graham Arnold, a PR executive who worked for him. They realised that the MPs, our lords and masters, were building a new car park for themselves in the forecourt of the Houses of Parliament in front of Big Ben, and that they were doing so without carrying out sufficient archaeological excavations. Day after day, the MPs were hammered in the pages of the Guardian, and eventually the MPs responded in their usual way, by throwing money at the problem. Expenditure on archaeology was doubled from £200,000 to £400,000. The following year it was doubled yet again, and when, the year after that, it only went up by a mere 50%, it felt as if the ‘cuts’ were taking place with vengeance. These were the years when archaeology as we know it today came into being.

The first ever issue of CA, 1967

At the same time, an opposite reaction was taking place. When the Prehistoric Society reached its 50th anniversary in 1984, Robert Chapman made a graph of the membership of the society. The Prehistorics benefitted from the great post-war boom, and numbers increased steadily from 1945 to 1973, when they suddenly peaked and then began to decline slightly (in the graph the arrows represent increases in subscription). He then did further research and found exactly the same pattern for other societies: the Roman Society, the Medieval Society and the Royal Archaeological Institute. Does the year 1973 mark the magic turning point? Is there, in fact, an inverse relationship between government spending on archaeology, and the health of archaeological societies and, perhaps too, of archaeological magazines?

Our second big period of growth came in the years around 1990, when our circulation, which had been hovering for a number of years around 5,000-6,000, suddenly leaped ahead to around 14,000, aided by a brilliant — or should I be more modest and say ‘not bad’ — advertising campaign. These were the years when Mrs Thatcher was being ousted and replaced by John Major. English Heritage had been founded in 1984, and their rapidly rising membership provided many of our new subscribers. PPG16 and the concept of developer-funded archaeology were introduced in 1990, and the Heritage Lottery Fund was introduced in 1994. All these provided an atmosphere of innovation in which Current Archaeology flourished. Since then, circulation increases have been more difficult to obtain.

Perhaps the biggest change I have seen in some 43 years of Current Archaeology has been the rise of professional archaeology. When we began, academic archaeology was in the middle of its great expansion and beginning to drown in the quagmire of the ‘new’ archaeology. However, most practical archaeology was still amateur archaeology. Our town centres were being hammered by the madness of town centre redevelopment, and archaeology was being rescued by devoted bands of amateur or semi-amateur archaeologists.

This was a good time for Current Archaeology: if you wanted to get volunteers for your digs, you had to publicise them, and Current Archaeology was the perfect answer. The articles rolled in — Fishbourne, Winchester, South Cadbury, Durrington Walls — these were all the great excavations that made the early issues of Current Archaeology so exciting. Since then, the onward march of professionalism has been relentless. Periodically, I have been tempted to believe that the cuts were coming and that the rise of professionalism would be halted, but every time I have been wrong. Am I going to be wrong again this time?

Today, the balance has changed completely. Virtually all big excavations are professional, which is bad news for us, because we rarely hear about them. Most professional excavations are carried out in secret, with no publicity. The purpose of doing the excavation is to get planning permission for the developer; thus, the target at the end of an excavation is to make a big splash in the local newspaper, because the local councillors who give planning permission read local newspapers and not Current Archaeology. Sorry, dear readers, but to professional archaeologists you are irrelevant: you do not hand out planning permissions.

The make-up of Current Archaeology is therefore changing. The amateurs, the independent archaeologists, still provide a rich diet of exciting projects. Academic archaeology sometimes provides interesting projects: I am told that National Geographic magazine is funding the Stonehenge Riverside project to the tune of half a million pounds a year, and is in negotiations with Vindolanda, another wonderful project that always provides us with wonderful stories. And yes, many professional archaeologists still believe in the importance of maintaining a pool of enthusiastic amateurs, and continue to go out of their way to provide us with wonderful accounts of what they have been doing and discovering.

As I look back over our first 250 issues, I must say three big thank-yous. Firstly, to all the archaeologists who have told us their stories and provided us with the news and discoveries, which we have sought to present before a wider public. Secondly, more recently, to all those who now bear the burden of producing our magazines: to Lisa  (about to get married!); to Nadia, now away on maternity leave; to Neil and to Chris; to Caitlin and to Matt, to say nothing of our unseen designers Mark and Tim; and, of course, to my son Robert.

And, finally to you, our readers. It has been very stimulating, if indeed occasionally painful, to have such a lively set of readers. If we get a date wrong, slip up on some fact, or split an infinitive, we hear from you. Your collective wisdom is quite awe-inspiring, and your enthusiasm is quite humbling. So, to all of you, our readers, a very big thank you. It has been a wonderful experience.

January 2011

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