Community Archaeology: from the grassroots
In CA 213, the Opinion article on Community Archaeology: Against the Odds outlined a problem of exclusion arising from the commercialisation and bureaucratisation of archaeology in England. Whilst I agree whole-heartedly with the main points, I think the article used a worryingly narrow definition of Community Archaeology — that of professionals running one-off grant funded community schemes. There is, I argue, more to true Community Archaeology than this.
Let us step back and define Community Archaeology simply as ‘archaeology by the people, for the people and about the people’. In the broadest sense, that is what happens but it does not feel like that to local people. Most of us ‘non-professionals’ experience archaeology as done by faceless professionals working behind hoardings. The audience is developers and the County Development Control Team, and it is about archaeology which might hold up a development project. Most archaeologists come and go without the least reference to local people — in my home area, I rely on an effective spy network to know what is happening.
It gets worse. PPG16 was a brilliant piece of legislation but what seems to have happened is that developerfunded projects are becoming the only acceptable way to do ‘real’ archaeology, leaving aside a few prestige projects by English Heritage and others. Even the authors of Against the Odds were apologetic for the findings of their Community Archaeology projects —‘meagre scraps of clay pipe’. No wonder so many ‘ordinary folk’ have taken to metal detecting as their only way of accessing the material past.
I recently visited our County Hall to read the 80 post-1991 ‘grey documents’ for our small historic town and reading them was a revelation. Some were fascinating and useful, others were perfunctory, and a few contained gross errors of basic history and geography of our town. Most depressingly, some found ‘no archaeology’ — this in a town where to dig a garden fishpond is to carry out an excavation yielding anything from Mesolithic flints to medieval flint courtyard surfaces to 17th century spurs.
Who is going to pull together this torrent of information, link it with local documentary history and weave it into a living narrative involving local people? Who is going to monitor these reports for gross errors in background information? Certainly not the overworked county archaeologists, in our county called Heritage Protection Officers and located in the Development Control section at County Hall, along with waste disposal. English Heritage is stretched to the limit with ‘sites of national importance’. The local universities have their own projects to nurse. Our County Archaeological Society has to focus its energies on a few regional priorities. In short, if we don’t do this ‘for our people and by our people about our people’ no-one will.
In Against the Odds, the authors suggested that local authorities should be asked to provide a set of guidelines and templates for Community Archaeologists. The idea fills me with dread. What starts out as helpful support so easily becomes a regulatory stranglehold. Surely it would be preferable to have a
county Community Archaeology Officer, similar to the Finds Liaison Officer of the Portable Antiquities Scheme? His/her brief would be to coordinate the interface between voluntary/local and professional/ nomadic and ensure partnership. Responsibilities could involve organizing grey document monitoring and availability, incorporating volunteers into the HER process for their own home area, coordinating training needs and opportunities, advising on archiving, conservation and publication and keeping a register of specialist resources. There is good practice around — the Leicestershire field walking project comes to mind — and it just needs bringing in from the margins.
As for funding, I agree with Against the Odds: the ability to operate on a near zero budget is the biggest plus for volunteers. Although it is great to have grant support, community groups who depend on it for survival are going to run into sustainability problems. And here lies, I think, the rub with the kind of Community Archaeology programmes in Against the Odds. They will give the lucky participants a wonderful and memorable experience and may even inspire some to follow through with archaeology as a career — but true Community Archaeology should be a living process, embedded in a local community. Even if we end up occupying the ‘twilight world’ of metal detectorists, the support, appreciation and participation of our fellow citizens will keep us going: long may it last.
Dr Pat Reid is the Director of the Faversham Society Archaeological Research Group (FSARG).