Interlude 2 – Archaeology: A thing of the past?

Tonight I went to a talk by archaeologist and TV presenter Neil Oliver – of prehistoric archaeology and Viking fame – at the Waterstones store in Oxford. This wonderful event did, I’m afraid, let loose in me my long bottled up feelings about the fate of archaeology in Britain, not only on television but also for the archaeologists who dig day in, day out across the land. Or at least did.

I am an archaeologist by trade. I spent years learning my craft – trowelling, mattocking and pick-axing my way through layers of compacted, resisting clay, collapsing sand or brittle stone, searching for clues to the past and little glimpses of history that I could touch with my fingers. Long days I spent, sometimes the hottest of the year, often the coldest, almost never losing my enthusiasm for the history around me. Those fifteen years left their mark on me – arthritic knees and hips, an unhappy back and an intense lack of appreciation for frostbitten ground. I’ve been ordered to sweep clean a desert site in a sandstorm; I’ve fought to save the remains of a Saxon hall from a flooded river; I’ve been blown off a prehistoric mound and I’ve been bored to near death by Roman quarries that stretched the entire width of Gloucestershire. All part of the job.

Or so it used to be. British Archaeology has taken some severe knocks over the last few years. I’m mainly talking about contract archaeology, which is what I’m used to. The work carried out by consultancies across the country in advance of road and rail schemes, housing projects, town developments, flood works – even Olympic stadium works. So many times an archaeologist is asked ‘what’s the best thing you’ve found?’ when, in reality, on many digs, the hope is that you will find nothing. These are the evaluations that have to be out of the way before the real work on the site can begin. Archaeology at its best holds the developers up, at its worst there will be long trenches of nothing. Imagine a year of such projects – two week evaluations, up to sixty trenches or more, and no time at all to excavate any of it. Pray for nothing, that’s what you have to do. But is that why you dream of becoming an archaeologist?

Many of Britain’s largest contract archaeological units now operate with a skeleton crew, their archaeologists (including my other half and many of our friends) redundant. Planning laws are relaxed, the legal requirements for archaeological investigation reduced – harming our historical heritage just as much as the industry. For many years, Units across the land have relied upon highly intelligent graduate archaeologists working for little more than the minimum wage in difficult conditions to recover our past. So many of these people have now been cast off.

Look at archaeology on the TV. Time Team has now been axed. How sad this is. Whatever its faults, Time Team has blazed a trail of archaeology for the public to follow from the comfort of their homes, encouraging them to research the history of their families, their towns and their country. It has always been a comfort to me that archaeology has such a profile on TV. No matter how bad it gets for those working in the trade, it will survive because so many people are being given a glimpse of how utterly fascinating and compelling our history is. Personally, I love spotting good friends on Time Team. I’ve been involved with the Trench One magazine for its club members. Its loss is not easy for me.

Often the archaeologists you see on TV are students and volunteers working for units associated with academic bodies. How often do we contract diggers envy academic archaeologists for the time allowed for their excavations, for the quality of what they’re unearthing? But even these bodies are under threat. The University of Birmingham’s Archaeology Institute has been closed much less than a year after the University’s appointment of public archaeological figure Alice Roberts as Professor of Public Engagement in Science. Other University Units have also closed after many years of great work, including the University of Manchester’s Unit. My own training was gratefully received from the University of Leicester Archaeological Unit, now uncovering the remains of Richard III. They taught me how to mattock 23 years ago – I still remember the lesson. I was terrible at it. I’m much better now.

I found a Roman coin my very first morning on an archaeological site in Leicester. I never found one again. This is a common irony in British archaeology. When I dug in Israel not long afterwards I received a can of beer for every small find (brooch, figurine, coin) I found. No wonder that archaeologists are such appreciators of the grain and grape (speaking personally, of course).

With Time Team now dealt its death blow and Units decimated or worse by redundancies, it’s difficult to envision a future for British Archaeology whether on screen or off it. Programmes such as Neil Oliver’s Vikings are now more essential than ever for making audiences appreciate their heritage and wonder at its discovery. When they see archaeologists on television, is the public aware of how few are now left, trowel in hand, to uncover their past?

I asked Neil Oliver this evening how archaeology on British TV is representative of the state of the industry. Quite rightly, Neil said that contract archaeology has little to offer TV makers. So, if you remove academic archaeology or Time Team archaeology from our screens, what is left?

Long may British archaeologists – not least the charismatic Neil Oliver – appear on our TV screens, reminding us all of that we have to lose.

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