Archaeology Today.

by Geoffrey Wainwright.

Today, archaeology occupies a solid and respectable position in modern society as the authorised producer and reproducer of the national heritage. This position is in most countries safeguarded by legislation, circulars and guidance notes that secure the identification, preservation, recording and presentation of the archaeological heritage of the nation. The reason for this is plain to see. Archaeology has a vitally important place and role within any country's commitment to culture and cultural development -- whether at the national, regional or community level.

The organisation and funding of the British Academy has undergone a fundamental change over the past decade and this change has led to a transformation of the structure of roles and responsibilities within the archaeological profession in Britain. These changes have been marked in particular by the publication in England in 1990 of a Planning Policy Guidance Note on Archaeology and Planning (PPG 16) and subsequent versions of that document in Wales and Scotland. It was followed in England in 1994 by Planning Policy Guidance Note 15 on Planning and Historic Environment, with a subsequent version for Wales. This document is likely to have a major impact on the organisation and funding of building recording in Britain. Further significant changes to the discipline are also likely to result from the application of National Lottery funds to aspects of archaeology, the application of the Research Assessment Exercise in Universities and a more widespread use of European Community funds. The pattern of public and commercial funding for archaeology in Britain has changed irrevocably and the roles of the public and private sectors are developing and evolving to meet these new challenges.

These changes -- which mirror the more general environmental assessment legislation, with its emphasis on assessing the effects of developments before they are given permission and on the 'polluter pays' principle -- have had a profound impact on the organisation of archaeology in Britain. First, they mean that local planning authorities must have access to expert archaeological advice when they are faced with making planning decisions where archaeology is an issue. Second, they put the responsibility for (and the cost of) archaeological work onto the developer. Developers generally meet this responsibility by engaging an archaeological organisation to carry out, under contract, the archaeological work which the local planning authority requires of the developer.

At the same time, archaeology has achieved strong popular recognition among the general public and is much in demand for news bulletins and features. This has resulted in the largest economic boom in the history of the subject, both in this country and abroad, yet archaeologists themselves seem to have been struck by an identity crisis. A gulf has emerged between different archaeological sectors -- museum curators, heritage managers, archaeological contractors, archaeological curators, consultants and even university staff who have their own problems and have been, to an extent, overtaken in the research environment which was once largely their own by workers in the heritage industry.

Not surprisingly, there have been criticisms of PPG 16 and the culture it has engendered. One perception is that PPG 16 has led to a restriction of research, although it has to be said that the holders of this view usually equate research with excavations. Even if that were the case, the annual number of archaeological investigations in England has risen from 1,279 in 1990 to 2,872 in 1994. Of the 10,879 investigations during that period, 1,132 were open-area investigations as opposed to evaluations and watching briefs. This level of activity surely has a rich research potential, the realisation of which is an exciting challenge facing the profession -- not the burden it is sometimes portrayed.

The implementation of PPG 16 has led to sites which would once have been destroyed now being successfully protected. The destruction of such sites in the past allowed rescue excavations to take place, which were enjoyed by many of those who are now critical of the present regime, but which were frequently unsatisfactory as exercises in archaeological research -- largely because the results have never been published. Archaeology in Britain today is aimed at curbing profligacy not research and at safe-guarding sites in order to ensure that the needs of future research can be properly addressed.


1) The British Academy was founded in 1901 and promotes research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides funding through The Humanities Research Council, an award-making body which was set up in 1993, whilst also sponsoring meetings and publications. Return to text

2) The UK National Lottery was licensed in May 1994 and is run by Camelot, a private company. The Heritage Lottery Fund, through which archaeology benefits, is just one part of the Distribution Fund which also supports the arts, charities, Millennium projects and sports. Return to text

3)The Research Assessment Exercise is undertaken every four years by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in order to produce ratings of research quality. These ratings are then used to determine the amount of grant support that institutions will receive in the future. Return to text

About the Author.

Professor Geoffrey John Wainwright, MBE, FSA.

Chief Archaeologist for English Heritage since 1990. Educated Universities of Wales and London. Professor of Archaeology, University of Baroda, India, 1961-63. Member of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments in Wales 1987- . Fellow University College Cardiff 1985- . Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and University College London. Numerous books and articles on archaeology.

© Geoffrey Wainwright 1997

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