Fragmentation and pressure in UK archaeology – is crisis inevitable?

Archaeology in the United Kingdom (UK) faces several potential threats. Some are external, including general pressures like demographic change, and more specific ones such as planning system reform. Others are internal, deriving from the way in which UK archaeology has developed. The result is a fragile and fragmented professional system which at times appears unwilling to develop long-term solutions to the challenges it faces.

Archaeological ‘ecosystems’

UK archaeology is a complex biosphere comprising several ecosystems. This complexity reflects a UK tendency to avoid radical reform of established institutions. Cultural and administrative differences between Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England also influence how public benefit is created and perceived across the UK. There are also socio-cultural stereotypes about the relative value of public- and private-sector work. These differences create silos, potentially isolating individual ecosystems from the larger biosphere.

The image shows five main ecosystems. One comprises the regulatory mechanisms delivering development-driven archaeology. Another is the other side of the same coin: archaeological practitioners who do this development-driven (CRM) work. These two are unequal in status and economic power. Private sector developers are often large corporations or consortia; planners are usually local government officials. A large and sometimes bullish private sector is regulated by a small and cautious public sector. Most archaeological practices are small (turnover less than GBP 250,000 / USD 300,000 per year).

The third ecosystem is academia, which largely operates outside those spheres of archaeological practice. It suffers from separate pressures resulting from expansion and commodification. The fourth ecosystem consists of the national heritage bodies, whose relationship to government results in cautious decision-making and weak leadership. The fifth ecosystem is the general public. The UK has a long tradition of non-professional engagement with archaeology and heritage conservation – which has strengths and weaknesses.

Internal weakness and fragility

The complexity of this biosphere not intrinsically problematic as long as communication and understanding is maintained between ecosystems. Unfortunately archaeologists tend to group together within ecosystems. There are many different bodies representing archaeologists, but few individuals are members of more than a few of them. Only 70% of UK archaeologists have chosen to become members of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA), and there is no legal requirement for regulation.

Academics have become more insecure because higher education funding has increasingly adopted a more ‘transactional’ approach. Students become consumers, who judge the quality of universities through league tables which show quantitative measurements of research and teaching excellence. University administrators’ constant juggling to maintain league table rankings results in a precarious workforce. Despite heroic efforts by individual academics and departments, the majority of research-led archaeology undertaken by HEIs remains disconnected from the training and development needs of UK archaeological practice.

UK archaeological practice takes place within the ‘common law’ or social licence framework, which assumes that private entrepreneurial efficiency works best with public regulation. However regulatory authorities are weak and poorly-resourced, and procurement of archaeological services is driven almost entirely by price. Development-driven archaeology is primarily designed to discharge regulatory obligations, not to produce knowledge and understanding for public benefit. This forced market and lack of regulation produce poor financial returns. The sector as a whole is worth around GBP 258m / USD 312m, but UK CRM firms return only 2% profit on average (in contrast to an average 15% profit for the UK service sector). As a result many archaeological organisations struggle to invest in meaningful staff development, research and training.

The outcome is a profession which is economically, socially and structurally unsustainable. Early career enthusiasm is dampened by obstacles to progression, especially for people from working-class backgrounds, for women, and for non-white archaeologists. Managers and leaders are promoted because of qualities unrelated to their management and leadership abilities. Such an insecure and poorly-resourced profession might be expected to try and co-operate as closely as possible together. However there is fierce competition for resources within each ecosystem, leaving very little time and energy for positive engagement between them – let alone for the biosphere as a whole to develop secure external networks.

External threats and pressures

This fragile ‘biosphere’ faces a number of external pressures. One is the changing relationship between the UK and the EU, which has created short-term logistical challenges. These are surmountable, but collaboration and engagement with colleagues in other parts of Europe will take more energy to sustain in the longer term.

Another issue is planning reform, first proposed for England in 2020 and representing a potential threat to the current status quo for development-driven archaeology. Of course, reform may also present opportunities. However the immediate archaeological reaction was defensive, which perhaps reflects some underlying insecurities.

The commodification of university education creates another pressure. University management focusses more on measuring financial quantities than social and cultural qualities. University education is measured in labour market terms, rather than as part of a suite of broader social values. This in turn causes funding pressure on arts and social science courses. Two high-profile archaeology department closures (Sheffield and Worcester) were met with protest, but support from the archaeological ‘establishment’ was lukewarm and voices of concern were fragmented. Ironically – for a process supposedly driven by labour market concerns – the UK government itself acknowledged an archaeology skills shortage.

Finally there is the so-called ‘culture war’. In June 2020, as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, a slave trader’s statue in Bristol was pulled down by protestors and thrown into the harbour. This action sparked national debate about the commemoration of slavery and imperialism – and provoked uncomfortable government defensiveness. This is seen by some as a way of avoiding uncomfortable truth and reconciliation. A related issue is the restitution of cultural heritage acquired through imperialist violence, including both human remains and artefacts such as Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes.

A threat to any research which challenges official histories is a threat to archaeology – after all, excavation is the only way we have to directly engage with people who lived in the past but who left no written record. Archaeology gives a voice to women and children; it speaks of poverty, oppression and disability. These stories are often obscured by mainstream historical narratives.

From pressure to crisis?

Archaeologists are understandably worried about the changes taking place around them. They are also mindful of the wider social and political contexts of their work. Archaeology can provide meaningful insights into contemporary issues such as equality and diversity, climate change, migration and cultural exchange. But these messages are not always getting through. There would seem to be two possible ways forward.

One is to continue fighting for the best elements of the current system. A well-regulated ‘social contract’ model of development-driven archaeology, delivering social value and public benefit. Engaged support from higher education and state heritage bodies, providing leadership and skills development. Campaigning to preserve the status quo may temporarily bridge gaps between ecosystem silos, but most underlying systemic issues would remain.

An alternative is to radically reform the archaeological system. Better resources for the regulatory side of the profession, closer integration of training and research; overall better realisation of public benefit. This would require philosophical change, including a recognition that some public benefits are better delivered through public or quasi-public bodies. Such transformation would require high-level political intervention.

Both options assume that archaeology does deliver public benefit. This may be the case, but it is not clear that the public understand how archaeology works, or what it does to deliver that benefit. It is a sad fact that archaeology often fails to make an impact outside its own bubble.

The small size of the sector could foster collegiality, but in reality relationships between organisations are disproportionately influenced by personalities. Joint advocacy is difficult to co-ordinate. There are too many vested interests in maintaining the current system, including the many bodies which purport to represent archaeology and archaeologists. UK archaeologists do not speak with one voice, and there is no coherent end game in sight.

Archaeology is too small and weak to afford these divisions – archaeologists need to work together to overcome these threats, and avoid crisis.

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