Some half-formed thoughts on potential of Universities to affect change in archaeology.

On Friday I attended a discussion held by Martin Carver at the University of York which was well attended by representatives from across all branches of the profession, from English Heritage to commercial diggers. It’s purpose was to discuss the vacuum of progress the profession is currently in, and to try to come up with a way in which we, as a group, could do something about the way we move forward, using the agenda of the Southport report as a starting block.

The University sector is in a peculiar position regarding post-PPS5 archaeological ethics (as I said in my recent article in the Archaeologist vol.83), as it is at once isolated from the impact zone of the policy, since it is not normally or necessarily a direct part of the planning process, and at the same time, perhaps in the best place to affect change in professional practice on a level which will achieve what Southport had in mind for archaeology.

In the commercial and local government sectors, where hard cuts are biting and staffing levels are at near record lows, it is perhaps understandable that successive rafts new policy cannot generate the excitement and innovation. Both groups are being asked to do more and more with less and less, when it is as much as can be asked to simply get any job done at all.

The argument is that University research which is driving technological advances in practice should be being thought of with an end product – as envisioned by the Southport Group – in mind. If the processes of actually doing archaeology were formed in a way which  were sympathetic to the goals of public engagement and the achievement of new knowledge and understanding then we would have a much better chance of delivering positive change. And whilst not untouched by funding cuts and other pressures, the University research sector does still have energy to use in pursuit of a grander agenda of the level necessary to affect change in the sector.

Professor Mike Fulford of the University of Reading has spoken of the forward thinking partnerships with commercial and local government units for the achievement of better results from commercial projects. The wealth of information dug up in the foundations of new development, previously consigned to inaccessible grey literature is now, with greater frequency, being read and used by students and academics who have the power to innovate to achieve interesting results for expanding our understanding as a profession, and for the wider public as well, if only an outlet into the public domain could be achieved.

That there is positive discussion within universities to actually engage with the wider profession in a way which has so often been lacking is encouraging. By using their privileged position regarding research freedoms, universities can drive Southport’s aims forward, and by reforming some of the ways in which we do archaeology we stand a better chance of actually altering the outputs by having a product that has been designed from the ground up, rather than by trying to re-polish the results of an out-dated system of investigation which has produced an inferior product for years.

This group may offer one of the best hopes for sparking institutional change in the next few years and I am looking forward to the next meeting.

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About Rob Lennox

Currently studying at the University of York, investigating the transition in planning-led cultural heritage policy in the last two decades. I am using this blog to share the findings I make during my research with the hope of stimulating debate and increasing understanding of the implications of government policy on the historic environment in England. In particular, my research focuses on the ways in which the public engage with archaeology and the ways in which we as archaeologists or heritage professionals construct the processes of knowledge gathering, and to what ends. I hope that through this blog other interested parties will be able to influence and be influenced by my observations and findings as they occur in real-time, and that ultimately it will contribute to the overall understanding of the heritage sector.
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