Current Archaeology at 50: half a century of keeping up with the past

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Archaeology in the sixties. The cover photograph of CA 4 showed medieval skeletons being excavated at Porchester.
Birthdays rarely pass without a moment of introspection. As CA reaches its golden anniversary, Joe Flatman reviews the fluctuating fortunes of archaeology in Britain through the lens of the magazine that has faithfully chronicled it since 1967.

A selection of issues discussed by Joe Flatman in this month’s article can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, starting 1 March. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual issues, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1. Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI325, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

Joe Flatman is Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England and the former County Archaeologist of Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman

When CA was launched back in the heady days of the swinging sixties, it is unlikely that anyone would have predicted its longevity, least of all its founders Andrew and Wendy Selkirk. In this article, I set the first half-century of CA in the context of both the evolution of British archaeology as a discipline and the wider changes to society across the period.

CA 1 offers a potent snapshot of British archaeology in the late 1960s, and in many respects the sites and approaches it showcases would not be out of place 50 years on. For example, the first edition includes a report on investigations of the prehistoric landscape of the Welland Valley in Cambridgeshire prior to gravel extraction. Although there is no mention of geophysics, the basic fieldwork approach of strip-map-record is very much what would be expected today. The big difference is that the project was undertaken by the Welland Valley Research Committee (the forerunner of the later Fenland Archaeology Project that CA stalwart Francis Pryor was long involved with), rather than the developer-funded archaeological units that now specialise in such projects.

Similarly, CA 1 includes a report on excavations under way on a series of sites in the medieval city of Southampton, again prior to development. Here too, the basic survey and excavation techniques remain familiar. The difference lies in the lack of some technologies (laser scanning of upstanding buildings, for example) and above all in the use of a small team of volunteers led by a university lecturer (in this case Colin Platt), rather than by members of an archaeological unit paid for by the developer.

A decade on, and April 1977 brought CA 56: what changes to the landscape of British archaeology does a comparison reveal? Truth be told, a superficial flick through the magazine suggests a story of continuity rather than radical change. The cover shows work under way at the deserted medieval village of Goltho in Lincolnshire, a ‘rescue’ site excavated in advance of agricultural development. Perhaps the most pressing difference between 1977 and 2017 is the core question of whether the site would be excavated at all today. With few planning controls covering agricultural impacts on archaeology, with only parts of the site scheduled, and with the reduced finances of Historic England, it is doubtful that an excavation campaign on such a scale would be mounted in 2017.

A changing landscape

CA’s 20th birthday was celebrated in March 1987, and the nearest edition to that date, CA 104, landed on subscribers’ doormats in April. One interesting feature of the sites discussed in CA 104 is the subtle blend of reasons underlying their discovery and exploration, courtesy of greater funding from organisations like English Heritage (established in 1983). Although formal planning controls requiring investigation of archaeological sites prior to development were not yet in place, there were growing calls for them.

Appropriately enough, CA 104 includes an update on the long-running excavations of York by the York Archaeological Trust (founded in 1972), where site-by-site ‘rescue’ fieldwork was increasingly being used to provide a wider understanding of the city, on a scale to rival any purely ‘research’-led fieldwork.

A decade on, the 30th birthday edition was CA 152 (April 1997). Alas, for the purposes of this review, the issue says less about the wider circumstances of British archaeology, because it is a special edition devoted to the Scottish Outer Hebrides. But the ‘diary’ section includes a report from the English Heritage ‘Science in Archaeology’ conference, flagging up advances in three key spheres: radiocarbon dating (especially the mathematical analysis of the results using computerised Bayesian methodologies); the use of mitochondrial DNA from ancient human bones to analyse human population movements; and the role of archaeology in understanding ‘global warming’ and climate change.

CA 152 also touches upon the really big cultural change between 1987 and 1997: the introduction in the early 1990s of formal planning controls requiring the investigation of archaeological sites in advance of development as paid for by the developer. In England and Wales this took the form of ‘Planning Policy Guidance Note 16: Archaeology and Planning’ (always abbreviated to PPG16), introduced in 1990; in Scotland, ‘Planning Advice Note 42: Archaeology’ (PAN42), introduced in 1994 (both since replaced).

Big digs

Taking this review of 50 years nearly up to the present day, I decided to conclude by looking at CA 314 (April 2016), in CA’s 49th year. CA 314 features two site reports that in many ways sum up the previous 49 years of British archaeology. The first is a report that might not seem out of place in CA 1 of the Iron Age and Roman sites at Hayton, Yorkshire, by Professor Martin Millet of Cambridge University. It features a classic site type and research undertaken over several fieldwork seasons by a well-known academic from a major university. But for all of its superficial familiarity, the report shows just how much had changed in the previous 49 years: while traditional survey and excavation techniques were used, so too were modern tools such as LiDAR, alongside all of the latest scientific sampling and dating techniques that are now taken for granted on a well-funded research project of this type.

The second report that leaps out from CA 314 concerns a remarkable region that was known only to a tiny group of specialists back in 1967. Using survey and graphical representation techniques that simply did not exist then, the magazine reviews the latest thinking on the submerged prehistoric landscapes of the North Sea known as ‘Doggerland’. Harnessing data derived from the marine survey industry to transform our understanding of such landscapes has been a great growth area over the past 15 years. This work depends upon the goodwill of many different partners, and high-end computing facilities to process and interpret the very large datasets involved. The result has been the type of imagery best known from Birmingham University’s North Sea Palaeolandscapes Project. It is safe to assume that such advances will continue in the next decade, given the scale of marine industry around the world and the potential for archaeological discoveries.

This is an extract from a feature published in CA 325. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

Discover old issues
Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the relevant links in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. The articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 1 March.  Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI325’.

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