Can social value save archaeology from extinction?
As CIfA’s code of conduct states, ‘fuller understanding of the past provided by archaeology is part of society’s common heritage and it should be available to everyone’. So, how can we make sure that archaeology is accessible to as many people as possible? Lisa Westcott Wilkins considers the future of our field.
On 7 July 2012, the eyes of the world were focused on London in anticipation of the start of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Just over 100 miles to the north, though, my eyes instead beheld a gargantuan, full-scale, bouncy castle replica of Stonehenge, dappled with the collapsed and sweaty bodies of a very red Francis Pryor and several members of the DigVentures team attempting to catch their breath after an hour of vigorous jumping among the inflatable trilithons.
This unlikely moment, dreamed into being by artist and ‘instigator of social interventions’ Jeremy Deller, was one of the flagship events of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad public arts festival. Its installation at Flag Fen, a Bronze Age site just outside Peterborough, served as the launch celebration for Flag Fen Lives, DigVentures’ inaugural dig and the world’s first-ever successfully crowdfunded archaeological excavation.
DigVentures has appeared in CA several times (see CA 302, and news stories in CA 266, 351, 357, and 383), covering signature digs and star finds as well as articles profiling our digital innovation projects, hybrid participation events, citizen science activities, and bespoke impact evaluation methodology for archaeology. For this special issue of Current Archaeology, we were asked to look back, as well as forward, to make predictions about the future for archaeology through the lens of DV’s work.
START AS YOU MEAN TO GO ON
Back to 2012 and bouncy Stonehenge. Quite a lot of what Deller said about ‘Sacrilege’ at the time could have also applied to the new model of crowdfunding for archaeology that DV had introduced at Flag Fen: ‘A lot of my work looks at history, sometimes in a very serious intense way, otherwise in a very playful way, and this is obviously about as playful as you can get,’ Deller said in the behind-the-scenes video of making the piece, continuing, ‘In a way it was meant to counteract what I felt was the pomposity of sport and the Olympics… so I just thought, let’s do something about Britain that shows we have a sense of humour about our history and we’re willing to… have fun with our history and identity.’
This last point is very salient, especially looking back on the more recent events that led to the toppling of the statue of merchant and trans- Atlantic slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, the continuing furore around ‘culture wars’ conversations, and the dialogue around decolonisation and where money made from extraction and extortion has funded cultural institutions. There is intense and personal emotionality embedded in our collective experience of the past, and this is what lies at the heart of the public fascination with archaeology. Our impulse in 2012 was to tap into those feelings and introduce a sense of joy, fun, and liberation to the process of archaeology through combining it with technical and scientific rigour. DV’s creative operational model harnessed that innate interest in the past, funding research and simultaneously combatting structural inaccessibility, elitism, and exclusionary practice.
Variously described as crowdsourcing, citizen science, collective intelligence, and the collaborative or share economy, DV’s work exists in the place where movements as disparate as #metoo and the alt-right have flourished as a result of diminishing trust in traditional gatekeeper organisations, characterised by authors and activists Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans (in New Power, 2018) as ‘new and old power’. How should we, as professional archaeologists, engage with these deep societal changes?
At the heart of this approach is a simple proposition: by enabling people from all manner of different backgrounds to work together, often with the help of technology, we can mobilise a wider range of information, ideas, and insights to enhance archaeology’s contribution to society. The value of this approach is that it focuses on the difference between technical problems and adaptive challenges. Whereas technical problems are usually well understood and have known solutions – generally requiring more professional experts and resources – adaptive challenges are less clear and require new learning to be understood and addressed.
The short story of Flag Fen Lives can be summed up with some key statistics: it engaged 250 crowdfunding participants; trained 130 people in archaeological field skills; and attracted 2,200 visitors (a 30% uplift year-on-year for the venue), of which 60% had never visited the site before, despite living locally to Flag Fen. The project, comprehensively evaluated for both archaeological and impact outcomes, was the beginning of a new operational model for archaeology done in partnership with the public, digitally enabled, bringing together global communities of action and interest, and transforming how people proactively engage with the past.
But the long story is worth reflecting on. The DV model was a direct response to the last economic downturn in 2007- 2008, which had a devastating effect on the archaeology sector and resulted in a drop from an estimated 6,865 employed archaeologists in 2007 to 4,792 in 2012 (Profiling the Profession 2020; see www.profilingtheprofession.org.uk). Through the hard work of a handful of people and some organisations, including Prospect, BAJR, CIfA, and ALGAO, some advances have addressed elements of the big structural issues that led to such a steep contraction, but fundamental challenges remain. Our profession is hampered by poor pay and conditions; declining specialist resources and capacity; lack of diversity and the related inequalities; provision for research synthesis, publication, and deposition of archives; and widespread adoption of meaningful public engagement. Most conspicuously, deep cuts in public spending since 2010 have led to a 35% fall in the number of local authority staff, diminishing the capacity of the state to protect and maintain natural and built heritage.
There were some financial boom times following the pandemic, when commercial sector organisations were run off their feet catching up on delayed projects, and massive infrastructure projects looked set to fund the sector for the next few decades. But here
we are again, in the midst of another perfect storm of economic uncertainty, with unsolved structural issues thrown into even higher relief by seismic forces such as climate change, net zero, the cost of living crisis, generative AI, destabilisation of the university sector, loss of European research funding, and the cumulative impact of 12 years’ worth of austerity on local authorities. There is wide recognition that UK archaeology needs badly to get its house in order to meet these new demands in a meaningful way.
Despite these steep challenges, there are many reasons to be hopeful. Like the Chinese symbol famously misquoted by JFK, the optimist’s playbook dictates that danger also equals opportunity, or what Homer Simpson would call ‘crisi-tunity’. The crisis facing archaeology is manifold, but what of the opportunities? Exciting ideas that play to our collective strengths are sweeping towards archaeology, alongside more and more hard evidence of the positive impact our collective work can have in areas such as knowledge creation, placemaking, wellbeing, community cohesion, and – as maintained within CIfA’s professional practice paper Delivering Public Benefit (www.archaeologists.net/sites/default/files/Delivering_public_benefit.pdf) – improving educational, environmental, or economic conditions. More people than ever want to get involved with archaeology, as evidenced within DV’s community by the strongest year we’ve ever had across our crowdfunding campaigns and subscriber programme. The interest in archaeology so vital to our survival is out there, but the question remains: are we able, as a sector, profession, and discipline, to lean in and find solutions to the adaptive challenges that face us – or, will we resort again to technical solutions that address the symptoms without curing the root causes?
This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 400. Read on in the magazine or on our new website, The Past (click here to subscribe), which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World Archaeology, Minerva, and Military History Matters.