Excavating 400 issues of Current Archaeology

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The first issue of Current Archaeology was published in 1967, a time when archaeology was just still in its early days of professionalisation.

To help mark the milestone of Current Archaeology 400, editor Carly asked me to delve into the archives for a bumper edition of my column, in order to tell the story of archaeology in the UK across the lifespan of the magazine – both where it’s been and where it’s going. This was a challenge that I accepted with glee: the history, of the history, of archaeology!

I will begin with some context: what was the landscape like when issue 1 was published in March 1967? There were laws: the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act (1882; updated by this point in 1953, and again in 1979) for scheduled monuments; and the Town and Country Planning Act (1947) for listed buildings. There were branches of government, too, especially the Ministry of Public Building and Works (1940 and 1962), the forerunner of Historic England/English Heritage/Historic Environment Scotland/ Cadw; as well as the three national Royal Commissions (1908; see CA 228, March 2009). There was also a thriving network of national and local societies, notably the Societies of Antiquaries of London and Scotland, alongside dozens of county-based archaeological organisations. And there were university departments, including in Edinburgh (1927), London (1937), Oxford (1962), and Southampton (1966). Archaeology had a place in the public mind, too, thanksto the success of television shows like Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (1952-1959).

But for all this, it was a modest landscape – a small and close-knit community with limited structure and funding, and a view as often as not to fieldwork abroad as at home. There were, however, the first stirrings of what became the ‘commercial’ fieldwork community. The Winchester Research Unit was founded in 1962; and from its early days; the Council for British Archaeology (1944) was highlighting the threat that redevelopment posed to archaeological sites and landscapes. The scene was set for a rapid growth across the following decades.


The early 1970s witnessed some important milestones in the expansion of the UK’s archaeological community. In 1971, the campaigning organisation ‘Rescue – the British Archaeological Trust’ was founded. Then, hot on its heels, in 1972, came the publication of The Erosion of History: archaeology and planning in towns, highlighting the scale of loss due to thoughtless redevelopment and the urgent need for coordinated action – for ‘rescue’ archaeology. Among others, the York Archaeological Trust was founded this same year; and, looking to the future of the profession, the Young Archaeologists Club was too.

Across the 1970s, there was a continual expansion of ‘rescue’ activity: the structures of what became modern-day archaeology were developed in this period, on the rubble of archaeological sites excavated in advance of development. The year 1973 saw the founding of London’s Department of Urban Archaeology, the forerunner of what would become MoLAS (Museum of London Archaeology Service) in 1991, and in turn MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) in 2011. Then, 1974 saw the book Rescue Archaeology published,

alongside the establishment of (The Trust for) Wessex Archaeology and the funding of the first ever local-government funded archaeologist (for Winchester). One year later, in 1975, the Department of the Environment’s Central Excavation Unit was created, alongside another local powerhouse, the Canterbury Archaeological Trust. Crystalising these activities, by the end of the decade the Association for the Promotion of Field Archaeologists (the forerunner of today’s CIfA, the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists) had been founded.

For all this focus on rescue archaeology, it is important to remember that the older traditions of practice remained strong too. The voluntary community was flourishing alongside universities both old and new, and Current Archaeology has showcased a series of iconic ‘research’ sites from across the 1970s: among them, Danebury (see CA 361, April 2020), Fishbourne (see CA 340, July 2018), the Fens (see CA 336, March 2018), Wroxeter (see CA 338, May 2018), Wharram Percy (see CA 340, July 2018), and Sutton Hoo (see CA 339 and 355, June 2018 and October 2019).


If the 1970s were about rescuing the past, then the 1980s were about formalising it. Across this decade, institutions and systems now familiar to us all were established. National Heritage Acts in 1980 and 1983 founded English Heritage (which, until 2015, also undertook the advisory role now fulfilled by Historic England) and Cadw, although it was not until 1991 that these organisations’ equivalent in Scotland was established, first as Historic Scotland (1991-2015) and, more recently, Historic Environment Scotland. And 1987 saw the publication of ‘Circular 8/87: historic buildings and conservation areas – policy and procedures’, the forerunner of ‘Planning Policy Guidance 16: archaeology and planning’ (PPG 16, 1990) which formalised the role of local planning authorities in England and Wales on the treatment of archaeology.

In 1989 came one of those coincidences upon which archaeology so often depends, a find that caught the public imagination and turned the tide of political opinion. On the south bank of the Thames in London, redevelopment revealed a 16th-century site that proved to be the remains of the Rose theatre. Built in 1587, this building had hosted performances of plays written by, among others, Shakespeare and Marlowe (see CA 115, June 1989). The threat of its destruction galvanised popular support in a way last seen during the raising of the Mary Rose in 1982. Actors (among them Peggy Ashcroft, Timothy Dalton, Ian McKellen, Laurence Olivier, and Patrick Stewart) – together with many members of the public and numerous archaeologists – came together to form the ‘Save the Rose’ campaign. This and other controversial cases (including works to the Palace of Westminster) forced the government to fully consider the place of archaeology in the planning system, and so, in 1990, PPG 16 brought archaeology properly into the planning process.

The formalisation of archaeology in this decade took other forms, too. Before the legislative change came a documentary revolution, as ‘single context recording’ became common practice (the MOLA Archaeological Site Manual, updated in 1980, 1990, and 1994, is the most famous example of this). In county after county, there was investment in people and infrastructure, with archaeological officers and associated SMRs (Sites and Monuments Records – nowadays usually referred to as HERs, Historic Environment Records); in time, the latter were digitised, as were many site records (the early adoption of computers in archaeology across the 1980s is an under-appreciated aspect of the discipline’s history). This process also saw many scientific advances, too, which Current Archaeology was at the forefront of reporting on thanks to John Musty’s ‘science diary’, which ran between issues 75 and 165 (February 1981 – October 1999; see also my column in CA 334, January 2018). Continuing in this tradition, since CA 333 (December 2017) the news section has also featured a dedicated ‘Science Notes’ page.

Finally, let us not forget the great digs of this decade, among others: Silchester (see CA 337, April 2018), Coppergate in York (see CA 340, July 2018), the Somerset Levels (see CA 344, November 2018), and the raising of the Mary Rose (see CA 218 and 272, May 2008 and November 2012).

Ten years later, CA 150 (November 1996) covered new discoveries on some of the isles of the country, including the Welsh royal palace at Rhosyr on Anglesey and a Neolithic site at Billown on the Isle of Man.

As I noted above, the publication of PPG 16 in 1990 was a watershed moment for archaeology in England. Scotland’s version of this, ‘Planning Advice Note: archaeology’ (PAN 42) arrived in 1994, and Wales’ version, ‘Circular 60/96: planning and the historic environment – archaeology’, in 1996. These changes created the landscape that exists in large part to the present day. While there have been tweaks since this time, the fundamental ‘field lines’ remain little changed: the ‘contract units’, the ’county’ archaeologists, the SMRs/HERs, and other structures.

This decade also, regrettably, embedded barriers to involvement in archaeology, alongside some inequalities and inefficiencies: concerns about health and safety diminished the place of volunteers; competitive tendering for contracts kept pay and conditions low; and this period also saw under- investment in post-excavation conservation, curation, display, and storage. More positively, though, new organisations and new opportunities also emerged at this time. As mentioned above, Historic Scotland was founded in 1991, the Department of National Heritage (the forerunner of today’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport) in 1992, the Heritage Lottery Fund in 1993 (since 2019, the National Lottery Heritage Fund), and the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) in 1996 – an approach that has its supporters and detractors alike, but which has transformed our understanding of prehistoric, Roman, and early medieval Britain.

In terms of the public imagination, all of these pale in comparison to the archaeological behemoth that landed in 1994 and ran until 2012: Time Team (see CA 252, March 2011). One can not over-emphasise the impact that the show had on the archaeological landscape, sparking a marked and sustained rise in applications to study archaeology at university. These were boom years for the discipline.

The 200th issue of Current Archaeology was published at the end of 2005 and reflected on some of the amazing discoveries that had been made since the magazine’s inception 38 years earlier. Sites highlighted included Crickley Hill, Silchester, and Wharram Percy.

The 2000s brought mixed fortunes. Where there was investment, there was retrenchment; where there was stability, there was stagnation. To start with, there were no significant legislative or planning changes. The commercial model established under PPG 16 stabilised, becoming the established (if not always accepted) norm; so too did the place of local-authority archaeologists in relation to this process. The national heritage agencies (within their newly devolved legislative structures) similarly witnessed no fundamental change, and academic archaeology also consolidated its earlier gains. But there were also successes: most notably, the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund (ALSF), a tax on mineral extraction that included opportunities for natural and cultural heritage funding between 2002 and 2011, which brought in new income streams and new connections.

Unexpected finds also regularly saw local communities come together to fight for their heritage. The discovery in 2002 of a late medieval ship at Newport in South Wales became perhaps the best-known ‘rescue’ excavation of this decade (see CA 181, September 2002). Other finds made at this time transformed the baseline understanding of archaeology. For example, at Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast, a hand axe, discovered in 2000, remains the earliest evidence for human occupation in what later became Britain, dating back over 700,000 years (see CA 201, January 2006).

Good fortune, however, was not always with archaeology, nor wider society. The financial crash of 2007/2008 hit the sector hard, sending shockwaves that resonated until the COVID-19 pandemic’s own seismic consequences. And perhaps the most impactful change upon archaeology in this decade is the one that we now least notice: the gradual move into the digital sphere, be this in the collection and analysis of data, in forms of access to that data (especially via smartphone), and in the mediums of engagement (especially via social media). All these fundamentally shifted in this decade.


The landscape of British archaeology over the past 13 years is a fragmented one. We all know the most recent history: the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 ruptured the lives of everyone, the consequences of which are still with us. The lucky ones among us kept our lives and livelihoods and discovered new routes to engagement and connection, with easy online participation in events having democratised access to archaeology. Alongside this, ongoing advances in digital data management offer an unparalleled insight into the ancient world at the time and location of our choosing. The unlucky, though, lost their lives and livelihoods, and we ought to pause to remember them. More recently still, the global economic slowdown has impacted upon us all – but this is too live an issue to properly assess here.

Stepping back to the start of the decade, there was a decidedly mixed mood for different reasons. In the early years, there had been an entrepreneurial spirit, evidenced both in new TV shows like Digging for Britain (2010), and new approaches such as the crowdfunding model first pursued by DigVentures in 2012 (see CA 302, May 2015). Archaeology also regularly made headline news, most notably between 2012 and 2015, when the discovery of the remains of Richard III captured the popular imagination (see CA 272, 277, and 294, November 2012, April 2013, and September 2014). Meanwhile, the axing of Time Team in 2012, followed by the death of Mick Aston in 2013, shocked many people (see CA 271, 274, and 282, October 2012, January 2013, and September 2013).

The 2010s also witnessed a constant tinkering by government with the planning system. In England, ‘Planning Policy Statement 5: planning for the historic environment’ (PPS 5, 2010) replaced PPG 16 (1990) and PPG 15 (1994); then it in turn was replaced by the ‘National Planning Policy Framework’ in 2012 (updated in 2018, 2019, and 2021). Similar changes occurred in Scotland with ‘Planning Advice Note 2/2011: planning and archaeology’ (2011) replacing PAN 42 (1994); and in Wales, with the Historic Environment (Wales) Act’s (2016) ‘Technical Advice Note (TAN) 24: the historic environment’ (2017) replacing previous legislation and guidance there. For all these changes, however, little shifted fundamentally in terms of the practice of archaeology. The structures formalised in the 1980s and 1990s held firm.

Other institutional structures, though, saw much greater change. There is no overarching term for the complex, interconnected social reforms that archaeology is currently a part of. To simply call these ‘woke’ and dismiss them (as some detractors attempt) lacks honesty and nuance, and is beneath us all. They include concerns with equality, diversity, and inclusion; with engagement in the legacies of empire and colonialism; and with the consequences of this for the collection, curation, and repatriation of materials to descendant communities. Sincere, thoughtful engagement with such issues is a moral responsibility for every one of us.

Having moved to 12 issues a year, milestone issues then became more frequent, with CA 250 published in 2011, CA 300 in 2015, and CA 350 in 2019.

What of the future? It is a fair assumption that across the next 50 years, for all the technical advances that we will undoubtedly witness, fieldwork will still be taking place, and still largely by hand. The processes, and crucially the pleasures, are too human for easy replacement. However clever the android, people love to participate in fieldwork as much now as they ever did, and I do not see that changing. Where digital technologies will, I am confident, make an increasingly important contribution lies in two spheres: firstly, that of different types of autonomous vehicles (in the air, on land, under the sea, and in outer space) collecting ever more detailed remote-sensing data; and secondly, the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to undertake data aggregation and comparison. Such tools have the potential to lead the great revolution in archaeology across the mid-2100s: that of the re-analysis of existing data and archives and, linked to this, the digitisation of existing hard-copy archives.

This may seem a mundane suggestion to end on, but in terms of the advancement of the discipline, we ought to look to our past as much as to our future. The responsible thing to do under such circumstances is to reassess existing data as much as to create new collections. This is not to suggest that no new fieldwork will take place – the demands of development on the one hand, and the consequences of climate change on the other, will necessitate that – but rather it is to say that we all ought to aim for a better balance of rediscovery as much as new discovery.

On that note, I tip my hat to the founders of Current Archaeology, Andrew and Wendy Selkirk, whose vision has enriched so many of us over the last half-century; to the editorial staff, past and present, who have so carefully curated this content; and to you, my fellow readers, whose appetite for archaeology remains undimmed. Long may it continue.

Joe Flatman

About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and – most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

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