Quangos and Conferences

14 mins read

CA‘s Editor in Chief considers the impact of our next government on heritage issues, and relives his season’s epic round of conferences.

An election is coming: by the time you read this, there will be a new government. The pundits tell us that whichever government is elected, a certain retrenchment may be needed in the public finances; beady eyes may well be cast over English Heritage. There is a danger that any axe will be crude, hasty and ill thought out; it is surely the duty of any commentator to try to take a more informed view and to suggest which parts of English Heritage should be sacred, and which should not.

The problem with English Heritage is that it has two very different tasks. On the one hand it has the task of running the Ancient Monuments Acts, for which it needs to be judicious and fair-minded: never taking sides, and to be seen never to take sides, as is the case with judges. On the other hand, it is also tasked with an ‘advocacy’ role, to act as a ‘champion’ of the historic environment, and thus to be anything but unbiased.

The confusion goes back to the founding act of Parliament — the National Heritage Act of 1983 — and, in particular, paragraph 33 where the Commission’s general functions are set out. The Act, which sets up a number of quangos, was something of a rushed job, pushed through by Michael Heseltine in the full flood of privatisation. It needs to be revised.

English Heritage itself admits this dichotomy when it says both that it is the ‘government statutory adviser on the environment’ and that ‘our role is to champion and care for the historic environment’. Thus, any approach to slim down English  Heritage is quite simple: keep its duty as statutory adviser, but reduce the championing role.

A good example of this is the Heritage at Risk Register, now divided up into nine different regions. It grows ever longer, and I think their intended message is that the problem is getting worse — please give us more money. I take the more obvious interpretation — the problem is getting worse and English Heritage is failing. This is not the sort of thing that a quango should be doing. This is something that the independent sector should be doing. Every local society should be preparing its Heritage at Risk register and it should be co-ordinated by Rescue, the one campaigning organisation in archaeology that has kept its nose clean by not taking any government money.

The trouble is that the Heritage at Risk survey omits what should be the most interesting part of any enquiry into buildings at risk: why are they at risk? The answer in all too many cases comes from government action in the past, such as death duties in the 1920s, which took away money desperately needed for repairs; or rent controls in the 1960s, which meant that no money was available to maintain a building with sitting tenants. A government quango can never criticise the government (except to say it has not been given enough money) yet it is often the government itself that is the problem.

The unfortunate side effect of all this advocacy work from English Heritage is that it weakens the advocacy work that should be done by outside bodies. Rescue, in particular, suffers because English Heritage tries to do all its work for it. There is much that English Heritage needs to do. It has a core function which, on the whole, it does very well. We need to strengthen these core functions but purge away its advocacy role and thereby strengthen those outside bodies who should be championing the heritage.

Conference marathon

I am totally exhausted, having spent the late winter and early spring going to conferences. I began with our own Current Archaeology conference, where my only task was to organise my Climate Change session. After that I was able to sit back and enjoy myself and listen to the presentations. We had some cracking talks, notably from Mike Parker-Pearson on Stonehenge and Kevin Leahy on the Staffordshire Hoard. It was amazing to be at a conference where no-one was allowed to read their papers and all the lecturers talked in plain, simple and enthusiastic English.

This was followed a fortnight later by the AD 410 conference celebrating, if that is the right word, the 1,600th anniversary of the Fall of Rome. The conference really should have been held three years ago in 2007 to celebrate the 1,400th anniversary of the Fall of Britain — or, rather, the withdrawal of the last remaining fragments of the Roman army that Constantine III took with him on his doomed attempt to become an Emperor of the whole Roman Empire — and, indeed, many of the papers were based around Britain rather than Rome. Someone said it was remarkable that we know more about the years 407 and 410 than we do about any year in the Roman Empire, apart from AD 68 — the year of the four emperors, to which Tacitus devotes all four of his surviving books of his Histories. This is largely due to Zosimus, whose second-rate history of the Roman world actually peters out in AD 410. This means that, for historians, the story of these closing years of the presence of the Roman army in England is the subject of endless fascination.

The conference also saw the launch of a new book AD 410: The Year that shook Rome (British Museum Press £9.99) jointly written by Sam Moorhead, the very energetic coin expert for the Portable Antiquities Scheme at the British Museum (and organiser of both this conference, and our conference, from the British Museum side), with his friend and playwright, David Stuttard. This doesn’t deal with Britain at all, but with the events in Rome itself and the capture of the city by Alaric the Goth on 24 August 410. It is a well told story, even dramatic at times. It is beautifully illustrated in colour throughout and gives a fine account of the events of 1600 years ago. Buy it!

Alpha males, DNA and pizza

I then spent three days in Oxford for the Roman Archaeology Conference, which also celebrated the centenary of the founding of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies (well worth joining for the library but also for their journal Britannia: details from their web site www.romansociety.org or from Senate House, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HU).

Clothing, Cloth and Gender in Roman Art at the Roman Archaeology Conference, Oxford

It was one of those conferences where there were four sessions running simultaneously. I decided to start off with an act of masochism, attending a session on imperialism, about which I totally disagreed: lots of alpha males talking about ‘power’. I duly sat through the whole of the first session listening to expositions about how beastly the Romans were and how they only won their empire by fighting and beating everyone else up and by exercising their ‘power’. No, I thought, you have got it all wrong: the Romans may have been good at fighting, but what they were really good at was making peace. The Americans in Iraq should really be studying the Romans to find out how to do it.

In the afternoon, I went to a session on Cloth, Clothing and Gender in Roman Art, which was dominated by women. Men do power, women do clothes! One lecture, by Lena Loeven Larsson, looked at Roman funerary monuments to ask the question: is it really true that women did all the textile work? I don’t think she quite got the answer she was looking for. Yes, it is true that all the people depicted doing spinning are women, but it is the men who are shown with the great big shears used for trimming the cloth. There are a number of depictions of cloth being sold and it is always men doing the selling. And when it comes to fulling, it is always men who are tramping around in the vats full of urine, finishing the cloth for dying. So, all in all, if one looks at the whole range of the textile industry, there were more men than women engaged in the work.

Some of the most interesting sessions were on the scientific side, looking at DNA and isotope analysis. I have always been a bit suspicious of DNA, but isotope analysis, especially in teeth — which can pinpoint where an individual grew up — shows great promise. A programme from the University of Reading analysing skeletons from York is proving particularly interesting.

Finally, I had a most enjoyable outing to North Wales when the students from Bangor University invited me to talk. The Department of Archaeology is housed appropriately in Edwardian splendour within the oldest part of the university and the audience was very polite and laughed at all my jokes. But I had to get the train back at 8.20pm so, with 20 minutes to spare, I rushed out of the pub — where, inevitably, the meeting ended — and into a nearby pizza house to ask if they had a slice of pizza to eat on the train back to London. ‘Oh no,’ they said, ‘we don’t do pizza by the slice, but we have got this huge 12 inch pizza, not collected, which you can have for £5.’ ‘Done,’ I said, and dashed back to the station, the pizza under my arm.

I decided to come back in luxury and found that a first-class ticket cost just £25. I was the only passenger in the compartment and had a steward all to myself. I opened up my pizza and he shimmied up and said, ‘I think a glass of red wine will go nicely with that, Sir.’ He brought me a glass of red wine, some lemonade, a glass of water and then coffee and muffins — all free! From Wolverhampton to Euston I had three first class carriages to myself, plus a steward and a stewardess. I had more red wine, more coffee, more water and more buns, arriving back at Euston bloated, slightly tipsy and with half a Bangor pizza to finish off the next day. All in all, it was a most memorable trip.

June 2010

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