Who champions the amateur?

10 mins read

CA’s Editor in Chief defines the difference between community and amateur archaeology, and cautions not to leave our past to the politicians.

It is commonplace today to say interest in archaeology is growing — a feeling well-expressed by Suzie Thomas in her very interesting article Common Ground (p.28). Yet I can’t help feeling that something is wrong: this is certainly not the story we have been experiencing at Current Archaeology. And this is not just our experience. Talking to local societies, and indeed to most of the national societies, the story is the same. Their subscriptions are static and they are failing to grow. So what is happening?

The answer, I fear, is that archaeology is hollowing out. Professional and academic archaeology are both doing well. Popular archaeology is also thriving: there is plenty of archaeology on television and in the press, and the public will flock to see spectacular discoveries such as the Staffordshire Hoard (providing they are free).  The big governmental or semi-governmental bodies such as English Heritage and the National Trust are also flourishing. But the middle of archaeology — the serious amateur who is prepared to spend time, money and study on archaeology, is missing out.

The problem is typified by the community archaeology phenomenon. I distinguish community archaeology sharply from amateur archaeology: amateurs are serious archaeologists who do archaeology in their spare time for love, not money. Community archaeology is part of a distinctive philosophical and political creed known as ‘communitarianism’, which sprang up in the 1980s in America under the leadership of the philosopher Amitai Etzioni, with the premise that society has become too atomistic — too concerned with the individual and not enough with the community.

Community archaeology is top down, and it has a strong authoritarian streak: the first task of any community project is to pay for professional organisers, and then to ensure that those partaking in the project can do so for free. Thus, those involved in community archaeology spend much of their time fundraising. Local government often responds with enthusiasm and the Lottery funds have proved to be a soft touch. An essential component is ‘access’, which means that archaeology must cater for the socially deprived and to school children. As long as government money continues to flow and the Lottery Fund continues its generosity, community archaeology will flourish. Equally, should government money become scarce, or should Lottery funds become slightly more circumspect, community archaeology will collapse. This is where the traditional archaeological society will come into its own. I always feel that ‘volunteering’ is rather bogus if it depends on government money for its existence. A true volunteer should, above all, be independent.

Talking to amateur archaeologists, I find a rather different set of concerns to those identified by Suzie Thomas. A consistent complaint is the demand for a police security check from the Criminal Records Bureau in order to work with children, which is both expensive and distasteful. Many people object to the supposition that all adults have criminal intent upon children unless proved otherwise. As a result, it is increasingly difficult for children to get any real experience in proper archaeology.

There is also the problem of the 2005 Charities Act and its heavy-handed implementation by the Charities Commission, which makes running a local society far too complicated. The accounting system, called the Statement of Recommended Practice, encourages charities to regard increase in the value of investments as income. This is a disaster. If you spend the upturn in investments in good years, then when the market turns down, you will be left facing a big loss, as the Society of Antiquaries has been discovering. It is disastrous, too, to appoint all members of the committee as trustees. People are often persuaded to join a committee for one specific function, e.g. organising the meetings, and do not want to face the threat of being held personally liable should the society go bankrupt. Finally, the sheer weight of reporting now required is quite excessive. Small societies which in the past produced an annual report two pages long now find themselves having to produce a dozen pages. The Charity Commissioners have no idea of the practicalities of running a small society.

Above all, we need clear lines drawn between the sort of jobs that professionals should do, and those that should be left to the amateurs. Of course, the overwhelming majority of archaeology projects will still be undertaken by professional archaeologists, but there are numerous minor projects that should be done by the amateurs, who in any case should be far more widely consulted than they are at present.

New role for the amateur

The big change needs to be made in the way that the various ‘curatorial’ bodies carry out their functions. Firstly, in churches, the Diocesan Advisory Committees should be expected to work in closest collaboration with local archaeological societies. If minor work needs to be carried out, the local society should be given the first option. When professional archaeologists are called in, they tend immediately to put barricades round the site so no-one can see what is happening, and that is not the point of archaeology at all. Far better to have the work done by the local societies who are, after all, part of the community — and who are far, far cheaper than professional archaeologists.

Secondly, Finds Liaison Officers should work more directly with local societies. When metal detectorists make discoveries that need further investigation, the project should always first be offered to the local society.

Finally, English Heritage should appoint a local society as its point of liaison for all the monuments in its care. There are constantly minor works that need to be done, such as new pathways, the foundation for a new seat, or a need for an extension to the toilets or plumbing. Such minor works could perfectly well be investigated by the local society. Major works will need to be done professionally, but the local people should be consulted and made to feel that the local monument belongs to them — not to English Heritage in London.

Over 20 years ago, I set up the Council for Independent Archaeology to champion independent archaeology: that is, those not in receipt of government funds, and in particular local societies whose members look after the running of the society themselves.  The CIA has been, and is, a wonderful place to bring together local societies who can learn from one another, but I think I must confess we have failed to meet the onslaught of professionalism. The zeitgeist has been against us. Now we need a new, younger generation to take over, with a broader vision and a determination to promote the cause of independent archaeology more effectively than I have been able to do. In this, I think that the CBA (the Council for British Archaeology) has also failed. Their problem is that they are funded by the government, and thus inevitably look at archaeology through governmental eyes. The CBA has concentrated on selling archaeology to the general public (‘access’) rather than in finding the right role for local societies, or the right balance between amateur and professional.

Independent archaeologists are important precisely because they are independent: they can think outside the box, pursue new ideas and new ways of doing things, challenge the conventional wisdom and do not need to kow-tow to the latest government fashions (access, inclusiveness, discrimination, sustainability — the whole politically correct caboodle). We need independents. The more thoughtful professionals already realise that their freedom of action depends ultimately on having a lively and forceful independent sector that will always provide an alternative, if they are forced by their political masters down dubious paths. Archaeologists abroad envy our strong amateur tradition, and the freedom it bestows on the professionals.

Our past is something that is too important to be handed over entirely to the politicians.

October 2010

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