Muddy trenches and ivory towers

I’ve been looking at the recently published Southport Group report, a document resulting from a working group drawn from a cross-section of the English archaeological sector which aims to address the implications of PPG16 with the new PPS5. PPG16 was the planning policy guidance document which in 1990 established the current system integrating archaeology into the planning system. In practice, this has led to a massive rise in archaeological fieldwork and an associated expansion in the commercial archaeology sector. It was predicated on the notion that when a development threatened to impact on archaeology it should either be mitigated against (by, for example, a change in the plan of the site) or ‘preserved by record’ through excavation. The advent of the new PPS5 changes some key underlying assumptions. One major change is the assumption that ‘preservation by record’ is possible and that an objective recording and archiving of a site is an unproblematic process. Equally, there is an increased realisation that simply mitigating damage to the site is laden with inherent challenges; it does not stop the inherent decay processes faced by all archaeology and some mitigation strategies, such as needle piling, may even speed up these processes. Instead PPS5 moves towards the notion of ‘offsetting’ with a realisation that there is always going to be a trade-off between mitigation and recording, and throwing into the mix an increased emphasis on involvement by the wider community (yes, the word ‘localism’ rears its head) and an increased focus on capitalising on the research data generated by more partnership working (including local groups, local government curators, commercial contractors and academia). I want to touch on the proposals linked to increased community involvement in another post, but in the meantime I want to explore some of the suggestions put forward about the role of academia in commercial archaeology.
It calls for an increased involvement by British universities in the commercial archaeological process. This is undoubtedly an exciting prospect; the huge increase in archaeological information from the sixfold increase in excavations over the last 20 years is enough to whet the appetite of any archaeologist working on British material. However, it would foolish to pretend that there has long been a certain level of tension between academia and the commercial world. There is a tendency for field archaeologist to stereotype academics as out-of-touch, unrealistic, ivory tower scholars, with no understanding of the reality of life in the trenches, whilst academics can often characterise the commercial sector as under-theorised, technicians happy to compromise their academic integrity for a fast buck.
The Southport report suggests that there has been a reluctance for academia to engage in commercial archaeology for a number of reasons, including the perception that the demands of the Research Assessment Exercise (Research Excellence Framework as it is now) have encouraged many universities to disengage from British archaeology. I must confess, I’m not entirely convinced about this; it is certainly easy to think of a series of senior archaeologists with impeccable research profiles who focus partly or wholly on UK archaeology.
One factor that is not mentioned, however, is the increased separation between the commercial world/local government archaeology and academia for a range of professional reasons. In the past it was not uncommon for individuals to be able to make the transition between the commercial sector and universities. There are plenty of famous university archaeologists who had an extensive track record in commercial work (or its pre-1990 equivalent). For example, people like Philip Rahtz, Martin Carver, Graham Webster and Philip Barker who had significant pre-academia careers before making the transition into the university world. It is hard to envisage happening to any extent now. This is because of changes in the way in which academic careers are constructed. The first change is the demand that all lecturers have a PhD – a laudable idea in theory, but in practice this immediately precludes senior field archaeologist, who may have extensive track records in major excavation, but no doctorate, becoming academics. A second issue is the need for an academic to have a strong portfolio of REF-submittable publications is paramount. However, even if a field archaeologist has a strong record of bringing field projects to publication they are unlikely to be seen as comprising a strong REF submission. Instead, the main career path for those entering academia is PhD – post-doctoral research posts – lecturer; increasingly few academic archaeologists, particularly of the younger generation have ever experienced employment outside universities, beyond perhaps a couple of months working as site technicians during the summer vacation. This means that the current cohort of academics is increasingly detached from the form of archaeology that produces the overwhelming bulk of data for those working on British archaeology today.

This is undoubtedly something I’ll come back to…

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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