The Council for Independent Archaeology: Envoi
The Council for Independent Archaeology is no longer active. Here are some final thoughts that I wrote in 2018
In 1985 one of our subscribers who rejoiced in the name of Plantagenet Somerset Fry was nattering to me on the phone about the problems of amateur archaeology. And I said: ‘we should do something about this, let’s hold a conference’. He said: ‘fine, organise the conference and I will provide a Cambridge college where you can hold it’. And thus the first Congress of Independent Archaeologists was held in 1985 at Selwyn College Cambridge. It was a great success and was followed two years later by an even more successful congress.
It began well, but the effort of organising a weekend congress was substantial and so two years later at York it was decided (not without controversy) to set up a formal society to run the conferences. After some discussion the name of the Council for Independent Archaeology was decided upon despite the initials clashing with a certain American organisation. Bi-annual congresses were held and then one-day meetings were organised in the alternate years, beginning memorably with a meeting at Maiden Castle to mark the hundred anniversary of the birth of Sir Mortimer Wheeler, where libations were poured to the spirit of the volunteers who carried out the Maiden Castle excavations.
For twenty years the formula continued, but then the effort of organising a weekend conference became too much and it turned into a single day conference, meeting no longer in universities but in village halls around the country. The last was held in 2017, but since then they too have ceased. What has gone wrong? Has archaeology changed so much that the concept idea of having a body to speak for amateur archaeology is not worth perpetuating?
The Rise of Professionalism
Part of the problem is that archaeology has changed: it has become professionalised. This is something that basically we have all supported. PPG 16, or as it is now known, Developer Funding, has been a huge success. I suppose that in the early days of Current Archaeology in the 1970s the most thrilling event was the rise of rescue archaeology, that led to the founding of the organisation called Rescue.
It was a movement that we were all swept away by and it was terribly exciting. And in the 1970s and 80s it produced a lot of wonderful articles for Current Archaeology. It was a time when amateurs and professionals were closely linked together. Young or comparatively young archaeologists were getting grants from the Ministry of Works to go and rescue important sites in the middle of historic towns and with a largely amateur workforce they would eagerly tell me of their triumphs.
But like all good things the pendulum has now swung too far and rescue archaeology is now virtually wholly professional, and the amateurs have been squeezed out. This is surely a pity. There are many small excavations which could and should be undertaken by the local archaeological society. There was recently an excavation on Hampstead Heath, on the top of Parliament Hill, in advance of reseeding. They found nothing, but this could surely have been done by the local archaeological society in Hendon. And there are many small excavations done in churches where toilets and a kitchen need to be installed, and the church can ill afford the cost of a professional excavation. And surely a church is part of the local community where the locals should do the excavation rather than having some alien professional team come in and do the work in secret, putting shuttering round and then go away and produce a report for the church authorities which parishioners rarely see.
I once produced some Guidelines to suggest how potential sites could be offered to the local society, but it did not find favour. But surely English Heritage could lead the way and whenever minor excavations are needed in their properties in care — where they want to position a new seat or divert a pathway — this could be done by the local society. Indeed each property in care should surely adopt a local society and urge them to take an interest in their local monument. When I was in Hampstead, for many years I was Chairman of HADAS our local society, but never once were we contacted by the curators of Kenwood House, our local historic property. (And English Heritage shops never carry information about, or books by, the local society).
Another major problem has been the rise of ‘community archaeology’. Community archaeology has often been a big success, and many claim it is the new form of amateur archaeology. Amateur archaeology and Community archaeology are often said to be more or less the same, but there is a crucial difference: the one is top down, the other is bottom up.
Community activity, or communitarianism to give it the long abstract name, is a very slippery word which has many different meanings. The basic premise is that society is sick and the government should do something about this. It is basically a critique of liberalism in favour of an authoritarian or collectivist approach. There is a vast literature on the subject where a crucial figure is the American philosopher Amitai Etzioni, while in the background there is the American philosopher John Rawls, whose book I tried to read, but failed.
In archaeology however, community archaeology tends to have a fairly specific meaning. A problem arises: something must be done about it, so funds are raised in order to employ a professional, who then enthuses volunteers to carry out the task. The main task of the originators of the project is to raise funds rather than to do any archaeology themselves. The archaeology is all left to the professionals, who at the end give all the lectures, write the book and take all the glory. When the grant comes to an end, the project comes to an end, for everything depends on fund raising.
Community archaeology has had many successes: often the grants come from government or local government, though the biggest source of funds has been the Heritage Lottery Fund. The HLF has been a big success. It was set up originally to sanitise the concept of having a National Lottery, but it has grown enormously on the back of the gambling mania and now distributes some £300 million per year to good causes. On the whole it has been a big success, but for a local society it can be a two-edged sword. The HLF, being a governmental body, is terrified of failure and thus demands a lot of paperwork in advance, which often involves calling in a professional architects and designers, and the role of the local society is diminished.
The problem is to know how far any society needs to collaborate with other bodies. How far should they collaborate with the local professional? How far with the local museum, and indeed the local authority who all too often provides the rooms in which they meet. Often local societies are dominated by a single charismatic character. But community archaeology presents this dilemma in an extreme form. When too much time is devoted to fund raising, and too little to doing archaeology, is it worth it? Sometimes the answer is yes, and the result is a building preserved or an old piece of machinery made to work or a museum is established. But all too often this means that the essential root of a local society, that is studying the archaeology of the local area, is forgotten. The real problem is that the approach to community archaeology is often naive and the problems involved should be more widely recognised.
Another big problem for amateur societies is the advent of the new charities act. This is a problem that is largely unrecognised, but which I believe has had a malign effect on societies. The first Charities Act came in the 16th century under Queen Elizabeth aiming to shore up the gap left by the destruction of the monasteries. Four charitable causes were devised – the advancement of religion, relief of poverty, furtherance of science and knowledge and public benefit. Archaeological societies all became charities under the heading of the ‘advancement of science’.
However in the late 20th century charities came under political attack. The trouble was that most public schools were registered as educational charities and since public schools are seen by many as being the invention of the devil, the best way to attack them was to remove the educational clause from the Charities Act. The Charities Act was therefore re-written removing the three main charitable causes and leaving only public benefit as the main and essential charitable cause. The new Charities Act, mainly that of 2006, was accompanied by the appointment of a ferocious politician as Head of the Charities Commission who attacked the old educational charities with vigour.
In archaeology, the Society of Antiquaries suffered from a traumatic visitation from a latter-day Thomas Cromwell, and as a result they have redirected their enthusiasms to giving lunchtime lectures to the general public and regular tours of their fine premises adjacent to the Royal Academy in Piccadilly. Sadly however they ignore what I believe should be their prime objective: of providing an umbrella and a meeting place for archaeologists, both those who do not fit into the usual institutional support or who wish to widen their interest beyond their own institution; and this includes supporting local societies who should be the umbrella and meeting place for independent local archaeologists. I am very fond of the Antiquaries, of whom I was eventually elected a Fellow and I attend their meetings regularly, but I must admit that I avert my gaze and hold my nose when they talk about their ‘mission’ and ‘core objectives’.
But the Charities Act has a malign effect on local societies too, all of whom now feel that they must appeal not so much to their members, as to public benefit, which means that they concentrate too much on providing work for the unemployed, or providing facilities for school children. I realised the extent of the damage caused by the Charities Act when I went to an award ceremony recently, where several of the winners told us how many school parties they had entertained, but failed to give the actual result of their work.
This means that many societies get their priorities wrong. To run a society successfully your first priority must be your members, as indeed with any organisation. And if your first priority is that you provide public benefit there is a danger that you forget about your members. That is not to say that a traditional society ignores the general public, far from it. You must make continuous effort to publicise your society in order to get new members; and in any case you want to trumpet your successes and to inform people about the history of their locality. And most societies in my experience do welcome in a wide variety of members, not all of whom are of an intellectual bent. But with the new Charities Act, local societies are getting their priorities wrong: their numbers are waning and local history is not being written.
A deeper problem lies in with the very concept of charity encapsulated by the new Charities Act, which involves a radical shift in the meaning of charity and with it the whole role of the volunteer, the amateur in the nation’s life. Charities are now considered to be part of the welfare state and the idea that they can be for the advancement of knowledge has been forgotten. Previously charities were expected to keep out of politics, now their major function is to lobby for more government funding for their particular field. Indeed all too often they are set up with a government grant in order to pursue the interests of some government department or other special interests. Charities have lost their way.
But is there any case for amateur archaeology? I would suggest that the answer comes under two headings: the financial case and the philosophical case.
There is the financial case, that is, if the government fails to provide money for archaeology, then the amateurs must step in and fill the gap. It is widely preached, but rarely practised.
Now here I must confess to a lifetime of error. I have spent fifty years preaching that surely government expenditure is not going to rise any further, and whenever I have said this, government expenditure has risen further. I am like a little boy who is always crying fire, and the fire has never broken out and I fear that I have lost all credibility. But is government expenditure really going to continue to expand, or is there financially still a role for the amateur, the volunteer? Is the situation any different now? Do the political upsets of 2016 – Brexit and the election of President Trump – signal that the world is going in a new direction? So far there is little evidence for any rational programme for a new direction. There are calls for increasing work to be done by volunteers, but does this mean anything more t han calls for unpaid labour?
There is perhaps one particular gap that is already emerging. The weakness of Developer Funding is that it has cut loose from any concept of regionality. The big units are spread all over the country and archaeological work is done by organisations that work here, there, and everywhere. The results are produced in Grey Literature and apart from valiant efforts to provide overall national surveys, no one tries to pull it all together: this surely is a role for the local society. However there is a corollary to this. If one is to be a successful archaeologist one must have one’s roots in digging. You must know the local soil, the local pottery and the local problems. But if digging is fully professionalised the local society will never have the expertise to pull together the whole story.
This perhaps is the greatest need of all to give local societies the confidence to do their own digs. They are all cowed by the success and supposed expertise of the professional diggers. It is often said that all diggers make a mess of their first dig, it is only on their second dig that they learn how to do it. Indeed we should remember that many, perhaps most professional excavators are very much ‘wham, bang, thank you ma’am’ affairs done under the constraints of time and money. The fault of most amateur diggers is that they dig too slowly and too carefully. Perhaps the major task is to give them back their confidence.
Another place where local societies can help is in adult education. One of the great powerhouses of archaeology in the second half of the 20th century, has been the force of adult education, which has nurtured the whole army of tutors: Graham Webster, Philip Rahtz, Maurice Barley, Philip Barker, Mick Aston, Harvey Sheldon, and many others. Yet government support has been steadily cut back, and now the government only finances adult education as a sort of apprenticeship scheme tightly linked to providing jobs. How is adult education to continue?
In some parts of the country, local societies, or even county societies are stepping into the breach. I myself promoted this to a slight extend with our local society HADAS. We were bequeathed the finds from an important local excavation carried out in the 1970s, but never properly published. I suggested that it should be made into a local class, and I approached Harvey Sheldon at Birkbeck College, the adult education department at London University. He found an excellent tutor, Jacqui Pearce, a senior finds investigator from the Museum of London who lived in the area and who ran the classes which have published the excavation in several volumes. But we found that the charges for the Birkbeck course were rather expensive, so we decided to go independent. We hire the room ourselves, we pay the tutor and we charge £300 for a year for the course, which is fully booked. We are now tackling other ‘dead’ excavations from the 1970s and have a great expertise on post-Medieval pottery in the area. Is this one of the ways ahead, for the local societies to take over the role of adult education?
The second reason is more philosophical. The most important reason for independent archaeology for me, is the importance of getting new thinking into our study of the past. I like to think in Hayekian terms of the marketplace. The study of the past should always be an open forum, a place where new ideas can always be offered and can either be bought, or left to languish. And we need new ideas – which often come from outsiders, the independents. Archaeology today is becoming stagnant: universities are running out of ideas and are becoming stifled by political correctness. The biggest problem is the Arts and Humanities Research Council, a hotbed of political correctness, which dominates and controls the grants on which higher education exists. If you want to do further research to get a doctorate, you need to get a grant from the AHRC: your application must be politically correct, full of highfallutin abstract nouns that are incomprehensible to the outsider, and probably to most insiders too. This predominance is very dangerous – very dangerous indeed. There are indeed other grant giving bodies: there is the Leverhulme, slightly better than the AHRC and the various Sainsbury Trusts, notably the Headley Trust. But these all tend to be constrained by current thinking and prejudice.
We need to have a new basis for doing research. We need to have a shift of generation: instead of young scholars getting their doctorate at the government’s expense and based on the government’s politically correct ideas, we need to shift research to an older generation of those who have retired or who are otherwise self-funding, who can be independent and thus make an end to the tyranny of Marxist ‘theory’; we need a body that will help older people find suitable research projects preferably outside universities and to find research projects that are looking for new researchers.
What then should be the role for a body that represents the amateur in archaeology? Firstly it should robustly support the legal basis of archaeology in Britain (more specifically England). England and to some extent Britain, differs from the rest of Europe in that finds, apart from gold and silver, belong to the landowner. Anyone can excavate anywhere providing that the land is not specifically scheduled by the government. This should be the basis for independent archaeology, but it is a principle that is continually under attack from the academics: it needs to be vigorously protected.
Secondly, it is vital to emphasise that local societies need to be digging societies. Excavation is the essential base of archaeology: the archaeologist needs to know stratigraphy, and to know the typology of their local pottery and this needs to be learnt at first hand. It is sometimes said that archaeology is inherently destructive, which is true, but facile. Sites are always at risk – dehydration is a constant threat — and the acquisition of new knowledge is always a benefit. I am told is the majority of hillforts in Britain have never been excavated at all, and if a local society puts a trench across the ramparts, the benefits to knowledge surely outweigh the minimal damage from a single trench.
The benefit from having local amateur digs is that they bring in new members to a society. Digging societies flourish and acquire new members; societies that do not dig, lose members. Digs are a valuable source of publicity: the local newspaper will not be interested in the lectures a society has laid on, or the books it has published, but it will report on the results of a local excavation. And it is the feeling that a local society is doing real archaeology that makes it attractive to potential new members. (Quick question here. Why is it that those who read archaeology at University but do not become archaeologists (the majority) do not join local societies?)
A major task would be to represent amateur archaeology to other bodies. Firstly, perhaps the government. What is the role of the government in archaeology? Yes, government control is needed: but what are the limits? Do they go too far? Are too many monuments and historic buildings being listed? And are the regulations too stiff? In an historic building, should it be permissible to replace a cast iron drainpipe with plastic when the plastic is only a tenth of the cost and the difference is invisible unless you come up within three feet of the offending downpipe? And the regulations for carrying out an excavation on a scheduled monument – the so called MAP 3 – are ridiculously bureaucratic. Should not a local society be allowed to put a trench across the defences of an Iron Age hillfort with an application covering not more than one side of an A4 sheet? What indeed is the role of Historic England apart from administering the law? How far should they be a funder of last resort, funding the writing up of excavations which are long since dead, or conserving finds which are discovered unexpectedly? On the other hand, should they not refrain from doing their own research?
Local government also needs to be monitored. Local government archaeology officers vary considerably in their attitude towards local societies. Some are very friendly and go out of their way to support: others are hostile. The relationship needs to be sorted out. Local government archaeology officers are currently feeling rather harassed: their numbers have been reduced by the cuts to local government and they tend to protect themselves by being over bureaucratic: surely they would be wise to cultivate good relations with the local amateur archaeologists?
It would also be important to keep an eye on the CIfA, the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, the professionals’ trade union. This has been a big success and much of what they do is of great benefit to archaeology generally. But there is always a danger with professional bodies that they seek to establish a monopoly and it would be important to see that they do not overstep the bounds, and forget the benefits of amateur archaeology.
In particular, it needs to be emphasised that there is a difference between amateur standards and professional standards. Professional standards, once one strips out the highfalutin guff, really come down to the problem of low balling, the danger that units quote low prices to get the job and that as a result, their standards slip. All professional excavations are done to the constraints of time and money. Amateur standards are different. The main problem with amateurs is that they lack confidence and dig too slowly, and as a result lose sight of the overall picture.
And there is the Council for British Archaeology, an admirable body currently suffering from a gradual withdrawal of its government grant, but flourishing strongly in many regions. But they suffer from a remit to represent the whole of archaeology, and since the biggest part of archaeology is professional archaeology they do not always shout loudly enough on behalf of the amateur archaeologists. They always tend to be in favour of more government intervention, when sometimes the problem is that the government interferes too much.
At the other extreme we should note the success of the treasure hunters – the metal-detectorists who have presented their case to the government so effectively, that ministers tend to be under the illusion that treasure hunters are in fact amateur archaeologists.
It is time too to consider the role of amateur archaeologists with the Portable Antiquities scheme. This has been one of the huge successes of archaeology in recent years, but sadly they have ignored the amateur archaeologist: they have built up valuable relations with the often hostile metal-dectectorist fraternity but they have ignored amateur archaeology. They should try to make use of the expertise of amateur archaeologists and amateur coin collectors and also be persuaded that when treasure hunters make a significant discovery that needs further investigation, it should be the local society that is called in to deal with the situation, not the professional archaeologists.
And we need to think about the philosophy of so-called ‘public archaeology’. At present public archaeology and amateur archaeology are two quite separate disciplines, and those dealing with public archaeology, tend to ignore local societies, or at best patronise them and fail to understand how they operate. But public archaeologists need to be told very firmly of the dangers of ‘community’ that is ‘top down’ archaeology. Public archaeologists often think they are doing a good job by setting up a community scheme, which in practice takes away volunteers who would otherwise join a local society. The problem of course is that local societies may have a mind of their own. They may look at local politicians and local planners and oppose their plans: community archaeology on the other hand breeds puppy dogs who, by their very nature, cannot think for themselves. Yet a vigourous independent viewpoint is surely an essential part of democracy. Local societies should play a vital role in archaeology and it is a pity that public archaeologists have no idea how they should liaise with them.
And there are many mundane questions where the amateurs need to make their voice heard – health and safety, working with children, finding human bones, insurance —all matters where the interests of amateurs – not just archaeologists — are not heard by the legislators.
The case for the CIA
There is I believe a huge role for amateur archaeologists that needs to be filled: a huge need for a dynamic and persuasive organisation to promote their interests and importance. (I, alas, have been unable to fulfil this role: I am no politician). But the CIA can I believe offer a basis: we have 400 members more-or-less; we have money in the bank; and one of our greatest benefits is that we have Bob Randall, an electronics engineer, who builds resistivity meters which can be sold for under £2,000, a sum which local societies and indeed individuals can easily afford. The system had a hiccup when the EU banned lead soldering and it needed to be redesigned, but the new model is better than ever before and provides its readings instantaneously on a tablet computer. Bob provides not only the machines but also the technical backup with regular workshops where he provides advice and practical training.
The skeleton of the organisation still exists, but let us have one last conference – a grand funeral – to decide whether the corpse will come alive again. We need some speakers who are prepared to give us their thoughts and experiences as independent archaeologists; and we need speakers from the various branches of archaeology to tell us what they think should be the role of the amateur in archaeology.
Sadly as one grows old, one looses the energy and enthusiasm to organise new projects any more. But if you have any ideas, any experience of doing independent archaeology and any ideas of the direction what help is needed and what direction we can go, please let us know. And let us see whether a new generation comes along to revive independent archaeology, or whether the CIA goes out to a magnificent funeral when the Saints come marching in, and carry away our dead bones.