Some Questions and Answers
What is the background to the convention?
The Convention is deeply entrenched in archaeology as practised on the Continent of Europe, with its traditions of close state control, many of which go back to Mussolini, or to the French Revolution. However apparently the main British delegate to the 1992 Convention was Geoffrey Wainwright – fresh (in 1992) from his introduction of PPG16. Parts of the convention reflect his input of PPG 16 principles, i. e that the ‘polluter pays’. Thus Article 2 calls for the establishment of what we call Sites and Monuments Records, and Article 5 calls for archaeology to be incorporated into planning policies. Thus the main establishment response to the Convention has been to welcome the implication that the government should provide statutory force for the maintenance of SMRs.
However throughout the convention there is an emphasis on Governmental action – there is nowhere any acknowledgement that non-Governmental organisations should take any part in researching the past. Thus Article 9, which deals with public awareness, only mentions “Educational actions” and “promoting public access”. There is nothing to suggest that the public should actually do any archaeology or take responsibility for the heritage themselves. And, of course, there is Article 3.
Surely it’s all about looting?
No it’s not. Only Article 10 deals with “prevention of the illicit circulation of elements of the archaeological heritage”.
Won’t a free system encourage poor excavations?
Certainly not. There are 3 separate answers to this.
Firstly, the Government already has full powers to stop any harmful excavation by spot-scheduling a site under the Ancient Monuments Act. The Council for Independent Archaeology will fully support any such action. In any case, farmers and landowners are unlikely to allow excavations on their land unless they appear to be responsible.
Secondly, there may well be a few poor excavations – but a single farmer in one afternoon with a deep ploughing tractor could do more damage than a couple of dozen local societies digging at week ends could possibly do.
Thirdly, the best way of obtaining high standards is by competition and openness. There are many poor excavations dug by professional archaeologists digging important sites with the Government’s consent. Indeed the two biggest dangers are those of the elderly professor who is able by his position to command considerable resources, but who is still digging with the standards and prejudices of his youth; and even worse, the professional archaeologist who has gained a contract by “low balling” and who is doing a quick and dirty excavation to complete his work profitably. The best defence against poor excavations is to have an active local society which is given access to all professional digs in its area.
Wouldn’t banning Treasure hunting be a good idea?
It would certainly be an impractical idea, as it would encourage illicit treasure hunting – just at the time when the Portable Antiquities Scheme is trying to encourage treasure hunters to report their finds. However Article 3 specifically bans not only metal detectors but also ‘any other detection equipment or process for archaeological investigation’. In other words all forms of geophysics would need specific prior investigation (note the word specific – this means it would have to be given site by site; there could be no possibility for a general authorisation for given users).
What is the English Heritage view on this?
Officially they are enthusiasticaly in favour – see their Press Release. Unofficially, the story that I have been fed is that the national agencies (English Heritage, Historic Scotland, and Cadw) feel that our action is a storm in a tea cup, that we need not worry because they have no intention of introducing licensing (which apart from anything else will give them a huge amount of unpopular bureaucracy). Instead they intend to cover Article 3 by introducing a Code of Practice which they hope that all excavators will be able to sign up to. Nevertheless, the government has signed up to Valetta, and licensing, not a Code of Practice, is official government policy. We need to make a lot of noise to change government policy, and realise that in doing so we are supporting, not opposing, our friends in English Heritage, Historic Scotland, and Cadw.
Surely volunteers are used in countries where all excavations are under licence?
Volunteers, yes, amateurs, no. Volunteers are certainly used in some countries eg France. However these are volunteers not amateurs, that is they are volunteers working on professional excavations. The whole idea of a local society taking responsibility for the archaeology of its own area is wholly unknown outside Britain and would be destroyed in Britain if the convention is passed into law
Should we not refrain from Research archaeology and leave it to future generations who will have better techniques?
This is as common argument for banning all research excavations, but it is an argument that is widely contested. Certainly we should seek a means of leaving witness sections in all research excavations and leave something for future generations to test our work. However we should also remember that leaving sites in the earth is not really an option either. All sites degenerate through time and with current drainage problems, many of the most important sites are being destroyed. The best way to preserve our heritage is to undertake continuous sampling excavation, and to have this done locally, by local people. Use it, or lose it.
Will not licensing lead to corruption?
Yes certainly. There will probably be a considerable amount of overt corruption such as the corruption that takes place in countries such as Greece and Italy where foreign tourist guides are not allowed to lecture on-site (Neil Faulkner was recently arrested for lecturing to a group in Naples Museum). Even more serious is the covert corruption whereby permission will only be given to those whose projects agree with the philosophies of the ruling bodies.. Anyone who offends the permission-giving body in any way will not receive permission. All power corrupts . . .
What’s all the fuss about Article 10, iii?
When the convention first came out, the British Museum was very concerned about article 10, iii. This reads that “Each party undertakes… to ensure that Museums… do not acquire… uncontrolled finds… ”
This can only mean that finds that are reported by builders, gravel diggers etc cannot be acquired by the British Museum. The official response was that the article only refers to “Museums whose acquisition policy is under state control” and that since the BM is under the control of the Trustees this does not apply to the BM. This is sheer sophistry: it shows that the whole convention was shoddily put together without consideration of the real world.
What should be done next?
Article 17 reads “Any party may at any time denounce this convention by means of a notification addressed to the secretary general of the Council of Europe”. Article 17 should be applied forthwith.
AS, 15th May 2001