The Economics of Archaeology: Some Readings

Posted on February 16, 2013


I have been on a bit of a tear lately about the economics of doing commercial archaeology. A nice coincidence is that the PIA (Papers of the Institute of Archaeology) just published this years volume. In it is a section of articles deal with the change laws that govern commercial archaeology in England and Wales (Scotland and Norther Ireland have different laws, almost like they are different countries). I would recommend reading them. One problem I have with universities is that not only do they not teach practical skills regarding 98% of archaeology but also do not teach the higher theoretical levels as well. You know, the skills that don’t result in better pay checks that academics moan about not being able to teach. No one is every taught the laws and rules governing most archaeology in any meaningful way. Yes, there is that one masters course (American sense e.g. class/module) for the few CRM programs here and there. However, the majority archaeologists are never asked to interpret (gasp) or think (ahhh) about these laws and what they mean for archaeology. A real missed opportunity in my humble opinion. Anyways some highlights of the articles that are important to the Economics of Archaeology.

The National Planning Policy Framework and Archaeology: A Discussion, Joe Flatman and Dominic Perring

“Perhaps the most visible change between PPS 5 and the NPPF is that there is no longer a presumption in favour of conservation of heritage assets as there was under the PPS. This has been replaced by the infamous ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. …”

“Of even greater concern than the two ‘cons’ outline above is the fact that the NPPF returns us to an agenda based wholly on conservation, and the emphasis given to public and research benefits found in PPS 5 is largely lost. There is much less (virtually no) policy on public engagement and archives. This is a regression, since the NPPF is very narrowly focused. There is little sense of ‘value added’ in terms of either research or public engagement. The NPPF is entirely process driven: archaeology as an ‘issue’ to be resolved by the planning system, ideally at the lowest possible cost. It encourages the idea that archaeology is a negative problem, not a positive thing to be embraced that might result in unexpected benefits of all sorts, social, cultural, environmental, even economic. The policy also reinforces the assumption that resource conservation is the principal goal of archaeological endeavour, without any recognition of the need to identify and realize value. PPS 5 explicitly recognised the value of knowledge gain, which for many archaeologists is the chief reason for undertaking rescue fieldwork. Our profession will be much the poorer if we lose sight of the research potential of the sites we investigate, and treat the exercise as being exclusively concerned with resource management rather than being about advancing our understanding of our past by capturing evidence from the historic environment……”

“A further worry is that there is no real commitment in the NPPF to publishing results, beyond lodging an archive with a local museum. Rescue archaeology in Britain has achieved impressively high standards of academic publication, generating some splendid research monographs. These studies are expensive and time-consuming to undertake. Whilst archaeologists working for Local Planning Authorities may be able to insist that excavations lead onto funded programmes of post-excavation assessment, and the issue may be addressed in a Practice Guide, the published text of the NPPF as it presently stands fails to identify considered analysis as a necessary product of fieldwork……”

“The most obvious ‘pro’ of the NPPF is simple: heritage made it in! There were some fears during the early stages of drafting (and leaking) the NPPF that reference to the historic environment would be cut entirely in the new document, throwing us back into the ‘dark ages’ of the pre-1980s when ‘rescue’ archaeology meant doing your best under often impossible circumstances. That archaeology is given equal status to a series of other planning concerns in a core government policy document is, in the current social and economic climate, nothing short of remarkable, since archaeology in particular and the historic environment in general have no shortage of influential enemies who would have liked – and tried – to have all planning requirements in this respect scrapped…..”

The National Planning Policy Framework and Archaeology: A Response by RESCUE – The British Archaeological Trust

“On a practical level, how is the significance of a “heritage asset” to be assessed if there is a dearth of suitably qualified and experienced staff in post to examine planning submissions? Already, large numbers of Heritage Statements that are inadequate, misinformed or misleading are being submitted in support of planning applications, yet are being accepted by local authorities because the expertise to recognise their failings isn’t available at the application validation stage. Furthermore, more worryingly, some authorities are actively encouraging the submission of developer-sponsored assessments and refusing independent scrutiny. This situation will inevitably lead to the loss of historic environment information. It could be viewed as an official green light for developers to assess the significance of their own sites from their own point of view – which would no doubt result in a downgrading of significance in the light of the ‘benefits’ of development and the consequential destruction and loss of actual archaeological sites and structures. This is a potential development free-for-all, which threatens the destruction of large areas of the historic environment, and it must be robustly addressed in the very near future.

The inherent problem is that the heritage profession has lost control of much of the agenda nationally, and is now subservient to the requirements of the development sector and the whims of the politicians and the civil service when national heritage policy is being formulated. The challenge for the profession, in the light of the NPPF and its knowledge requirements, is to reassert its pre-eminent position as providers of not only the appropriately rigorous and independent information to applicants, but also the services at local authority level that are essential to both inform and scrutinise it…..”

The National Planning Policy Framework and Archaeology: A Response – How did the Profession come to this?, Peter Hinton

“PPS5 was in its quiet way revolutionary. It replaced PPG 16’s (DoE 1990) the challenging idea that ‘preservation by record’ could ‘mitigate’ destruction of a site or structure (one of the ‘contestable assumptions’ alluded to by Flatman and Perring) with the concept of off-setting damage to or destruction of the fabric of a heritage asset by increasing public understanding of it.

In doing so it shifted the focus of commercial archaeological endeavour from putting detailed descriptions of now defunct deposits or buildings in a shed, along with boxes of finds recovered from it, to one of research. Some of us might think that archaeology – the study of the physical remains of the human past – could not be perceived as anything other than research, but in the competitive struggle to win contracts in the 1990s at least one contracting/consulting organisation used in its promotional literature to clients the phrase: We do not undertake research with your money.

What do you do then? The message of course was that our service is to discharge your planning condition as cheaply as possible, and that we will not indulge our academic pursuits at your expense. Too often under PPG 16 preservation by record was presented as an exercise in heritage decontamination, with the archival by-products of the process presenting a costly storage problem in perpetuity reminiscent of low-grade nuclear waste. PPS5 changed that (or would have done, had it stuck around long enough for the whole of the sector to get to grips with its implications), leaving no room for what the Southport report describes as ‘residual apologist rhetoric’ about research (Southport Group 2011, 17)…..”

These are just the first three articles. I would go on but release that I am most likely testing your ability to make it this far through papers on archaeology laws. Please go read these articles and the rest listed below. You will find for a brief shinning moment archaeology change in England and Wales to emphasis some of the aspects that are taught at universities, quality of research, engaging with people (not really universities but public archaeology). All before the regulations were changed and it was back to “mitigation” be recording everything before we tear it out. Lowest price = best value. Literally the laws are written so that low cost is made to be taken into consideration, or at least that is how they are interpreted and carried out.  Such a regime has implications for what I will talk about next.

Other articles in the set:

The National Planning Policy Framework: A Response to the Joe Flatman and Dominic Perring Article, Duncan McCallum

Response to ‘The National Planning Policy Framework and Archaeology: A Discussion’, Judith Rosten

A Consultant’s view of the NPPF, Jonathan Edis and Elizabeth Stephen

The National Planning Policy Framework and Archaeology, Taryn Nixon

The National Planning Policy Framework and Archaeology: A Discussion, Ben Cowell

NPPF and Archaeology: A Discussion, Rob Lennox

Learning from the Past, Planning for the Future…,Blanche Cameron

The National Planning Policy Framework and Archaeology: Response to the Respondents, Joe Flatman and Dominic Perring