Archaeology is a Political Matter

Posted on May 5, 2017

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This is a session we live streamed from TAG but now the fully edited videos are done and ready for your viewing pleasure.

Session Abstract:

In the UK, the discipline and the contexts in which archaeology is practiced are vulnerable to public policy changes and the broader impacts of economic austerity, be these contract archaeology, community projects, or within museums and archives. The role of archaeology in politics, and politics in archaeology, in the UK has been under researched and under theorised in recent years.

Politics and archaeology goes beyond grand narratives of nationhood, and extends into everyday matters, such as relatively small but vital functions of local government. Archaeologists themselves act politically in various scales, from the narrow (e.g. lobbying for technical policy changes) to broad (e.g. influencing understandings of nation, culture, identity, and place). We are actors within in a complex system where our decisions as professional archaeologists are deeply intertwined with wider political policy, yet this is not explicitly obvious to many professionals employed in the sector, or indeed by interested citizens, or our political representatives.

This session remains open to traditional areas for debate on the role of politics in archaeology, but would also like to invite papers that explore the role of archaeologists as political actors and attempt to understand how our work affects political decisions, and vice versa. It will include discussion on policy and advocacy from the narrow (e.g. who are archaeological advocates?) to the broad (e.g. what part can archaeology play in current societal debates such as over climate change, migration, Brexit?) and will attempt to provoke debate about archaeology and heritage as a tool in various political agendas (e.g. nationalism, anti-austerity/neoliberal capitalism, cosmopolitanism).

Rob Lennox, Council for British Archaeology, Chartered Institute of Archaeologists, University of York, and Lorna-Jane Richardson Umeå University, Council for British Archaeology

The politics of Brexit. Why archaeologists need to be concerned.

https://youtu.be/c3XRxxiGpa0 Kevin Wooldridge, Freelance archaeologist

I am an archaeologist whose professional career life is reliant on being able to work both in the UK and also in the wider European community. It is likely that my career options will be limited if freedom of movement is restricted as a consequence of Brexit, a concern shared by EU/EEA archaeologists currently working in the UK and by UK and EU archaeology students currently studying or wishing later to study or work outside of their native land. Brexit is clearly a political decision and archaeologists throughout the Union need to embrace the politics of Brexit to formulate an agenda that will seek to protect out academic and professional interests and the best interests of our discipline. This paper will discuss the ‘who, what, why and where’ of that agenda and also highlight the need for urgent and positive action.

Quitting my archaeological job as a political deed.

https://youtu.be/JWMbMaKjcsY Marjolijn Kok, Bureau Archeologie en Toekomst, Netherlands

In 2010 the interim manager of the archaeological company (part of the university) I worked at told me knowledge is not important. For me this was the point of no return and I quit my job. Of course I could have looked for a new job in archaeology but the way contract archaeology is organised and politicized made me choose a different path. In this paper I will explain how the way archaeology is organized is political. At a certain point we have to ask ourselves do I want this type of organization, can I change it, or do I need to take a different action? How far do you want to go just so you can make a living in the profession you love?

I will give a Dutch perspective, but the issues have relevance outside of Dutch archaeology. The idea that theory has no place in policy making is persistent, especially in neoliberal contexts. This has led to an approach where management has become a shallow checking off of easy measurable parametres, integrated into policies on contract archaeology. Archaeology is used as a lubricant in the process of redevelopment. But in my opinion archaeology is not a lubricant; archaeology should be a critical tool to look at others and ourselves. My involvement in contemporary archaeology and art has opened up new paths to embrace the political in archaeology.

Commercial archaeology and narratives of British exceptionalism

https://youtu.be/UpDDujPR8Ww Florence Smith Nicholls, Compass Archaeology

Narratives of British exceptionalism have come to particular prominence in the press and political discourse leading up to and after the EU referendum result in Britain. Whilst historically archaeology has been exploited in the construction of national identities in Europe, archaeology and in particular commercial archaeology has been portrayed as an obstacle in the contemporary narrative of British progress and development.

This paper will propose that commercial archaeology occupies an uneasy position in the narrative of British exceptionalism due to both its inextricable links with the construction sector and its potential to uncover a multi-faceted past with ‘dark heritage.’ The portrayal of commercial archaeology as an antagonist against large, politically loaded infrastructure projects will be explored. The concentration of development projects in urban centres such as London, and the cultural and political implications this may have for commercial archaeology in terms of recent branding of a ‘metropolitan elite’ and cosmopolitanism will also be incorporated into the discussion. Small scale development projects will be cited as case studies in order to demonstrate the potential of commercial archaeology to undermine a ‘single story’ of British identity.

Narratives of British exceptionalism should be challenged. Commercial archaeology is in a unique position to do this but if it is to successfully rebuke rhetoric on homogenous Britishness then it must not only engage with a rich and varied archaeological record but also foster a more diverse workforce and champion multiple pathways into the profession.

Selling a political framework for the Public Value Era

https://youtu.be/s5wLQtVz-6Y Rob Lennox, University of York

In the last 20 years there has been a shift towards understanding the past primarily in terms of what the public value. This has permeated heritage thinking among academics and institutions, and arguably, Government understandings of heritage. However, heritage is nonetheless threatened by an age of austerity. This paper sets out a politically pragmatic framework for representing both the present aspirations of a publicly-minded sector and the outlook for political realities of the English system. I will aim to show how this system would help to demonstrate public support and legitimacy, maintain or build political reputation, develop effectiveness in working practices, and establish relevance with the public.

Time to bite the hand that feeds? Or, at the very least, give it a long, hard squeeze

https://youtu.be/v59DbP-Tun8 David Jennings, University of York

Archaeology – and the wider heritage sector – is at threat from numerous financial challenges. This paper will take a polemic, pragmatic stance to consider the idea that it may now be time to take a more direct, less deferential tone when discussing this crisis with ‘the powers that be’. It is far too simplistic to see funding heritage as a binary choice against health, pensions and other critical areas of public expenditure, as is often inferred to justify cuts to the sector. Current advocacy is effective to a degree, and yet the cuts continue to hit our heritage industries across the board. However, the UK is, this paper suggests, awash with cash – and we need to make ourselves heard to secure our fair share.

“Another Brick in the Wall” – Archaeological Outreach in Schools as a Political Act

https://youtu.be/K8a5CP2V7Pg Penelope Foreman, Bournemouth University

Education in the UK is a highly politicised field, not least recently with the proposed revival of grammar schools, the axing of archaeology and other A Levels, and the rise of Academy and Free Schools. The place of archaeology in education is primarily reserved for museum visits and primary school history projects. What can the future hold for this model in the face of sweeping cuts to museum services and pressures on schools to cut costs and focus on prioritising boosting levels in maths and science above all else?
In a political landscape where experts are depicted as elitist, interfering and irrelevant, it becomes a radical act to educate young people in our expertise and show its relevance to their lives. An exploration of isotope analysis via studying the Amesbury Archer becomes a lesson in why immigration brings valuable skills and ideas to their new homes, and how such immigrants are held in high regard for doing so. Sessions on looking at human diet during different time periods in history and prehistory become discussions on climate change and resource management. In this paper I will argue that the role of archaeologists should be an active one. As professionals and academics we have a broad range of interdisciplinary skills that, through innovative and carefully developed outreach schemes, can both inspire politically engaged learning in young people, and boost the profile of archaeology as a career path for all.

DNA and Soil: Archaeology, Palaeogenetics and Nationalism

https://youtu.be/2ixtVc3CzPo Tom Booth, Natural History Museum, London

Nationalist ideologies are often built upon ethnic origin myths that serve to promote a deep connection between ancestry and country. Nationalist organisations have often distorted past scientific investigations into population histories that utilise both modern and ancient DNA to fit with these myths, particularly classic ideas of ‘blood and soil’. In Britain, such results have repeatedly been misappropriated to argue for the predominant persistence of a distinctive British genome since the end of the last Ice Age. This perceived deep ‘British’ ancestry has been used as justification to discriminate against recent immigrants and their descendants. Nationalist groups tend to exist on the fringes of political discourse, however the influence of their ideas can be more widespread, particularly when disseminated through social media.
The rise of commercial genetic ancestry testing companies like 23 and Me means that the public are more aware of the potential of DNA to inform on individual and collective ancestries. Recent advances in Palaeogenomic techniques mean that we now have unprecedented insight into the genetic history of Europe. There is some evidence that aspects of these recent studies are already being misrepresented by nationalist organisations to promote their ideologies. This talk will discuss how archaeologists engaging with recent advances in palaeogenetics and incorporating the results in their narratives may help to counter-act nationalistic organisations co-opting genetic studies to promote their own agendas. Archaeologists are well-placed to discuss these results with the general public and link them specifically to archaeological features and landscapes, emphasising the substantial intertwining of culture and genetics.

Where history meets legend… and produces political sparks; presenting Tintagel Castle, Cornwall

https://youtu.be/lpPWaBiEN6Y Susan Greaney, Cardiff University/ English Heritage

Due in part to the influence of Victorian poets and writers, tourists today flock to the evocative ruins of ‘King Arthur’s Castle’ at Tintagel. In fact, the site has a complex and intriguing archaeological story, from elite post-Roman trading settlement to medieval castle, completely intertwined with famous legends; not only Arthur, but also the love story of Tristan and Iseult. What happens when you try and present these stories in a new way to visitors? A recent interpretation project, delivered over two years by English Heritage, has included a new exhibition, interpretation panels and a series of artistic installations across the site. It drew criticism and negative publicity from several quarters, including those who would identify themselves as Cornish nationalists. This talk will explore what happens when you try to tell local, regional and international stories at a site that is a symbol of Cornish identity, and explores the reaction to presenting both the history and legends of the site. The project will be discussed within the context of growing calls for devolution in Cornwall, and for management of heritage more locally, showing how the presentation of archaeology is very much a political matter.

Turf Wars: Politics and Peatland Archaeology in Ireland

https://youtu.be/o9SHyT1smnE Ben Gearey, University College Cork, Ireland

Around 17% of the total area of The Republic of Ireland consists of peatland, with ongoing peat extraction on an industrial scale affecting a significant proportion of the raised bogs of the Midlands. In other areas, peat (turf) cutting is carried out by hand, as part of long held ‘turbary rights’ in many places. The archaeological record of many of these peatland areas has long been known to be exceptional, yet mitigation work carried out over the last decade has been inadequate and under resourced, whilst no formal mitigation strategy exists for privately cut peatlands . Broader developments across many other parts of Europe have seen increasing efforts directed at peatland conservation, but these have gained little traction in Ireland. This paper will consider the particular problems confronting attempts to raise the profile of the peatland archaeological heritage in Ireland, in particular considering the fact that, in this particular context, peat is a political issue.

“News is what someone wants suppressed. Everything else is advertising.” The need to develop Investigative Journalism in the Archaeological Media

https://youtu.be/PInWF9Ox7z4 Andy Brockman, Freelance archaeologist and researcher and editor of the PipeLine heritage news website [ http://thepipeline.info/ ]

Katherine Graham, the famously independent publisher of the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal, said that in her opinion

“News is what someone wants suppressed. Everything else is advertising”

The heritage news website thePipeline was acting in that tradition when in May 2016 it published the results of an investigation into the alleged theft of UK Government property from the wreck of HMS Queen Mary and other vessels lost during the Battle of Jutland/Skagerrak in 1916.

The investigation was carried out by a group of independent experts and was published after the UK Ministry of Defence and other public bodies failed to take any action on the issue of illicit salvage of designated wrecks and maritime military graves over a number of years. The result of the publication of the Jutland story was wide coverage in the media, including on BBC 1’s the One Show, as well as in local and national mainstream titles in print and on-line. The story has also led to questions in the UK and Dutch Parliaments and a new, albeit possibly reluctant, engagement with the issue on the part of government and regulators.

Using the Jutland investigation as a case study, this paper will argue that the development of a vigorous, independent and questioning archaeological media is essential in order to investigate and question official decision making in heritage matters, and to support the checks and balances which make the institutions, companies, agencies and Government departments involved in such decisions properly accountable to the public in whose interest they are supposed to act.

Creating a Political Base for Archaeology: The Greater Manchester Experience

https://youtu.be/6P5KnGpJX-A Mike Nevell, University of Salford

The underlying assumption of this paper is that all archaeology is political at some level and that all archaeologists need to be activists in their own areas in order to protect and improve access to archaeology. Drawing on 36 years of experience this case study will look at the problems of maintaining links with a constant array of changing local politicians, the role of museums as a hub for volunteers, and the value or perceived lack of value of archaeology amongst large regional stakeholders (HLF, universities, developers). Along the way we shall touch upon the rise and fall of archaeology units, the encouragement of local societies and groups, and the role of professional and academic archaeologists in engaging with the public through archaeology projects such as Dig Greater Manchester and Whitworth Park. The key message of this paper is that we cannot rely on other sectors to assume that archaeology is innately ‘a good thing’. Academic and professional archaeologists need to foster volunteer networks, and volunteers need to engage with academics and professionals in order to lobby for the protection of the past and so ensure that archaeology is for all.’

Local archaeological activism: The trials of leading horses to water

https://youtu.be/fbBsvDKzemI Lorna Richardson and Rob Lennox, Council for British Archaeology, Local Heritage Engagement Network

In this paper, we examine the experience of the CBA’s Local Heritage Engagement Network, which is designed to help local archaeology groups and other interested bodies be better advocates for heritage. However, evidence from the project has shown that while the majority of local interest groups care deeply about the past, many do not perceive a role or opportunity to help shape the political debate. In this paper we will examine why this might be, and whether there are methods which be appropriate for assisting groups to transition from hobbyists to activists, or different types of engagement which are more suited, but which may be more suited.

Local archaeology for local people?

https://youtu.be/v31JonjcvQ4 Aisling Nash, Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service

Issues of archaeology and the historic environment within localism and neighbourhood planning are fundamental in providing a sense of place and ownership but are we, as professional archaeologists, doing enough to facilitate this?

A recent project undertaken by Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service and funded by Historic England seems to suggest that we’re not. ‘Assessing the Value of Community Generated Research’ aimed to look at the potential value of research being carried out by communities and individuals, research which is often not being disseminated either through HERs or wider avenues. It was discovered that some of this research was being carried out partly in an attempt to take ownership of planning and development issues, often in response to perceived shortcomings and capacity issues within local authorities. What also became apparent is that there is little understanding of the legal framework within which our profession works, either by the public or to a lesser extent, by professional archaeologists.

We are operating within a system which appears to be impenetrable to those that wish to protect and conserve their local historic environment. Yet it is these very people that are our advocates; they are our partners in lobbying for both local and national issues in heritage. How can we as a profession harness the value offered by this partnership while listening to what they need/want from us? With the advent of Brexit and the election of Trump, the inclusiveness of our collective heritage has become even more important.

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