Planning problems

The island of Rum
The island of Rum off the west coast of Scotland, from the coast of Morar. Much of my work in the 1980s took place here, all funded by Historic Buildings and Monuments (Scottish Development Department). It was a happy time.

Autumn is the time when you start to think about your plans for the forthcoming year. Many of us have become accustomed to putting together research projects and considering the finance applications that we will need to make in order to run them. I’ve been very lucky, for much of my career I have been able to work as an independent archaeologist running quite large research projects.  Over the years this has largely been financed with assistance (and quality oversight), from Historic Environment Scotland (HES, as it is currently named). Other overtly research organisations, such as The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, The Russell Trust and The Leverhulme Trust have also played an important role in providing financial support to allow me to do archaeology.

Sadly, these days are gone and those who embark on an archaeological career today face a very different world. While I have found the support of HES hugely significant in allowing me to develop my career and pursue my research interests, a gradual shift in their funding priorities means that it is now almost impossible for individuals to access grant support from them. Of course, change happens for a reason and much of it is worthwhile. When I started working, in the 1980s, you more-or-less wrote your ideas on a couple of sides of A4 together with a rough estimate of costs, in order to be considered for funding. With time, a regular form was devised, setting out niceties such as research questions, project design, and stage payments. It ran to around ten pages and required you to think through the logistics of your project very carefully, which was no bad thing. This no doubt helped the decision makers to assess the many applicants. Those of us who filled it in may have groaned, but it helped us to order our ideas. And, we had no idea of the horrors to come.

Last year, I filled in a newly revised form – for the first and (likely) last time. It comprised nearly 20 pages (plus supplementary material) and required information on my mission statement and assets, together with interesting detail, such as the ways in which I would be advancing the financial value of the heritage remains that I would be researching. It was clear that the days of the individual operator were over.

Of course, I understand that any grant awarding body has to ensure that funding goes to worthwhile projects in order to make the most of increasingly limited money. I cannot help but feel slightly sympathetic to those who have to wade through the mountains of paperwork now required in order to assess our archaoelogical dreams. It is a strange thing that the advent of digital bureaucracy has seen a considerable increase in the amount of virtual paperwork that we all have to complete in order to live our lives.

At the same time, the world of archaeology has changed over the years. Commercial fieldwork companies have grown in size and ambition, while the Universities require less practical experience from their undergraduates. The Community sector has leapt forward in experience, enthusiasm, scope and skills. HES funding is now, seemingly, aimed principally at Community led projects. This is, of itself, no bad thing. I’ve written before about the high quality and imaginative projects for which Community archaeology is currently responsible. It is an important factor in the development of archaeology. But, I cannot help feeling a sense of nostalgia for the demise of the independent archaeologist.

You can argue, I know, that I was selfishly pursing my own interests throughout my career. I would reply that a) I don’t think I have done such a bad job, and b) given that my funding has always come from bigger bodies, they have had oversight and could always have (indeed often did) refuse my applications. And, I was never the only independent – there was once a respectable body of us. I suspect those times are over.

Archaeological funding for individuals is still available through research bodies such as AHRC or Carnegie, but in order to access this you do need to be employed, usually by a university, so you won’t be independent. Smaller charitable organisations such as The Prehistoric Society or Society of Antiquaries of London continue to play an important role in funding individual research but sadly their support, though available to those without ongoing employment, is rarely of the scale once offered by HES.

I’m sorry to see the changes in the role of HES that have crept in, seemingly without wider consultation, over the past few years. The old funding model was, I’m sure, by no means perfect, but the organisation has played a significant and highly successful role facilitating government responsibility for the cultural heritage. Grants were but a small part of this. Oversight of scheduling and listing ancient monuments; management of Guardianship sites; the organisation of World Heritage sites; production of a wide-ranging library of advice and guidelines; development of a thriving Friends organisation: the various ways in which it worked to curate the archaeological heritage of Scotland were numerous. Given the tiny number of sites that might ever ‘pay for themselves’ the existence of a government supported body such as this is vital.

Over the last few decades this role has evolved and developed. Of course, the world has changed and organisations need to keep up. It is not all bad. And I do realise that change is always challenging. Nevertheless, just occasionally, I do think it is good to make sure that we are not losing elements that work. In this case, the organisation has seen a fair number of name changes, some, no doubt good, others perhaps less so: from Ministry of Works, to Historic Buildings and Monuments (Scottish Development Department), Historic Scotland and now Historic Environment Scotland. Some might wonder why…

Anyway, I’m not sure that introspection is ever good for long. I’m left with the feeling that my place in the archaeological world has changed. It is good to be invited to conferences and meetings where I can learn about the projects of others. It is fantastic to be invited to collaborate with friends and colleagues on their grant funded projects. It is great to read and discuss. But my days of undertaking major research projects funded by government sponsored organisations are over. I feel as if I have lived through some sort of golden age; those who set out on an archaeological path today need very different skills.