Difficult Decisions

Archaeological remains are fragile and have to be carefully managed. Sometimes there are hard decisions to be made. In Orkney, the Control Tower sits amidst the remains of the airfield at RNAS Twatt

Recent publicity about the road plans at Stonehenge have highlighted the difficult issues that face the archaeological manager in going about their job. I’m not going to comment on that particular case – there is plenty of online opinion that covers every academic base, and a lot of more speculative material besides. Coincidentally, however, I was recently chatting about site management and it struck me that this is all part of the vital but unglamorous side of archaeology that rarely makes it to the public attention until things go wrong.

Many thousands of archaeological sites have been recorded across the United Kingdom (for information on numbers of local sites visit your local Historic Environment Record: England; Scotland; Wales; Northern Ireland). Most will be fragile and vulnerable to the changes engendered by the necessities of twenty-first century life. Some have been investigated, some are actively managed for the well-being of the archaeology. Many are not. As sites disappear or are destroyed, so new sites are discovered. The archaeological resource is changing all the time.

Much as we all love archaeology it is not possible to investigate or save every site. Nor should we wish to. The land we live in is an active, modern place that supports a flourishing population. It would be wrong to fossilize it into some facsimile of the past – and even if we did decide to take that step, just how would we decide which particular episode within the past to privilege. Every period (and we have had many) is the future for another period, and thus will see the destruction of some of the record of previous generations. Every period supports its own population through the provision of food, housing and other resources. The aim of the archaeologist is to record and, where possible, preserve just enough of the traces of past populations in order to understand the lives and actions of our ancestors without jeopardising the viability of present and future communities.

There is another issue.

Despite the floruit of techniques of remote prospection in recent years the technique most commonly associated with the discovery of archaeology is excavation (see the upcoming depiction on Netflix). The lure of excavation is no doubt responsible for many nascent archaeological careers. Yet, the very act of excavation is an act of destruction. As the evidence is recorded and removed, excavation destroys the site under investigation.  Unless a site is to be destroyed by other means, such as twenty-first century development, excavating archaeologists would, therefore, aim to preserve at least half of any site on which they are working. This is partly to do with the preservation of the resource, and partly to do with the constant process by which archaeological techniques are refined and improved. Those who excavate a site in the future will, no doubt, be able to extract more information, and understand it better, than we can. We should, thus, leave material for the benefit of future archaeologists.

The process by which excavation destroys a site is rarely foremost in the public mind when we celebrate some new discovery – that discovery is only possible because the very foundation on which it is based no longer exists.

So, there are hard decisions to be made by the active archaeologist. The weather, agriculture, infrastructure developments – all can have an adverse role on the archaeological resource. But how to decide which sites to investigate, which sites to save, and which sites to let go?

It is possible to draw up lists, lots of lists. Which sites are particularly vulnerable: are they subject to coastal erosion; flooding; road, house building or other urban expansion; are they impacted by agriculture; forestry; or industry? In this way priorities can be assessed. It is possible to draw up lists of significance: is a site rare; particularly well-preserved; previously unknown; historically significant? Which sites are popular with visitors? Which sites add economic value to a region. There are many criteria on which to judge the importance of a site.

The task of the managing archaeologist is not easy. And there is no right answer. One person’s interesting lithic scatter will be another person’s background noise. Thankfully, for most of us these decisions are taken out of our hands. People like me play little part in deciding what should stay and what should go. But out of sight should not be out of mind. It is very easy to take the archaeological resource for granted. We often regard it as some sort of immutable asset, something unchanging with which we were blessed by the great maker at the time of creation. But that is not so. The overall archaeological resource is as much as a human creation as the individual elements that make it up. It is useful to remember that and to make sure that others know. Only once we are all aware of the vulnerabilities of archaeology and the hard decisions that have to be made can we start to value the resource. More importantly, only in this way can we weigh up the decisions as to how we wish to place the remains of our past amongst the many issues that compete for resources and attention today. In the post-covid world, this is going to be more important than ever.