Battle in Print: What's the point of archeology?

Christopher Wakefield, 12 October 2010

Archaeology as we think of it today is a relatively modern discipline. Historically, it was mainly a hobby for the rich and upper classes. Enthusiastic individuals would go on expeditions and occasionally write books for friends and a wider, though quite limited, interested community. Over the last century, however, archaeology has gradually grown from its antiquarian roots into a fully-fledged academic discipline and generally popular subject.

Indeed, tangibly connecting to the distant past through excavation involves a certain kind of mystery. Today, archaeology can be broken down into three distinct areas: public interaction with archaeology, commercial archaeology and the academic approach to the discipline. Running beneath each is a common aim for archaeology to inform and educate about every aspect of the human past. However, each of these three areas contain serious problems that challenge the legitimacy of archaeology. In particular, we must ask whether excavation is always appropriate, and whether archaeologists are doing more harm than good.

Public interactions with archaeology

What immediately springs to mind when somebody mentions archaeology? - a heavily bearded amateur standing in a muddy field carrying a metal detector? Tony Robinson getting worryingly over-excited by a piece of Roman pottery? Indiana Jones venturing through a long forgotten tomb in search of invaluable treasure? Archaeology has been a popular subject in the general media for over half a century, since Mortimer Wheeler first brought it to the public’s attention with a host of television programmes during the 1950s. Yet, the public’s appetite for archaeology tends to reinforce these outlandish stereotypes and rarely assesses the actual role and value of the discipline.

Every week television schedules seem packed with archaeological programmes. Time Team, Coast and Meet the Ancestors regularly draw in audiences despite being endlessly repeated (1). Undoubtedly, these programmes have helped to raise the profile of what was once a niche subject, and brought it to the attention of the general public. However, these documentaries are often more fiction than fact. While it may be true most subjects are somewhat sensationalised when filmed for entertainment, doing so to archaeology undermines its purpose. Turning the discipline into a glorified treasure hunt goes against everything archaeologists strive. It creates a skewed impression of an admittedly complicated subject.

A recent example is the reporting of several high-profile hoard discoveries from across Britain. Many earned extensive coverage from national newspapers and television documentaries. The Staffordshire Hoard, found in 2009, contained an astonishing 5kg of gold and over 1kg of silver, comprising over 1,000 objects.This makes it the largest Anglo-Saxon hoard ever found in Britain.

In the subsequent media frenzy, the metal detectorists are essentially regarded as a form of amateur archaeologist, digging up impressive and significant finds from the past. Similarly, most popular programmes choose to focus on the shiniest, rarest and most valuable items unearthed. Many give the impression that coins, jewellery and weaponry litter the British countryside with such frequency that one would struggle to move without tripping over something made of solid gold. This more outlandish perspective of archaeology seems not a million miles away from the far-fetched antics of Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft.

Sadly, archaeology is seldom concerned with the glamorous and exotic artefacts which garner so much attention. Whilst the hundreds of gold and silver objects from the Staffordshire Hoard are significant, they reflect a very restricted slice of history. The amount of data from the artefacts themselves is limited. Indeed, while many metal detectorists follow both the law and guidelines, their aim is still to find treasure rather than information. This can prove damaging to archaeologists concerned with finding out more about the historical and social context of artefacts, which could yield more valuable information than the objects themselves. Similarly, there is an unhealthy increase in the rise of ‘nighthawks’, metal detectorists who often visit important sites in the dark and proceed to dig up artefacts illegally, destroying valuable evidence.

Are these television programmes, films, games and newspaper articles responsible for creating this desire for treasure? Of course not. But, without directly tackling the common misconception that archaeologists are only after the financially valuable, this attitude will continue to prevail and the public will remain largely ignorant of what the discipline aims to achieve. If producers and journalists spent more time researching the subject’s methods and aims, hopefully it would become clear that archaeology aims to further society’s understanding of all aspects of the past.

This means that the everyday life of a humble worker is equally important, if not more so, than the highest strata of any civilisation. Indeed, for an excavator an unpleasant Viking cess pit can yield far more information on past societies than any number of individual exotic treasures. Admittedly, this would make for not particularly enthralling viewing to most people, but it is a subject rarely even briefly addressed by any programme.

Fundamentally the media’s goal is to entertain rather than inform, meaning the most unusual or controversial sites will be given priority. As such, can it really be argued that the media fulfil the key aim of archaeology to inform when many programmes and popular books are essentially highly selective and fictionalised accounts?

Commercial archaeology

The majority of archaeological work carried out in Britain today is commercial, usually in advance of construction. Any excavation, whether it is a Victorian drain or a Roman mausoleum, is destructive - in the sense the only record we have for future generations is the documentation produced by the excavators. As such, the importance of rigorous and thorough excavation is a fundamental principle to which archaeologists should aspire. Using a methodical and careful approach tailored to each individual site is paramount and usually supplemented by a rigorous paperwork framework to record each aspect of every single archaeological feature.

Yet, in the United Kingdom there are currently no laws in place to ensure developers carry out archaeology, or to regulate the quality of any such work. Instead there is Planning Policy Guidance 16: Archaeology and Planning (PPG16), a series of recommendations on how to carry out commercial archaeology if it is undertaken. Generally, developers do carry out excavation where required, although the standard of work carried out can vary enormously.

Under PPG16, developers are also required to fund any archaeology and give excavators sufficient time to complete the work in line with the idea that the polluter pays. This system is inherently flawed and has led to a rise in sub-standard archaeology. As a developer will want to spend as little money and time as possible on carrying out archaeology and post-excavation processes, they will typically opt for the cheapest and fastest offer made to them.

As such, a reputable and long-established archaeological unit will usually give developers a realistic offer that will include post-excavation work such as environmental sampling and finds treatment. Rival archaeologists will then undercut the competition, offering a much cheaper and quicker option, sacrificing the quality of the excavation and the recording of the archaeology. So, why has nothing been done to prevent this practice and to protect valuable archaeological locations?

Despite archaeology having been a relatively common practice on developments since the 1960s and research excavations running since the early twentieth century, there is another problem with constant digging. As stressed earlier, the primary aim of archaeology as a discipline is to inform, whether this be the general public or academics. However, very few excavations are ever written-up, or made easily available. Whilst this has tended to be an historical phenomenon, the problem still persists. Many high profile excavations, such as the famous Coppergate site in York, still remain only partially published.

Most modern rescue excavations produce a report of some type, usually drawing together the information collected during the digging after it has been analysed by specialists. These documents vary greatly in style, quality and detail as they, like the excavations they are drawn from, are not regulated in any way. Yet, the greatest problem is where these reports end up, often buried somewhere in a council department alongside hundreds of others. There is no system to catalogue the different reports across the country or between local councils, making it difficult for anyone, be they academics or a member of the public, to readily access or compare any of these documents. As such they have become known as ‘grey literature’ and a recent attempt to create a catalogue of just the prehistoric sites by leading academic Colin Renfrew had to be abandoned

This raises the question: why make the effort to record the archaeology in the first place if it will remain buried in an inaccessible local government office where it benefits nobody? The lack of proper controls to govern the excavation and follow-up treatment of any archaeological site is almost unbelievable in a country which places so much emphasis on its own heritage. That the information gathered from potentially monumentally important archaeological sites remains unattainable to both the general public and academics is extremely disheartening.

Academic archaeology

Whilst research excavations account for only a relatively small portion of the archaeology carried out in the United Kingdom, the academic aspect of archaeology is an important part of the subject. There is an abundance of research journals covering from distant prehistory to the applications of science in archaeology - and most articles are subjected to rigorous scrutiny across the discipline. However, archaeology, like many other subjects, is heavily governed by the latest academic and intellectual trends. Books and papers tend to be influenced by in-vogue theories. Within archaeology, ideas come and go relatively frequently and often entire perspectives can change in the space of only a few years.

This leads to a situation where our understanding of different societies and time periods is altered at regular intervals, making it difficult to keep up-to-date with current opinion. While this is a problem inherent to many different subjects, within archaeology it is a much slower process which threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the discipline.

With an ever-changing subject, it is difficult for academics to keep track of new perspectives and often there are vociferous disagreements between older, more established authors and their rising counterparts. As such there are usually rivalries between leading archaeological scholars who continue to debate the validity of all opposing viewpoints. This can lead to a frustrating and impenetrable academic climate. Equally, there is very little direct communication between academic circles and the general public, making it difficult for current theory to be accessed by the wider public. So, yet again, archaeology is failing to fulfil its aim of informing the wider public.

The future of archaeology

Despite this heavily critical analysis of the current state of archaeology, gradually changes are starting to emerge. A growing number of archaeological organisations are directly involving the public in excavations in order to educate as well as inform. The York Archaeological Trust runs a community archaeological project on one of its largest current excavations at Hungate. Here local residents are given the opportunity to engage directly with their own heritage while learning more about archaeology. Similarly, York has more interactive museum projects in the form of Jorvik and DIG, both of which aim to make archaeology more engaging and interesting for people of all ages. Many of these community-involved projects are carefully run to allow people to be actively involved in archaeology alongside communicating the true purpose of the subject more efficiently.

Elsewhere, more television programmes are beginning to highlight the importance of archaeological techniques in understanding more general information. Recently, Digging for Britain showcased several scientific projects aimed at revealing the health and migration of prehistoric populations.

Commercial archaeological publications are now becoming more accessible because of the internet, with several field units making their documents available through websites and databases. While there is still a long way to go regarding the enormous back catalogue, it is encouraging to see companies making an effort to make archaeological documentation publicly available. Academically, the theoretical debates and constant reappraisals will likely continue but archaeologists have never been more aware of this. Indeed, this rigorous field of criticism tends to incite controversy which occasionally spills over into more popular media which at least brings it to the attention of the public.

It seems unlikely that the desire for archaeology will disappear or that the subject will fully throw off its association with treasure hunting. However, if archaeology can become more accessible with the continued development of community projects, more interactive museums and readily available, easy-to-read publications then hopefully it can truly achieve its goal of informing the public.


Christopher Wakefield, Archaeology student at the University of Liverpool. After finding an interest in the subject at an early age, Christopher has been involved in a number of excavations around the UK. In his spare time he reviews video games for a UK based website as well as contributing articles to an online gaming magazine.


(1) A survey of heritage television viewing figures, by Angela Piccini, Council for British Archeology

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