[Lead image by Loudon dodd – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7404342]
As the decade of the 2010’s recedes in the rear view mirror of history thePipeLine takes a look back at the trends in archaeology and heritage which ended up lying wrecked at the side of the road, and a few which might yet overtake the sector in the next ten years.
thePipeLine has not been around for the entire decade of the “twentyteens”. In fact we first darkened the Net in 2014.
We would also point out that, strictly speaking, as calculated traditionally, [that is correctly] the current decade actually ends on 31 December 2020.
However, neither of these facts have stopped us jumping on that traditional end of year/decade media band wagon by creating a closely argued look ahead, [oh all right space filler] with our own playlist of greatest archaeological hits.
Or rather, this being thePipeLine, while others have rightly celebrated the great finds and projects from the King in the car park to astonishing finds from uniquely well preserved shipwrecks and Britain’s earliest settlements, we have opted to run down the greatest archaeological sH*ts. That is those occasions when cowardice, venality and sheer incompetence, have brought the world of archaeology and heritage into disrepute.
It is a sad reflection on the time and the world in which contemporary archaeological and heritage practice exists that reducing these events to an arbitrary total of five has not been easy.
As a measure of the difficulty faced by the judges, we will introduce the top five rundown with a few dishonourable mentions for a some of the heritage scams, cock ups and disasters which almost made the cut.
The year 2013 saw the sale of part of the Riesco Porcelain Collection from Croydon Museum by the Conservative led council ostensibly to raise some cash. A number of the lots, which had been donated to the borough by local businessman and philanthropist Riescu in 1964, then failed to reach their estimates and the museum resigned from the Museums Association before it could be expelled for the councils egregious ethical breach.
The decade also saw the utter failure of Archaeology to protect its place in secondary education through the loss of the subject first as a GCSE and then as an A-Level.
The failure archaeological bodies to get their act together to protest publicly with one voice as funding was slashed by a third between 2010 and 2019, is another thread running through the last ten years, which might be one of the reasons why successive Prime Ministers were able to show how much they valued heritage and culture by inflicting more Culture Ministers on the sector than there are Professors of Defence Against the Dark Arts at Hogworts.
To reinforce that point, the decade ended with Prime Minister Boris Johnson reappointing of Nicky Morgan as Secretary of State, even though Ms Morgan was so committed to the cause that she had actually stood down as an MP at the December 2019 General Election and had to be appointed to the unaccountable House of Lords in order to continue to preside over the Ministry for Fun.
[Congratulations Lady Morgan; enjoy your Ministerial salary of £81,485 and when you finally leave cabinet,£305 expenses plus travel per attendance day at the House of Lords for life.]
However, even again such tough competition, we did manage to identify what are to us the five top archaeological and heritage embarrassments, and failures of the decade…
5: Northampton Borough Council
Local Authorities are not always to blame for egregious treatment of the past.
Many have continued to act in the interest of their residents, offering support to culture against the odds, while having been appallingly treated by a central Government seeking to deflect blame for their own ideologically driven cuts of around 30% to public services since 2010.
Northampton Borough Council in the East Midlands is not one of those councils.
Although the jury is still out on whether the council’s record is down to ignorance, incompetence, or sheer calculating Philistinery.
Northampton’s litany of heritage shame began in 2011 under the council’s former Leader [and later short lived MP] David Mackintosh. and includes [in no particular order];
The sale of the internationally important funerary statue of the Egyptian court scribe Sekhemka from Northampton museum, sharing the proceeds with the Marquis of Northampton [who probably owned the statue in the first place] and causing an international row with the Government of Egypt into the bargain.
[The Sekhemka episode also won Mr Mackintosh the prestigious award of “Philistine of the Year” from Private Eye magazine.]
Almost allowing football pitches and changing rooms to be built on council owned farmland, which is part of the registered battlefield of Northampton, as part of an alleged sweetheart deal with a blameless local charity and which sidelined Historic England.
Proposing a new museum where the cafe and shop area seemed bigger than the display gallery.
Gaming the heritage funding system to first deny responsibility for maintaining the nationally important Grade One listed Northampton Eleanor Cross, and when that effort failed and the efforts of local community activists shamed them into action, ignoring expert advice from their own staff that the cross was a potential danger and waiting as long as possible to institute repairs, before trying to take all the credit when the repairs were actually undertaken.
At the time of writing the council is “consulting” over proposed development of the towns historic market square, the catch being the on-line consultation requires anyone taking part to “like” the councils own proposals before proceeding with the “survey”.
As a result nobody in the heritage sector should bet against NBC and its successors* maintaining their place on this list when we come to review the next decade.
It is of course entirely coincidental that a number of leading council and business figures from Mr Mackintosh’s reign are currently under investigation for potential offences including malfeasance in public office, fraud and money laundering over the unrelated loan of £10.25 million to Northampton Town Football Club to build a new stand.
The stand was not built, but the money did allegedly build a rather nice cemetery.
Mr Mackintosh and his colleagues deny the allegations and in spite of Northamptonshire Police spending almost one million pounds on the investigation, no-one has yet been charged.
Meanwhile, because the Conservative controlled county council is even more incompetent than the borough, NBC is due to be abolished as part of a government attempt to sort out local Government in the county.
But don’t hold your breath for change as the same political faces are likely to pop up as re-treads in the new council.
4: Fake History on TV
The decade began with what is possibly the finest exposition of the evidence driven archaeological process on television “Time Team” in its seventeenth season.
It ends with little significant TV archaeology except cheap, self congratulatory “selfie” TV like Dig for Britain, and lots of shows with Hitler, Nazi and/or “Treasure Hunters” in the title.
Meanwhile Ancient Aliens is in its fourteenth season.
Of course, the denigration of expertise and evidence is a problem for the whole of Society. Arguably, for all the international complexities of the modern life, not least the climate emergency, the current UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, holds his job on the back of the mere three words in the slogan deployed endlessly during the General Election. “Get Brexit Done!”
However, even against that background, there is no greater indicator of the failure of the mainstream archaeology and heritage sector to cut through with any kind of coherent, exciting, popular message which integrates the sector with the wider community of audiences who care about heritage and the media than the fact that series like “Nazi War Diggers” [aka Battlefield Recovery] could be commissioned made and broadcast, in the teeth of first advice and then opposition from archaeologists internationally. Nobody else cared enough to stop it.
As Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn found out in the General Election. It is not enough just to win the argument, or be good at generating followers on Twitter and hits on Facebook. You need to get into a position where people listen to you and you can actually do stuff.
3: Regulators, Consultants and Contracting Units letting the development piper call the tune
Of course, our archaeological regulators like Historic England, contracting archaeological units, and even some consultancies, are full of highly skilled, committed, conscientious people who want to do their best for the historic environment and the communities whose lives might be enhanced by proper consideration sharing and involvement with their past.
They also produce some great work. The game changing excavations at the Bronze Age site of Must Farm in the Cambridgeshire fens being a case in point.
Unfortunately, time and again during the decade some members of the senior managements of such organisations, [and a few consultants], have behaved with all the principle and backbone of an early invertebrate from the Burgess Shale, crossed with the principles of an arms manufacturer who sells to both sides alike regardless of natural justice, reckoning someone else, or God, will sort everything out.
The list is too long and dishonourable and we offer a few lowlights,
The Goodwin Sands Dredging Licence: A major international commercial consultancy either did not know about, or affected not to know, about, the relevance of the Protection of Military Remains Act to a destructive operation designed to take place in an area where several dozen military aircraft are known to have crashed.
The Bosworth registered battlefield: Historic England accepted that part of the internationally important registered battlefield of Bosworth can be destroyed for ever as long as the developer builds a 3D computer model, and worse setting a dangerous precedent by suggesting in a formal submission that they could see the economic case for the track, even though assessing that case was not in their remit.
Information released subsequently under the Freedom of Information Act shows that rather than consider that the organisation might just have got the issue a teeny bit wrong, the senior management of Historic England instead saw the row as an information management/pubic relations problem.
The Stonehenge Tunnel: Historic England [again], English Heritage and the National Trust rolling over when Highways England proposed the cheapest most damaging option for tunnel running past Stonehenge on the A303, even though the tunnel would set a damaging precedent for the protection of World Heritage Sites.
Although here it is reassuring to report that the sacking by Historic England of its independent expert panels in the name of efficiency, aka that old management technique of keeping the discussion of anything contentious “in house” where people who are concerned about their salary and pension are thought to be more easily controlled may have backfired.
One of the biggest problems the statutory advisers now face are committed, and often righteously angry, independent experts- including the twenty one who signed a letter condemning the Highways England proposal for the Stonehenge tunnel.
Better to be outside pi**ing in as the saying goes.
Allied to the defanging of experts is the revolving door between statutory bodies and “consultancies” which has sometimes seen the same individuals take one position when reporting to a statutory body such as Historic England and the mirror opposite when working for a commercial client [thePipeLine forthcoming].
Of course, this is not all the fault of the organisations and individuals concerned.
It is difficult to say “no” when the Government, and/or your commercial client, hold your purse strings and it is doubly difficult when at the start of a decade of unparalleled financial cuts in the name of austerity, the Chancellor of the Exchequer nobbles the Government’s statutory advisers and the national planning system, to make support for any “sustainable” planning application the default legal position.
Perhaps the worst example of this trend was the catastrophic cronyism which saw the unsustainable Garden Bridge, pass through all its planning stages unchecked, mostly because it was backed by then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and then Mayor of London, one Alexander Boris de Ffeffel Johnson.
In what may be the worst instance of making a bad fist of a bad job the decade saw, Historic England opined to the Westminster and Lambeth planners that while Thomas Heatherwick’s copper clad planters might destroy the view of St Paul’s Cathedral painted for the ages by Canaletto, that was OK because the bridge would create new views for the punters [if you could get past security that is].
This has left community groups and even committed individuals to try to pick up the pieces and ensure that that planning applications are properly scrutinised.
Especially the most contentious applications like those which would impact on the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, allegedly exploit commercially the maritime military grave of the over one thousand Royal Navy sailors who were lost in the sinking of HMS Victory in 1744 and which would damage or destroy directly or indirectly the irreplaceable and sensitive maritime archaeology of the Goodwin Sands.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
As the saying goes,
Who guards the guards?
Turns out we do [if we can raise the cash for the JR].
2: Metal Detecting Rallies
There is a running joke in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film that the “Pirate Code” which all pirates are supposed to follow, is “not so much a code, more like a set of guidelines.”
A set of guidelines honoured most in their being totally ignored as was the case in the abortive rally at All Cannings Wiltshire in 2019.
The same can be said for the UK’s Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting.
Not that thePipeLine is identifying all of those who successive ministers at the DCMS have called “citizen archaeologists” who use metal detectors as pirates you understand.
Just some of them.
In spite of years of accumulating evidence, not least on social media, that many detectorists routinely ignore the code of practice by detecting and excavating objects below plough soil and by excavating what are clearly entire hoards, sometimes days before notifying archaeologists, professional archaeology has seemed to run scared of confronting the elephant in the offices of the Portable Antiquities Scheme in the British Museum.
That is that self regulation, which is not backed up by legally enforceable rules and sanctions, is about as useful as a £5 metal detector bought in Aldi for finding some hammies at three feet below the plough soil.
Unlike a new Minelab or Nox.
[Although such a detector does have the advantage of being incapable of doing as much damage to the nation’s buried heritage.]
Add to this failure the absurdity that the largest representative body for metal detectorists does not even endorse the latest edition of the code of practice because of some relatively mild advice about not detecting on the sensitive, but unprotected, archaeological sites of registered battlefields. Not to mention the fact that, thanks to a complete failure in the observation and communication of archaeological values, the mainstream media treat awards under Portable Antiquities Scheme as akin to a win on the National Lottery. It is then hardly surprising that the bucolic hobby depicted in Mackenzie Crook’s hit TV series “Detectorists” has become in reality for many equipment suppliers and rally organisers, a lucrative, increasingly big, business.
With the exception of a few archaeological Cassandras who saw what was coming, mainstream archaeology was largely blindsided by the growth of the “Metal Detecting Rally” in the 2010’s, where sometimes hundreds of detectorists would, as critics put it, strip mine a permission, often overwhelming the resources of the local Finds Liaison Officer to record the finds found and potentially the archaeology disturbed.
[That is if the PAS was invited along to the party in the first place, or even aware it was taking place, not being a party to the private social media groups which are often used to organise such events. That voluntary code again].
As the new decade dawns, both detectorists and archaeologists, await the results of the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport’s review of the 1996 Treasures Act in the hope, or fear, that the Act will be at amended to place restrictions on particularly large scale rallies at the very least, and there is pressure from some archaeologists to revisit the idea of a license based system for metal detecting, with that code, [more a set of guidelines actually] becoming legally enforceable.
However, realistically such legislation is unlikely to be a priority for Boris Johnson’s “People’s Government”, heavily influenced by the fans of deregulation on the Libertarian Right of the political spectrum.
Not least perhaps because a lot of detector wielding “people’s archaeologists” are based in, and detect in, East Anglian, West Midlands and Northern seats which voted Conservative in the recent General Election.
It was almost the end of the decade before archaeology’s worst kept secret became a significant issue.
Worst kept, that is, except among the female members of the profession who seem to form the largest number of survivors of abusive behaviour on the part of supposedly responsible, senior and respected colleagues.
It is perhaps archaeology’s greatest shame and embarrassment that it has taken that long. But then the sector has that shame in common with much of the rest of society.
Even so, when the dam broke what flowed out was stinking and grotesque.
Within the space of a few months in 2019 the Society of American Archaeology [SAA] failed to protect attendees at its annual meeting in Albuquerque from proven sexual predator Dr David Yesner, and then cravenly taken refuge behind its lawyers as its members demanded real action; peer recognition of the pioneering research into abuse in fieldwork by Cambridge anthropologist Danielle Bradford was greeted by laughter from a group of men at the supposedly prestigious Marsh Awards, and the next day it was announced that the sectors elite representative body, the Society of Antiquaries of London, had failed to expel a proven paedophile, because not enough members turned up to vote in person as the rules demanded, and of those that did, some even voted for the person concerned to be retained as a member of the Society in good standing prompting resignations and a letter to the Observer newspaper signed by over two hundred fellows of the Antiq’s condemning the society’s handling of the case.
There is a famously passive aggressive phrase in the public relations industry to describe a situation where a client is in deep trouble thanks to the way the public perceive an action.
That phrase is, “Not a good look.”
And thePipeLine predicts that the look will become a whole lot worse in the 2020’s, before it becomes better; as brave survivors, and their colleagues, who see the need for root and branch changes of attitude and practice, attempt to overcome decades of inertia and entrenched privilege, not to mention an institutional fear of reputational damage and legal counter suits, to rid the sector of bullies, abusers, plagiarists and sex pests.
And we haven’t even got around to mentioning the potentially disastrous ramifications of Brexit.
Happy New Decade!
[or at least as happy as you, your family, friends and colleagues can make it]
You can find a longer discussion of these trends on the You Tube channel Archaeosoup.