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Bust of Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Institute of Archaeology, UCL.
[Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  Attribution: User:Midnightblueowl]

At the turning of the year, it is once again time for thePipeLine to share our look ahead to the events likely to befall British archaeology in 2017.  thePipeLine prides itself on obtaining information which is not otherwise available to the heritage sector and this year we are especially grateful to a group of Russian computer hackers from the Cozy Bear group who took time out from exploring accounts belonging to Hilary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, to investigate the servers of the History Channel.  The group have now passed to us a copy of a previously suppressed video record of the annual, but highly secret, “Ceremony of the Casting of the Trowels”.

The ceremony was recorded clandestinely by an undercover reporter working for the Arts and Entertainment Network, home of the History Channel, and it is believed that the footage was intended for a documentary alleging that British Archaeologists are engaged in a conspiracy to suppress evidence that the Leadership of the Society of Antiquaries has been infiltrated by aliens.

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Corporate branding visible in the video shows that the official sponsor of this year’s “Casting of the Trowels” was international environmental consultancy Royal Haskonning DHV, who are currently providing gainful employment to a number of archaeologists as they attempt to obtain a licence for their client, the Port of Dover, to dredge 2.5 million cubic metres of sands and gravels from the historically and environmentally sensitive Goodwin Sands.  While to mark the contribution of the international scrap metals industry to maritime archaeology in 2016, this year’s gathering took place on a Mongolian registered, Chinese owned, Dutch operated crane barge, which was moored above a crashed wartime Spitfire.

The first images on the video show the participants in the ceremony arriving in a reproduction of a ceremonial Tudor barge, supplied by another of the event’s sponsors, the Crown Estate.  The Crown Estate seeks to make a commercial profit from licensed aggregates dredging within UK territorial waters and employs as its offshore management company for this activity Royal Haskonning DHV.  Of course there is no conflict of interest in that regard because Royal Haskonning is such a big company that nobody ever talks to anyone else.

The video next shows the participants in the archaeological ceremony, who according to tradition are Skyclad, except for Hi Visibility immersion suits adorned with the sponsors Logo, gathered on the deck of the dredger to invoke the Genius Loci and the ghosts of archaeology past.

The opening invocation is made traditionally by the archaeologist with the highest Journal Metrics gained in the preceding year.  A libation of real ale is poured at the four points of the compass, while the rest of the assembled archaeologists chant the names of the original members of the “Time Team”.

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To honour the memory of the dozens of aircrew missing in the area of the Goodwin Sands the liquid libation chosen this year was East Kent brewer Shepheard Neame’s famous Spitfire ale, which is downed all over Kent, just like the aircraft lost over the Goodwin Sands.

With the preparations complete, and a suitably reverent atmosphere created, the ceremony continued in the time honoured manner, first practiced by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Alfred Watkins, and Alistair Crowley, at Maiden Castle during the mid Winter solstice of 1935,  The participants cast WHS archaeologists trowels to the deck in front of the barge’s portable smelter, which had last been used to render non ferrous metals from several of His Majesty’s Ships lost at the Battle of Jutland unrecognisable, and thus highly profitable.

In the eyes of the initiated, the patterns made by the flames from the smelter, coupled with the shapes formed by the trowels, serve to pass comment and foretell the future of archaeology for the next twelve months.

At the first casting, as the flames licked and twisted in the smelter they first took on the form of a pathway upon which stood a teenage boy and a teenage girl, both wearing t-shirts signifying that they were members of the Young Archaeologists Club, and behind them stood thirteen thousand other people, all bearing trowels and ranging poles and murmuring with deep discontent.

As the children walked along the pathway they first came to a gate upon which was written “AQA”.  And they knocked upon the gate and when it was opened the children asked,  “Please sir, can we take A-Level Archaeology?”

And the gatekeeper said, “You cannot take A-level Archaeology because you are too small a cohort to make the examination profitable.”

“But that’s not fair because you didn’t tell us we couldn’t take archaeology.” said the children imploringly, “In fact you said you were going to run a new A-Level archaeology exam from next year which you said even Michael Gove would like, and he hates experts like archaeologists.” 

But the gatekeeper for AQA said,  “You didn’t really believe all that PR guff about enabling “… young people to progress to the next stage of their lives,”  did you?  As I said, you don’t make us any money.  What do you think we are, a charity?”

“Well actually you are a charity,” said the children, “AQA is Charity Number 1073334 and you have been registered since 1999.”

But the gatekeeper had slammed the gate shut in their faces.

Next the archaeological wanderers  came to another gate this time marked “Pearson UK”, and they knocked upon it and when the gatekeeper opened it they asked,

“Please will you let us take A-Level Archaeology, because we have been cast aside by AQA and we need a champion to rescue our subject.”

And the gatekeeper for Pearson said,

“We have worked to take action where we can to ensure that students continue to have access to a diverse set of subjects at A level, but unfortunately we do not have the expertise or resources to take on all the subjects being withdrawn by other exam boards.”

“But that’s not true,” said the children, “the fact is, most of the work has already been done for you by the A-Level Archaeology Working Group and AQA, and besides, you have already saved Art History.”

“Ah, but that is because it is the fall back A-level which members of the Royal Family and other Public School pupils who aren’t quite up to the full range of STEM subjects take.” said the spokesperson for Pearson.  And the children were sad, and their tears watered the road, but the spokesperson for Pearson was not moved and said,

“Oh come on, you didn’t believe that PR bollocks about learning being a “never-ending road of discovery, challenge, inspiration, and wonder” did you.  What do you think we are a charity? 

We are a PLC which made an operating profit of £723 million in 2015 and we didn’t do that subsidising a subject which can’t make up its mind if it is a Science, an Art or a Humanity.”

At last the children came to the end of the road and stood before another gateway marked “Westminster Hall” which they entered.  Standing in front of the ten MP’s present they addressed the mighty Minister for School Standards,

“Please let us have an Archaeology A-Level, because our heritage is the envy of the world and contributed £20.2 billion gross value to the UK economy last year.  In fact there are 386,000 jobs which derive from heritage activities, but if there are not enough archaeologists in future planning proposals will be slowed down, and we might even have to import archaeologists from Europe which isn’t in the spirit of Brexit.”  Finally they asked simply “All we are asking for is some joined up Government.”

But then Nick Gibb, Member of Parliament for Visigoths, and the Minister for School Standards, stood and addressed the assembled MP’s, saying in the voice of an accountant,

“Forget about joined up Government, some of us have only just mastered joined up writing.  You have to remember that what exams are provided to A-level students is nothing to do with us at the Department for Education. 

The exam boards have been facing financial issues to do with the cost of running examinations, and we have to be realistic and recognise that they exist to make a profit, not supply a service to the education of the nation. “

Then addressing Visigoths specifically, Mr Gibb added,

“It is also about time that archaeologists were realistic enough to realise that, apart from a few head bangers in that nothing department the DCMS, no-one in Whitehall gives a flying proverbial about our, so called, archaeological heritage; especially the DCLG, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Treasury who wish you would all just sod off and let them get on with demolishing modernist buildings,  building the Northern Powerhouse in National Parks and concreting over the Green Belt.”

And so having been rejected by AQA and Pearson and the Department for Education the children looked to each other and said,

“Oh sod that then!  We are inheriting a Post Truth world where no-one cares about facts or Science anymore anyway, so lets get jobs in the media and coin it making programmes about Hitler and Aliens.”

As night grew darker and deeper around the crane barge the bitter winter wind began to blow a blizzard which cut into the archaeologists like knives, and they realised to their horror that each snowflake bore a uniquely different version of the taunting face of Alt Right, Daily Mail, fake history correspondent, James Delingpole who poured vitriol into the storm saying with the voice of a Harpy,

“Trigger Warnings!  Gays!  UCL!  Trigger Warnings!  Green Blob!  National Trust! Scary Skeletons!  Political Correctness Gone Mad!  Left-wing Archaeological Snowflakes!  Trigger Warnings!”

But even as Mr Delingpole cried out his dark political mantra, and in a distant ivory tower the UCL Media team cowered, a mighty figure, which could have been the archangel Gabriel, eyes aflame and wielding the mighty sword of truth, or there again might not, struck out at the fiendish apparitions, spinning the snowflakes in ever decreasing circles, until, like the fabled Shite Hawk, and with a terrible scream, Mr Delingpole disappeared up his own arse and peace returned to the Channel night.

And still the flames crackled in the smelter.

Gazing deep into the depths of the furnace the archaeologists saw a confusing swirl of fleeting images form and dissolve; with the ancient bluestones and sarsens of Stonehenge appearing to collapse into a short tunnel to be replaced by the laughing shade of the Egyptian Scribe Sekhemka who waved great wads of banknotes in the face of David Mackintosh MP for Northampton South for reasons which no-one could fathom, and finally the figures of Boris Johnson, Thomas Heatherwick and Joanna Lumley running away laughing all the way to the bank, as Margaret Hodge and London Mayor Sadiq Khan flung pot plants after them.

As the ceremony drew to a close the trowels were cast down upon the deck to make one last prediction about 2017 in the heritage media and revealed that Channel Five will commission from ClearStory Productions a four part television series which will be called “Syrian Civil War Battlefield Recovery”.

The premise of the series is that three amateur metal detectorists, and a dealer in trafficked legally exported antiquities, who are all experts and know that Syria is a smart phone app, will visit the battlefields and atrocity sites of the Syrian Civil War in search of weapons, collectible objects to value, unexploded ordnance and ratings [not necessarily in that in that order].

Episode three will consist of the excavation of the site of an atrocity committed by Daesh/ISIL which our metal detecting experts find by sticking an auger in the ground and hoiking out a fragment of an orange jump suit.

The series will result in a great grinding and gnashing of teeth among Archaeologists who will cry “foul, foul and foul!” [for the whole programme concept is pretty foul], but Ofcom will say;

“Fear not, for we have conducted a thorough investigation by asking ClearStory Productions if their series was all above board and they said,

“Yes, of course it is because we are fearless independent journalists and retain a PR company to tell people so and to shut down anyone who disagrees.”

But to make sure we sought independent expert advice from our office cleaner, because we cannot afford to hire genuine outside experts, and she said she thought the series was great, that it taught her a lot about archaeology, and that she thought that the red headed one was cute.”

And having been thus treated like Cassandra, who while she told the truth was not believed, the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, the Council for British Archaeology, the Society of Antiquaries, and the Portable Antiquities Scheme will come together at a great moot to work out what to do next and will take tea together from a ritual chocolate tea pot, for that is how much use they are when faced with the cynicism of parts of the media.

Just then the fog horn of the crane barge sounded its sonorous warning as a ghostly vessel hove into view, propellers thrashing the grey water, as it bore down at full speed on a collision course.  And as the assembled archaeologists watched in terror they could see that the vessel took the form of a 1970’s stern trawler, its masts and rails dripping with rotting sea weed and  blazing with St Elmo’s fire.  And on the bridge stood the phantom form of its demonic captain, laughing maniacally, his trim white beard braided with burning sulphurous tapers made from rolled up copies of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

But just as it seemed that a terrible collision was inevitable, the Hell ship and her damned crew began to fade away  until all that was left was the vessels name, “Odyssey Explorer” dissolving into the fog like the investment of the shareholders in Odyssey Marine Exploration.  Poor damned souls who are condemned to wander the oceans of the World searching for the fabled Merchant Royal until OMEX post a profit, or until the crack of doom , which is likely to be sooner.

Terrified by such a hellish vision of maritime archaeology the assembled archaeologists rushed to abandon ship, paddling like fiends for the distant white cliffs in a half scale replica of the Dover Bronze Age boat, which was also sponsored by Royal Haskonning DHV.

And as they fled there was a great grinding and gnashing of gears as the crane of the crane barge plunged into the ancient sands, monitored by Roger, the ships cabin boy, who had been trained by Wessex Archaeology to look out for the kind of stuff they find on Time Team.

And as the grab crunched down hard and destructively on upon aluminium, the Channel mists formed into the shade of an RAF pilot who stood upon the waves, looked on, and wept.


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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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