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With the ongoing Brexit process
 in Britain morphing into a political crisis which sees political history apparently being made on an almost hourly basis, what chance a discussion about the future of archaeology?  thePipeLine and Archaeosoup have tried to find out as Andy Brockman and Marc Barkman-Astles explain.

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This was meant to be the week when the people of the United Kingdom of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, would be digesting the fate of Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal to respond to the 2016 referendum to take the country out of the European Union.

However, on Monday at 11.30 in the morning the news was leaked that the Prime Minister had pulled the vote to pass the legally binding EU “Withdrawal Agreement” from the Parliamentary business, in the face of a potential triple digit defeat.  Instead she would be conducting a rapidly organised tour of European capitals in search of “reassurances” about the contentious, so called, “Irish Backstop” with which to try to tempt her back bench MP’s over from the dark side of rebellion to the sunlit uplands of remaining in office. 

In office at least until the next Brexit induced crisis.

Then on Wednesday morning, just before nine am, the Prime Minister stood at the 10 Downing Street lectern to announce that she would fight the vote of no confidence in her leadership which had been laid down by her own backbench MP’s.

Twelve hours later she had survived that challenge also, but with her authority deeply wounded by the admission that she would not lead the Conservative Party into another General Election, and by the 117 backbench MPs who recorded that nonetheless they had no confidence in her leadership.

Finally, as the witching hour struck and Thursday turned into Friday, it emerged that the Prime Minister had not been granted any of the concessions she has requested at the regular EU summit in Brussels.

And all the while, in spite of the hours of debate, the voting and not voting, and the hundreds of miles passed under the wheels of the Eurostar by politicians journalists and civil servants shuttling between London and Brussels, in terms of the Parliamentary arithmetic, and of the interlocking circles, political and ideological, which must be squared ahead of Brexit, nothing seems to have changed. 

To an onlooker the times seem out of joint.

In the words of the late, great, screenwriter William Goldman, “nobody knows anything”.

While to paraphrase W B Yeats,

“Things fall apart; the parliamentary center cannot hold.  The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  

Against that background, to channel the words of another philosopher poet, Rick Blaine of Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of a few thousand archaeologists don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy mixed-up world. 

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Except perhaps they do.

Professional archaeology in the UK, and certainly the vast majority of archaeological jobs, are now at least as intertwined with a planning and development system as the UK economy as a whole is to the mechanisms of the European Union.   That UK planning and development system is also dependent on EU environmental and working directives to name just two.

Sector surveys have also revealed that there is a shortage of trained archaeologists who are UK passport holders and that numbers, particularly in contracting units in the building sector, are often made up from archaeologists from other EU countries.  If that workforce was to suddenly disappear the contracting units might find it difficult to meet the legal demands for archaeology within the planning system.

This means for many archaeologists and heritage professionals any form of certainty about the future direction of UK policy, regulation and immigration would be welcome in the current climate. 

However, the findings of thePipeLine/Archaeosoup Brexit Survey suggest that, in a number of key areas, damage has already been done and whatever happens next, even if the Article 50 notification is withdrawn and Brexit does not take place, the heritage sector will be dealing with the dislocation caused by Brexit for months, if not years to come. 

Of course, in that respect the Archaeology and Heritage Sector are no different to the rest of the country. 

While trying to protect and promote the sector’s own interests we have to remember the truism that Archaeologists are people too.   They are citizens before they are experts, and they have networks of colleagues, families, and friends which are just as prone to be separated by the trenches dug by both sides of the Brexit  argument and threatened by the arguments and insults other unfriendly fire, much of it inaccurate, loosed off from behind those lines. 

Indeed, while the results of the survey show that, like much of the Academic and Scientific community, archaeologists oppose Brexit overwhelmingly, with just under half the sample surveyed [49%] wanting Parliament to simply withdraw the Article 50 notification and cancel Brexit altogether, an identifiable minority [8%] voted “Leave” in the 2016 Referendum and believe that Brexit will be at least neutral in its effects and could even offer opportunities for the sector.  For example in the ability to tailor fresh heritage protection which is offered by the new Agriculture Bill and other home grown legislation in the field of environmental law which could be brought forward by the Government in the wake of Brexit taking place.

However, that is for one version of the future offered by Brexit.  In another version, the Brexit flux capacitor takes us to a de-regulated world where the State is as small as possible and society operates largely by commercial transaction.   

In the real world of December 2018 our survey reveals strong circumstantial evidence of the human and practical cost of what is still just Brexit uncertainty.  Almost a third of our respondents knew at least one colleague from the European Union who had chosen to leave the UK as a result of Brexit, while one respondent who is in a position to hire staff reported that it was harder to recruit staff from EU countries.

Of course, archaeology is not alone in reporting this effect.  As one of our respondents put it,

“Development will certainly proceed more slowly without our Polish bricklayers and archaeologists both!” 

However, in spite of that shared pain, and with it the potential for alliances across sectors if the leadership of UK archaeology is smart enough to seize the opportunities to work outside of the heritage silo, there are also perceived problems which are specific to the academic and scientific branches of the sector. 

Another respondent reported that, from the perspective of an academic,

 “I already know anecdotally of scholars in other European universities actively avoiding including UK partners in major funding applications for fear of what Brexit will mean – i.e. that it will be less possible to work with UK partners on EU-funded research. Whether this comes true or not, the damage is already done in that we will see far fewer international funded research projects that include UK-based researchers and departments for the next few years.”

Of course, while our survey reveals that almost 84% of archaeologists responding to our survey are pessimistic about the future of archaeology and heritage in the UK, it would not be fair to lay the blame for this depressing statistic entirely at the feet of Brexit. 

The EU referendum in June 2016 came after a decade of cuts and fiscal austerity which began under the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown,  accelerated following the financial crash of 2007/2008 and became the government’s guiding ideology under the Conservative led coalition which came into office in 2010.

During that period key departments in local authorities such as planners were hollowed out by successive cuts, while the planning system itself has been “simplified” by the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework [NPPF], and with it a requirement to all involved in the regulation of development to support any  development so long as it could be defined as “sustainable” in the terms of the framework.

Meanwhile, in regulators such as Historic England specialist teams and panels were broken up or disbanded altogether and subject experts, were either required to become generalists, or were forced onto the freelance market.   The effect of this, corporate deskilling, combined with, critics say, the fear of further cuts on the part of managers, or career blight if individual offices became too outspoken in defence of the buildings and landscapes in their care, has been a sense that the checks and balances which once operated within the system were now absent and, if they were employed at all, they had to be operated and above all funded by private individuals and organisations. 

Critics argue that the result of this has been that issues setting dangerous precedents, which should be tested in the courts, such as the sale of the statue of Sekhemka by Northampton Borough Council, or the granting of planning permission for a destructive development on the registered battlefield of Bosworth, have gone untested all too often, because public interest groups do not have the skills, experience and above all money, to take on vested interests, corporate bodies and government approved regulators.  Companies, Local authorities, and fallible regulators such as Historic England and the Marine Management Organisation, are all able to deploy their own in house lawyers, or hire smart outside practices to get their own way, or protect their corporate structures and policies from real time scrutiny.

These concerns find expression in our survey with comments such as these which were given in answer to a question where we asked respondents where they saw the archaeology and heritage sector in five years time.  One respondent wrote,

“Based on the previous 5 years behaviour I envisage a lack of central govt support for heritage issues as they become embroiled in larger problems relating to social care and trade and industry.”

While another predicted,

“I see the role of the subject diminished in the face of reduced funding and interest from government, in part because of re-prioritising after Brexit, but also as part of a long-running trend over the past 10 years.”

It follows that whatever happens in the Brexit end game, and at the time of writing the possibilities range from No Deal to No Brexit, individual archaeologists and heritage people, not to mention the bodies which represent them such as  the Council for British Archaeology and the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, will have to try to forge a path for the sector when our survey shows, many of their own foot soldiers report that their morale is already ground down by what many feel is a losing battle, fought against an implacable, unsympathetic foe.


The CBA and CIfA Respond to the Survey

Responding to the results of the Survey the director of the cross sector charity,  the Council for British Archaeology [CBA], Dr Mike Heyworth, said,

“The survey results mirror the headline concerns of the Council for British Archaeology and our advocacy partners about the potentially most damaging impacts of Brexit. We are continuing to work with a range of stakeholders including the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group and DCMS Ministers and officials to ensure that the Government understands the risks for archaeology and can mitigate those risks wherever possible.”

Dr Heyworth is one of those people who sees potential positives in post Brexit legislation, adding,

“We were encouraged by the recently-published text of the Agriculture Bill and hope for equally positive recognition in the forthcoming Environment Bill of the significance of archaeology and heritage protection. We continue to follow events closely and look for all opportunities to speak up for archaeology.”

The principle representative body for professional archaeologists, the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists [CIfA] also gave us a statement in response to the survey.

A CIfA spokesperson told us,

“We have been working extremely hard and – I think – very effectively, given the scale of the upheaval presented by Brexit, to lobby on the issues that could affect archaeology.”

Acknowledging the suggestions in the survey that many respondents felt the representative bodies had very little chance of being heard given the scale and complexity of Brexit the spokesperson added,

“Of course, the sector’s ability to influence the wider machinations of Brexit is limited.”

However, the spokesperson felt that the CIfA had achieved some success in conversatons in Whitehall, telling us,

“That being said, we are in regular contact with civil servants at DCMS working with them to plan for various Brexit eventualities. We have met with ministers on several occasions to raise concerns, and have been involved alongside myriad other professions and sectors in highlighting concerns with big issues like access to labour, replacing EU funding, and protecting our research sectors.”

Pointing to cooperation with other heritage bodies the spokesperson commented,

“We have been working effectively with the Heritage Alliance to represent archaeological concerns on issues relating to the environment and we have joined up with wider environmental sector bodies to lobby on these issues where concerns overlap (such as on environmental principles and replacement for the CAP) and with construction sector bodies on the issue of immigration impacts.”

Picking up the theme of legislative opportunities which was also commented up on by Dr Heyworth of the CBA, the CIfA spokesperson said,

“Since the referendum, we have succeeded in lobbying to amend the EU Withdrawal Bill to require government to publish details on how they will protect environmental principles, and have secured a very positive inclusion for cultural heritage within the Agriculture Bill. And [CIfArepresentatives] have been in Westminster this very week briefing Parliamentarians on potential amendments to the agriculture bill and opportunities within the forthcoming Environment Bill which will potentially secure protections for archaeology and seek a new duty which will protect HER services.”

Acknowledging the current uncertainties CIfA also pointed out that, 

“We cannot dictate how the country chooses to proceed with Brexit – if it chooses to proceed at all. We can read the economic forecasts and speculate as to the impacts on markets for archaeology with only limited benefit – and we can all decide whether we feel that this paints an overall optimistic or pessimistic picture. What we can do as CIfA is to work to highlight potential harm, and propose ways to prevent or minimise it. But we should also not overlook that there are opportunities presented by Brexit. The improving of CAP funding on the basis of public money for public goods is one such area.”

The spokesperson concluded,

“If people have specific concerns about the policy impact of Brexit, they can contact CIfA for advice. We will of course be watching with interest the results of the meaningful vote tomorrow. In the meantime, your readers can read our most recent Brexit briefing here:  “


thePipeLine and Archaeosoup undertook the Brexit Survey because we believe that the voices of individual archaeologists were not being heard in the debate about Brexit.   First in debating the problems and opportunities of Brexit with each other and then in making a public contribution to the wider national debate about Brexit and particularly to the one debate which really matters, at least for now, the debate on the green and red leather benches at Westminster.

We wanted to add to the existing reports and position statements issued by sector bodies and to generate ideas and data which archaeologists and people who care about heritage could quote in making their case to politicians, whatever that case is. 

And whatever happens in the next few weeks and months, we also believe that it is important that the debate about Brexit and Archaeology continues 
not just in Whitehall, but in plain sight. 

We say this because we suggest that the biggest inference to be drawn from the results of our survey is that the future of most aspects of archaeology and heritage sector seems to be in play in a way that they have not been since the heyday of the generation of activists and rescue archaeologists who are currently coming to the end of their careers.  At stake is nothing less than what kind of future professional and academic archaeology will face. 

In that respect the archaeology and heritage sector is like the country as a whole, because how we treat our past, our historic environment and the students and working people who we entrust with its care, is an emblem of the kind of country we are and the kind of country we want to be.

You can find the full results of the survey HERE

Our discussion of the results in on YouTube in a Watching Brief Special Bulletin HERE

Please share this article and continue the debate below the line on this page.

You can also join the debate with colleagues on Facebook on Archaeosoup HERE and on Mortimer HERE.


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

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