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A proposal to develop a UK-wide research strategy for the historic environment

and its sustainable management


A response by RESCUE – The British Archaeological Trust

Introduction
RESCUE – The British Archaeological Trust is pleased to offer broad support to the
proposal for the development of a UK-wide research strategy for the historic environment. There
are clearly many issues which will benefit from a nationwide approach and it would seem likely that
economies of scale will result from such an approach. Perhaps more importantly there are research
themes which require tackling at this scale rather than at the scale of the devolved polities
constituting the United Kingdom. RESCUE offers the following comments on the outline document
(Fidler 2005) in a positive spirit. The comments made below relate specifically to archaeology but
in some cases may be more widely applicable. The comments arise from the seven bullet points
outlined in section 6 of the outline document and are numbered accordingly.

Response to section 6

Point 1: There is a need to involve the period and subject study groups and special interest groups
in the ‘refreshment’ of the research frameworks. These groups, whose memberships cover a very
wide range of the components of the archaeological sector, are in the unique position of being
engaged on a day-to-day basis with the data which constitute the archaeology of the United
Kingdom. RESCUE would urge that every effort is made to involve these groups at the earliest
stage of the process and to take full account of the views expressed by their members.

Point 3: The concordat agreed between English Heritage and the AHRC is most welcome and there
is no doubt that the theme of ‘Landscape and Environment’ will be of very great interest to many
practitioners within archaeology. RESCUE would suggest that there is a need for further close
liaison between English Heritage and the AHRC on a variety of other topics, specifically those
involving material culture, a core area of archaeological research. British universities have attracted
a considerable measure of criticism within the archaeological community for their acceptance of the
RAE guidelines which grant greater status and prestige to research carried out abroad, in contrast to
research on British material. RESCUE would urge English Heritage to use the contacts with the
AHRC (and similar bodies) to try to reverse this policy. Better liaison between the university
sector, English Heritage and commercial archaeology are essential if the potential offered by
ongoing technical and philosophical developments within archaeology and allied disciplines are to
contribute to the continued improvements to the understanding and interpretation of the data which
constitutes the archaeological record.

Point 5: RESCUE recognises the contribution being made by the UK Historic Environment
Research Group (UKHERG) but notes that there appears to be no mechanism to give a voice to
those within the commercial sector who are carrying out research, whether this is in the form of
developer-funded investigations or privately by individuals working within the commercial sector
who have no access to funding from either the public or private sector.
While the expertise represented by the members of the UKHERG cannot be questioned
(‘non-departmental public bodies, agencies and charities’), it is notable that other major elements of
the archaeological sector are not represented in this list, most notably those involved with research
into material culture in its many and diverse aspects. RESCUE would argue for the rectification of
this apparent omission in order to give a voice to one of the most dynamic and innovative areas of
the archaeological sector.

Point 6: RESCUE welcomes the establishment of the Historic Environment Research Meeting and
the opportunity that this will offer for improved communication between participants. Having said
this, RESCUE notes the narrow membership of the Meeting and the absence of any role for the
many period and regional study groups or the many archaeological practitioners who now work in
the commercial sector (there being no practical alternative to this for most archaeological
practitioners). The impression is of a group that will act (albeit unwittingly) to exacerbate the
current move towards two-tier archaeology with an elite group (English Heritage and the academic
research bodies) and an unrepresented but growing body of professionals within the commercial
field whose work is expected to be devoid of any research element. As we shall outline in greater
detail in our response to the English Heritage Research Strategy (English Heritage 2005), we
believe that research lies at the core of any effective, dynamic archaeological sector and that efforts
should be made to overcome the schisms that have developed in the profession / discipline since the
adoption of a commercial framework for practice in archaeology. We would urge English Heritage
to take a lead in reconnecting the disparate parts of the profession / discipline through a restatement
of the essential place of research within archaeology and archaeological practice. We also look to
English Heritage to take a lead in providing support for those in the commercial sector who are
currently isolated from the resources necessary to undertake effective research.
RESCUE notes that Point 6 appears to break off in mid sentence, raising the question of
where the argument in this section was leading.

Two specific questions were posed on the response form handed out at the launch of the
2005 – 2010 Research Strategy and these will be addressed here, although there may be some
overlap with the points made above:

3. Who should be involved in the development of the UK-wide Strategy?


RESCUE would urge the widest possible involvement in the Strategy. As a minimum this
should include the many diverse study groups and special interest groups including those which are
material based (such as the pottery study groups, Lithic Studies Group etc), and period-based
(Prehistoric Society, Society for Medieval Archaeology, Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology
etc) as well as those with more general interests (such as the Society of Antiquaries). This will
ensure ‘grass roots’ involvement in the formulation of the Strategy and will contribute to its
effectiveness and its inclusiveness, the latter an important factor in a profession / discipline which
derives much of its effectiveness and value from the breadth of interests and skills of its
practitioners.

4. What issues should the UK-wide Strategy address?


It is far from clear whether this question is intended to produce a detailed answer setting out
specific research themes or whether some more general statements are expected. There are so many
and so varied a range of potential research questions facing archaeology that it would be impossible
to list them comprehensively in a brief response such as this. We assume therefore that this is not a
request for a detailed research agenda for British archaeology as a whole but for general lines of
enquiry which might have wide applicability.
At the general, strategic, level RESCUE is concerned (as noted above) that archaeology is
becoming a divided discipline, even at a time when the notion of ‘Historic Environment’ should
serve as an integrative structuring principle within the discipline. We note particularly the growing
divide between commercial archaeology (specifically the consultancy sector) with its disavowal of
the significance of research (paradoxically, even while those carrying out fieldwork within the
commercial sector are involved, de facto, in research, albeit of a limited and restricted nature) and
the need to undertake innovative and original research in order to inform the efforts of the museum
and educational sectors of the discipline as well as to contribute to the intellectual growth of the
discipline as a whole. RESCUE is extremely concerned that the nature of archaeology both
generally as a social practice and specifically as a method of investigating aspects of the past, is not
understood within government or even within some of the agencies that are instrumental in
delivering funding to the discipline. We are particularly concerned that this lack of understanding
has a direct effect on the funding of archaeological projects and that research is disadvantaged in
relation to (for example) education and public access. We believe that it is necessary that the
fundamental nature of research be re-established; without research there is no basis for
interpretation, presentation or the formulation of educational strategies based upon archaeological
material. Such research requires adequate funding and the establishment of structures which reflect
this fact. We look for this elementary point to be conveyed to those to whom it should be of central
concern.
In the light of these points, RESCUE will look for a strategy to be delivered which addresses
such concerns and sets out in unequivocal terms the importance of adequately funded research on
existing and new archaeological collections, data and archives and identifies funding and resources
appropriate for this task.
At the more specific level, we suggest the following themes as examples of the kind of
approach which might have both social and political relevance but which are also be based upon the
kind of critical, innovative and practical archaeological research that British archaeologists have
excelled in over the last twenty-five to thirty years:

Archaeologies of inhabitation: An approach to the built environment which moves away from the
self-referential arcana of traditional architectural studies and approaches the built environment as an
arena within which human beings live and interact (thus drawing on themes developed in landscape
archaeology which will, we assume, play a significant part in the EH / AHRC ‘Landscape and
Environment’ research theme). An archaeological approach to the inhabitation of the built
environment should focus on material culture at all scales from the structures of buildings, the
created land- and townscapes within which they exist and as far as the deployment of portable
material culture which plays such a large part in the creation of cultural meaning within constructed
spaces.
We see this as a highly significant theme, given the very evident need to reconnect the
increasingly disparate elements within archaeology and, with specific reference to the unresolved
tensions between the fields of built and buried archaeology.

The archaeology of global transformation: While we would not advocate the unthinking pursuit of
cultural and political fashions, it is clear that there is an increasing interest in (and political concern
with) the process of globalisation and with the social transformations that are entailed in this
process. We would suggest that archaeology has a good deal to offer both in relation to the growth
of the European empires from the 16th century onwards and also with reference to other examples of
human social and economic expansion. There will clearly be a great deal of effort focussed on the
200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in 2007 and amongst the archaeological responses to
this should be the establishment of the broader context within which the African / New World slave
trade arose, flourished and was ultimately abolished. There is a clear danger that popular initiatives
and educational programmes will offer superficial accounts of the slave trade and associated
activities, largely divorced from the broader global context. Archaeology has the potential to
correct such perspectives by emphasising the transformative nature of the large scale social and
technological changes that characterised the post-medieval and early modern periods. A
considerable amount of effort in post-medieval and historical archaeology is currently focussed on
these subjects and it would be appropriate for the Strategy to assess the range and scope of such
work during 2006 with the object with the intention of contributing to informed debate around these
matters.

Bibliography
English Heritage 2005 Discovering the past, shaping the future: Research Strategy 2005 –
2010. English Heritage.
Fidler, J. 2005 A proposal to develop a UK-wide research strategy for the historic
environment and its sustainable management English Heritage.