Archaeologists dig for gold

November 6, 1998

Playing the heritage card could help scientists win funding, says Wendy Barnaby

Scientists are turning to tourism, the world's fastest-growing industry, as a novel way of winning funding.

A recent Royal Society meeting brought together a diverse group of academics, including archaeologists, molecular biologists, geneticists and geochemists, to discuss their latest findings.

On the agenda was the analysis of molecules found in ancient remains. These are yielding new information about the origins and culture of early humans, whereas hair from 5,200-year-old corpses is shining new light on ancient diets.

The research was part of the Ancient Biomolecules Initiative (ABI), a recently completed five-year Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) programme aimed at furthering understanding of ancient cultures.

But given NERC's physical sciences agenda, why should it be interested in funding work more normally associated with the humanities? According to Martin Jones, professor of archaeology at Cambridge University and chairman of the science-based archaeology strategy group within NERC, the answer is simple.

"NERC has to persuade the Treasury to give it money," he said. "The Treasury is interested in how research relates to UK life. The Foresight programme identifies one of the largest sectors of the UK economy as leisure and learning. Half of that is tourism, and the major draw to UK tourism is heritage."

He adds: "If you think how we visited heritage sites 20 years ago, the major information on them was a request not to deface this monument. Now the monument is in the background, and what's in the foreground is a massive amount of interpretation that's all founded on high-level scientific techniques to probe into the past."

The ABI has given this disparate clutch of disciplines an appetite for further collaboration. "Some time another skeleton of an interesting hominid will turn up," said Professor Jones. "We want to bring together this community as it comes out of the ground: the archaeologists who understand its significance and the scientists who know how to get the best information out of it."

But the way forward is not obvious. "Archaeology is not in the mainstream of funding for science," said Geoffrey Eglinton of the Biogeochemical Centre at Bristol University. "Who funds the hard science of archaeology?" The answer may well be that NERC is the best bet. Archaeologists' traditional funding has come from the British Academy, whose annual budget for the discipline is Pounds 350,000. The Royal Society also funds the physical science side of archaeology, but only with small, one-off equipment grants. Last year, there were just two, totalling Pounds 11,850. The Wellcome Trust has recently begun to fund bio-archaeology with an annual budget of Pounds 500,000.

But NERC's funding supports a broader range of researchers. It financed the ABI to the tune of Pounds 1.9 million, and the signs look good for more. Its new document, Looking Forward, is enthusiastic about molecular techniques, saying "the environmental science community needs to exploit the potential of these techniques."

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