Past is in ruins, UK told

January 31, 2003

The government is so obsessed with opening up access to historical sites that it is neglecting to preserve them for future generations, says a report from a cross-party committee of parliamentarians.

The parliamentary archaeology group, chaired by Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, examined the state of the sector in Britain. Its report concludes that the profession is so fragmented and misguided that unless action is taken, there will be "nothing left to provide access to or to educate people about".

It says that the government needs urgently to ensure that the remains of the past, both moveable and immovable, are protected and preserved for their own sake. The group states that this is because in seeking to broaden access to the cultural sector, attention has been diverted from what it feels should be the core goals of identifying, protecting and sustaining the historic environment.

"National and regional museums find that their activities are increasingly skewed to those initiatives for which the government is willing to provide funding but which do not necessarily correspond to the wider priorities," says the report, which was informed by 266 submissions.

It says that better pay and conditions for employment in field archaeology is a priority. "The submissions emphasised the plight of archaeologists as insecurely employed, poorly paid and generally itinerant," the report says.

"A mobile casual workforce is inevitably excluded from training opportunities. There is no clear development path, and in most cases neither universities nor employers appear to consider it their role to prepare archaeologists for professional practice."

Although archaeology is a graduate profession, the group learnt that people working in excavation units were treated as site technicians who simply recorded finds rather than interpret them. "The lack of secure career progression has forced many highly qualified archaeologists to abandon the discipline altogether," the report says.

The group also cites a lack of coordination between government departments dealing with archaeology and notes a "divide" between archaeological organisations and museums. For example, the recording of portable antiquities was being delayed because responsibility for this work fell into a gap.

"Failure to work more closely together is damaging to the interests of the historic environment," the report warns.

The group recommends that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport take the lead in bringing together all the key players. It calls for a ministerial-level interdepartmental committee on archaeology alongside a single non-governmental organisation to lobby for archaeology.

Carl Heron, dean of archaeological, geographical and environmental sciences at the University of Bradford, welcomed the report. He said it highlighted genuine concerns about career structures for field archaeologists and funding shortfalls in the long-term curation and preservation of finds.

"There are many successes in British archaeology, including research and teaching of archaeology in universities. However, in many respects, the hard work is only just beginning."

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