Having just come back from family holiday, I'm still trying to catch up
with the discussions on issues around collecting on the britarch list in
recent days, but I feel there is a need to send a rapid note to counter
any sense that these issues are somehow being 'swept under the carpet'
by British archaeology. I really don't think this is the case, and there
is a lot of activity in this area (some not yet in the public domain).
So a few quick points, to respond to various challenges made on the
First off, it is important to remember what archaeology is all about! I
like the definition made as part of the subject benchmarking statement
for higher education in the UK (see
"Archaeology provides a unique perspective on the human past, on what it
is to be human. As the only subject that deals with the entire human
past in all its temporal and spatial dimensions, it is fundamental to
our understanding of how we evolved, how our societies came into being,
and how they changed over time.
Archaeology can be defined as the study of the human past through
material remains (the latter is an extremely broad concept and includes
evidence in the current landscape, from buildings and monuments to
ephemeral traces of activity; buried material, such as artefacts,
biological remains, and structures; and written sources).
Archaeology's chronological range is from the earliest hominins millions
of years ago to the present day, its geographical scope is
regionally-specific but worldwide, its scale of enquiry ranges from
distributions and processes of change at the global scale and over
millennia down to the actions of individuals."
So archaeology is about knowledge, based on the study of material
evidence of the past. All evidence has the potential to enhance
knowledge, regardless of its state, ownership, antiquity, documentation,
etc. So all evidence is important (not just that with secure evidence of
context, for example).
Secondly, in keeping with 'archaeology for all' (CBA's mission
statement), everyone should have access to the physical remains of the
past to allow them to make their own contributions to knowledge. So
*access* is the key for me, not ownership. I have no difficulty with
individuals owning and/or collecting material evidence of the past in
whatever form, as long as they look after it and allow access to it for
research. This is the foundation of the voluntary approach of the
Portable Antiquities Scheme in England and Wales which emphasises the
information to be gleaned from accurate recording of the objects
reported to the Scheme. I would argue that the best places for
deposition of the evidence are public museums, committed to ethical
positions and with long-term curation strategies in place, but high
standards of care can be achieved for privately-owned collections.
Thirdly, in the last 15 years the UK has become a signatory to the 1970
UNESCO Convention, has passed and updated the Treasure Act, and has
passed the Cultural Objects (Offences) Act, as well as launching the
PAS. Other relevant measures are likely to be contained within the
expected Bill to be introduced in the next parliamentary session
relating to the protection of cultural property in England and Wales.
Not a bad record. I'm sure more can be done (and indeed is being done)
to use the law to protect the material evidence of the past, but we need
to also focus on the enforcement of existing legislation, and enhancing
existing public education programmes (such as the PAS) to ensure that
appropriate and responsible attitudes to cultural property become more
widespread. This is where the Code for Responsible Metal Detecting comes
in, and I think the suggestion of a Code for Responsible Collecting
would also be valuable. Perhaps britarch members could turn their
collective energies to putting a draft together?
Fourthly, I just want to reiterate that I agree that this is a very
important issue for British archaeology. Evidence of the past is a
finite resource and anything which threatens its sustainability has to
be viewed with concern. No appropriate discussions on this topic will be
prevented from taking place on the britarch email discussion list. Any
limitations on messages on these topics being sent to the list are to
allow us to prevent debates degenerating into personal abuse. All
constructive contributions to the debate (from any perspective) are
circulated to the list and this will continue to be our policy.
I will continue to follow this debate with interest, and I hope that
others will contribute in a constructive way to enable us all to
Dr Mike Heyworth MBE, Director, Council for British Archaeology
St Mary's House, 66 Bootham, York YO30 7BZ, UK
tel 01904 671417, fax 01904 671384, web www.britarch.ac.uk
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