Friday, 11 July 2008

Commercial archaeology and the ethics of development

"These are my principles - and if you don't like them, well, I have others" - Groucho Marx.

Archaeologists have a very strong ethical sense. Despite what Indiana Jones and Bonekickers imply, it's not about the fame or the treasure: it's about the Knowledge. Having signed up to the disinterested service of knowledge, archaeologists are hypercritical of any of their colleagues who appears to be swayed by other concerns. It is hardly surprising, then, that the development of commercial archaeology has involved some self-analysis, soul-searching and mud-slinging. Especially the mud-slinging: it is slightly bewildering to see the debate about the merits of the IfA as a professional body which seems to judge its performance solely on its ability to police and punish those whose practice falls below the required standard. It is important, granted, but there are other things to consider.

I have commented on the impact of PPG16 in the UK on archaeological attitudes before: the present, over-prescriptive, over-curated, arrangements for developer-funded work can be seen as a response to the deep distrust of a situation where financial or other pressure might push excavators into misrepresenting their findings.

You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
British journalist

But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there's
no occasion to

Humbert Wolfe

Irish archaeology is now in the process of commercialisation, and this has led to similar issues being raised. Maggie Ronayne has published a lengthy paper (pdf) in the journal Public Archaeology reflecting on the archaeological response to the M3 motorway and its effect on Tara and other sites. Her argument can be summarised as: an inadequate supervisory framework for the archaeological investigation, put in place by metaphorically and literally corrupt politicians, and implemented by metaphorically corrupt government archaeologists, led to fieldwork of varying standards by well-meaning individual archaeologists whose results were watered down to ensure that the development proceeded as intended. Specifically she draws on the experience of her sister, who was a licensee for part of the evaluation (p. 121), who hoped that if enough important archaeology were to be found on the route "it might stop the motorway".

Similar statements have been made about the Thornborough Henges, the Rose Theatre, and the A34 Newbury bypass. They are based on a misconception of the role of the archaeologist in assessing impact. The archaeologist is being asked to determine what the imopact might be, by characterising the nature of the archaeological resource affected, and assigning a value of significance to that resource and the level of impact. The conclusion of a study may be (as it was with the M3 initial desk-based assessment) that the proposal would have major impacts on very important archaeological sites. But that is not to say that the development should proceed. The relative weighting given to archaeology alongside other factors (such as economic benefits, ecology, and employment) is not an archaeological question: it is a question for the wider community, society, or their appointed or elected representatives. Ronayne argues that the local community's wishes were ignored: that is a democratic deficit, not an archaeological one.

The question most often arises at the field evaluation stage, when developers ask nervously "Is it important? Nationally important? Will it be Scheduled?": to which the answer is usually "Yes, maybe, no". The recent news that 20% of Scheduled Monuments are already at risk suggests that even if the answer to the last question is "Yes" there may be wiggle room. In many ways it would be easier to manage the resource coherently if protection were more draconian: it would certainly be easier to advise clients if the position were clearer. PPG16 starts form the point that preservation in situ is the preferred option; preservation by record may be an acceptable alternative. This results in the paradoxical situation where mediocre archaeology found on development sites is carefully protected while sites like Stonehenge are dug up by students as part of a media exercise.

It remains the case that the ascription of value is the most important and most contentious part of any evaluation exercise. It is generally poor tactics for a developer to seek to underplay the archaeological value affected, since it calls into question the validity of the evaluation exercise: it is much better to say "yes, it's important, I realise that: this is what I want to do about it". Which is not to say that there aren't silly developers who think that they can override any concerns by shouting loud enough or relying on political pressure. Although there have been attempts to systematise the assignment of value, it remains a highly individual and subjective process; it is common, for example, for 'sexy' archaeology (Roman and Bronze Age) to be scored higher than industrial and recent sites.

It is best for commercial archaeologists to see themselves as barristers for their clients: sometimes you have to tell them to plead guilty.

Update: Moore Group blog on Ronayne and the M3

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