Saturday, 28 November 2009

Curatorial practice after the crunch

They tell us that the recession is over. Over the next few years, the rate of development will increase, and commercial archaeology will be back in business, and even if it doesn't reach the frantic heights of the recent gold rush, curatorial archaeologists will be kept busy (unless a new government decides that heritage is an impediment to economic growth). There is now a breathing space in which curators have a chance to consider whether any chnages in approach are needed. I think the answer is yes, based on how it worked before (excessive documentation, delays in response, inconsistency), but also because of changes that can be foreseen. The next decade will see a revival in construction and its associated archaeological activity at the same time as savage cuts in local government budgets, falling especially heavily on non-statutory functions. It will be a lucky curatorial service that retains its current staff while facing a doubled workload. Something's gotta give - but what? An answer which would work would be a shift to light-touch regulation. The Corgi gas servicing scheme had training and accrediation for workers, but very limited inspection of work done. Maybe this is a model that could be considered for archaeology. What would this entail in practice?

Trusting the record
In assessing the possible impact of a development on archaeology, it is possible to spend an enormous amount of time wondering "if there's a flint over there, and a flint in that field, surely there must be a henge here?", or "Fred's been fieldwalking round there for years - I wonder if he's got anything in his notebooks?", or "I'll just check the early OS map and the tithe map and the APs to see if anything turns up". You should rely on the HER to tell you where the known arcaheology is. If the rason you can't is because the HER is an inadequate record of known arcaheology, then you should a) hang your head in shame that after 35 years it still isn't doing what it was supposed to do, and b) invest significant resources in enhancing it.

Focusing on important stuff

Every development might affect archaeology, known or unknown. These days, Total Archaeology runs up to the present, so any development will have an affect - removing a fecne or a lamp-post. Obviously we cannot hope to save, monitor or record it all. There will be losses. Focus on the major stuff - big holes in important sites.

Relying on Standard Operating Procedure
Don't re-invent the wheel. Almost all of curatorial and contractual archaeology involves applying a standard set of principles and practices to the specific requirements of an individual development. Most of these principles and practices are shared with the rest of the UK archaeology community, so you should think twice befoe developing local variants, and three times before tailoring them to single projects. There's no shame in saying "do the same as usual".

Trusting the contractor
The contractor is being paid to examine in great detail the development, to identify the main impacts, think about the arcaheological effects, and devising a programme of mitigation. They are being paid to prvide a professional service. Let them. If they are accredited orgaisnations or people, they have passed a gatekeeper test and are subject to monitoring by the IfA. You don't need to check whether they have costed for Portaloos or have chosen the right Roman pottery specialist. So don't check. Reserve the right to inspect if you wish, but do so sparingly.

Communicating quickly
Telephones eat time. Writing eats time. Handle all possible communications by email: a one-sentence message confirming a spec can be written in 10 seconds (after allowing 5 minutes to scan through the key archaeological elements). If you get FAQs from developers or planners, put a FAQ page on the website or send it to them.

Don't stretch a point
What also eats up time is arguing about things like landscape character. Preparing an argument takes a long time if you are having to justify a largely arbitrary and personal view. So don't do it. If you have managed to protect the hard archaeology then you've done the most important part of your job. Heritage has become an easy piece of ammo for NIMBYs, leading you into controversies in which the impacts on archaeology are negligible. Any time that you find that you are having to do a lot of research before you can comment, you're probably trying too hard to find something to complain about.

I for one will not accept any claims from curators that they are under-reseourced and over-worked unless they can claim to have followed the above. Yes, it's hard work, but it's your job, so get on with it.

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