Thursday, 2 September 2010

Keeping it safe

Tim Darvill wrote a couple of interesting papers in the 1990s on the concept of value in heritage management. value systems in archaeology he distinguished between Use value (what we get from using a resource now, by, say, digging it up with some students), Option value (what we get from keeping a site for now for possible use later) and Existence value (the vague feeling of well-being derived from knowing that something is there, without actually using it [as many people feel about libraries or, perhaps, the Royal Opera House]). What he skirted was the question of how these values affected heritage management practice.

The IFA Standard and Guidance for Stewardship says that:

Stewardship protects and enhances what is valued in inherited
historic assets and places. It responds to the needs and
perceptions of people today and seeks to have regard for the needs
of those in the future. The stewardship role includes undertaking
conservation management tasks, communicating the public value
of the heritage, promoting community awareness of the historic
environment and encouraging active engagement in protection and

This is a longer way of explaining the key planning principle which PPG5 (2010) words as: "A documentary record of our past is not as valuable as retaining the heritage asset" (HE12a), or in the old PPG16, that preservation in situ was the preferred option for archaeological sites.

So archaeologists and planners are agreed: sites are best off looked after, not dug up. This can lead to some strange outcomes, where an early 20th century shed in a development site is lovingly protected, while Scheduled Ancient Monuments continue to be ploughed (because they have been before, so that's all right) or dug up by students, or washed away.

It's interesting to consider what would happen if restrictions on excavation of SAMs were to be lifted (on the reasonable grounds that in 50 years time they will be underwater or enduring arid conditions anyway), so that archaeological activity could focus on investigating the best-preserved and most-interesting sites rather than the marginal ones. True, we would have to endure the scrutiny of our descendants, just as we criticise the Egyptologists who trashed the pharoah's tombs, but we could at least say that we found out some useful stuff.

Edit: fixed typos

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