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Neil Faulkner

Archaeology from below:
A socialist perspective

(January 2004)

Published in LSHG Newsletter, Issue 20: Lent 2004.
Downloaded with thanks from the London Socialist Historians Blog.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Public archaeology has become a significant archaeological sub-discipline. There are conferences on the subject, undergraduate courses, and even a journal, Public Archaeology, whose stated purpose is ‘to analyse and report on archaeological and heritage issues which relate to the wider world of politics, ethics, government, social questions, education, management, economics and philosophy’.

What gives the sub-discipline its dynamism is the high level of public interest and participation in field archaeology. Because the material remains of the past are potentially accessible, because they are exciting to be in contact with, and because fieldwork is labour intensive and needs volunteers, public access is a major issue.

A crucial debate is this: should field archaeology be a wholly professional activity, or is there a legitimate role for amateur metal-detectorists, field-walkers and excavators?

The socialist response is to start with a clear distinction between professional and research archaeology. The former is the business of commercial units which tender for contracts to carry out fieldwork in advance of development. This is what is commonly called ‘rescue archaeology’, which is paid for by developers (as a condition of planning consent), and involves the deployment on site of paid employees. Pay and conditions are often appalling. Most jobs are short-term and insecure. But unionisation is growing, and the heritage sector has been hit recently by some limited industrial action. Socialists are bound to favour proper public funding, a planned use of resources, an end to the privatisation of heritage, strong unions, and decent terms of employment for professional archaeologists.

Research is a different matter. Though some funds are available for salaried staff, most research is done by volunteers – students on university digs, local societies organising weekend fieldwork in their own area, and ‘conscientious’ metal-detectorists who recover and report finds from plough-soil.

There are probably about 20,000 people involved fairly regularly in some form of archaeological fieldwork. There may be as many more who would like to be involved. The ubiquity of TV archaeology – Time Team, Meet the Ancestors, Hidden Treasure, and others – is a measure of the subject’s popularity. Archaeological field research is therefore a point of interaction between the academy and a sizeable audience of ordinary people – a point, that is, where history is accessed directly by the masses. There is an extraordinary opportunity here for socialist intervention.

Most archaeology is top down. The experts present their ideas. The director tells people where to dig and how, and she then interprets the things they uncover and writes the learned report. The methodology is implicitly – and sometimes openly – positivist and linear. Data are collected in the field by semi-skilled operatives. These data are then analysed by a small group of junior professionals. The analysis is then turned into synthesis and interpretation by more senior professionals.

This way of working reflects the class structure and work hierarchies of capitalist society. It also reflects the modus operandi of bourgeois thought, where the world of social experience is subjected to a series of separate investigations, in each of which data are accumulated, categorised, evaluated and synthesised in a deliberate sequence. The world is clinically dissected so that the interconnectedness of social experience and the interaction between different phenomena are obscured. In archaeology, for instance, instead of integrated knowledge and general understanding, we have a series of specialist reports – the stratigraphy, the pottery, the animal bones, the regional context, and so on. We also have an archaeology that is dull, esoteric, exclusive and undemocratic.

The joy of volunteer-based field research is that it does not have to operate in this way. We are free to experiment. The Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP) is an example. We have just completed our eighth annual summer season, putting approximately 20 supervisors and 50 other volunteers in the field for six weeks. The project is organised as a series of small work-teams (usually led by 3 or 4 supervisors) who are responsible for a distinct sub-project with its own research aims. Volunteers are allocated to each work-team according to need, and supervisors are expected to integrate their volunteers fully into the process of discussion and decision-making.

Though broad goals are agreed within the project as a whole, research aims are kept deliberately loose and flexible, so that each work-team has ownership of its own sub-project and can alter its direction when appropriate. Material (the archaeological remains recovered), methods (the way fieldwork is conducted) and meanings (developing interpretations) are expected to interact dialectically, shaping and reshaping the research programme as it moves forwards. This means that all participants are empowered and can learn new skills within an organic and collective process of knowledge creation. The level of motivation and the quality of work done are thus exceptionally high.

The contrast with most people’s work experience – both generally in society and in more traditionally structured archaeological work – is extreme. People who volunteer to work at Sedgeford blossom because they are given the space to do so. And they contribute to a hot-house of ideas and innovation in comparison with which much of academic life seems arid.

Neil Faulkner is Director, Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project

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