Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Frugal archaeology

Funding to the arts takes a nose dive whenever the economy is suffering. It is not difficult to understand why: at such times more people are more worried about the basics of food and shelter than what they see as a luxury. Yet, the arts make up quite a large portion of the economy as you could easily see by staying for the credits after the movie.

Archaeologists, when threatened with cutbacks, are quick to point out that archaeology brings tourists and they bring their money. Rarely is the cost of supporting added tourism mentioned in such accounts, but tourists need parking spaces, accommodation and good roads to take them to such attractions, and the attractions feel the need for expensive interpretive centres to attract even more tourists. How long would it take to make back the money spent on such a project? I have never seen this matter discussed at all.

The professional call is always for more funding and it does not seem to be too sympathetic towards lean spending in lean times. This is hardly surprising: ask anyone if they think they should have more money. I have yet to see any suggestions about limiting the amounts of grants to better reflect real costs. Some years ago, a museum in England got about ₤40K to build an online database of their collections. With that money, someone bought a database application for the job which cost less than ₤1,000 and then they imported their catalogue files and the software constructed the web application at the click of a mouse. When my wife and I generated the web pages for the Celtic Coin Index online or resampled and added the photos, it was the software which did all the work after a couple of mouse clicks and we did not even have to be there at the time. Most of our work was in designing and building the applications. When I saw the museum's final product, I noticed that they had left the software's logo on each page (this was a "placeholder" in the software that was supposed to be replaced with the logos of the company who purchased the software). Perhaps there were other expenses I could not imagine besides the cost of the software and perhaps half a day's actual labour for one person, but I could not see how a grant of ₤40K could be justified. Some grants are structured so that a portion of the amount can go to the institution's coffers without any need to justify its spending.

A lot of money has been spent in the UK buying hoards of coins or artifacts under the Treasure Act. In times past, such hoards were mostly released to the market with museums retaining only what was needed in their collections. Nowadays, artifacts have been fetishized. Entire hoards are retained as display objects even though the public could only really see only a small part of the hoard. The past had been made "sacred" and there is little differences between an exhibit in a museum and some saint's relic in a church in that respect.

Britain is more fortunate than some other countries in that independent, amateur archaeology is permitted. Some professional archaeologists like to give the impression that the amateur lacks proper qualifications for the task, but many amateurs are retired professionals, anyway. They also give good training to those of their numbers who have had no previous experience. When reading such criticisms, one has to ask if their motive might be more personal, something more like a turf war over income than the desire to have things properly recorded.

So pay attention to the complaints. Do they simply demand more money, or are there suggestions about how to reduce the expenses of archaeology through the granting of an appropriate amount for the task and the use of unpaid, but expert, work done only for the love of the subject? Make sure that the foxes are not guarding the hen house.


  1. John, they will always complain about the amateur.....especially when the amateur is upstaging them with regards to historic finds. And so it goes....

    1. Yes, Dick, and I have noticed that the archaeologists who give amateurs the most credit are those who are at the top in their area of specialty. But I suppose that the passion it must take to reach such heights must make them really amateurs at heart, anyway.

  2. I was quite interested in how British Archaeology could frame their argument of relevance during the funding cuts, and was indeed surprised to find that they mentioned "enjoyment of the population!" A policy I believe that is totally alien in American archaeology circles, and would probably leave most desk-bound archaeologists aghast here in the States!

    1. I think it might be about the same here in in Canada. Locally, archaeology goes on in secret whenever possible. A friend and I were in the Cypress Hills and a road we wanted to take was "closed for construction". Instead of turning back, we went ahead on foot and around a bend came across an archaeological site. There were a couple of trenches dug, quite a few sieves about the place, and just one archaeologist. I asked him "what's this?" and he said that they were laying lines for a washroom. Looking at the almost billiard-table smoothness of the bottom of each trench, I said "You do really neat work".

      Later, I found out it was the site of an 8,500 year old lake village. It is now the cement parking lot for the lake's "wetlands walk". The sort of thing of more interest to the nature-loving tourists. Very few people are interested in the human past, here, and even the antique market has almost collapsed (I think it is mostly supported by interior designers).