‘Where there’s Muck there’s Brass’: Archaeology and the Real World? – By Dr. Joe Flatman

June 17, 2009

Dr. Joe Flatman

There is nothing like a recession to get everyone thinking about value– what people value in terms of personal as well as professional ethics, and more cynically about how they themselves are valued, how much their jobs are ‘worth’ both socially and economically. Issues like this are especially important to archaeologists– or at least they should be if we are to genuinely lay claim to Mortimer Wheeler’s maxim that ‘archaeologists are digging up, not things, but people’. Identifying the tangible benefits to society of archaeology is difficult at the best of times but especially so when finances are pinched; to paraphrase from the macroeconomic term, we do not produce either guns or butter, so what is the value of our contribution? How does archaeology ‘work’ in the ‘real world’ of profit and loss?

Two recent publications in particular have got me thinking about this issue. Both question the types of archaeology that many others and I practice. On the one hand, the magazine British Archaeology has debated the practice of ‘for profit’ shipwreck recovery in its two most recent issues (No’s 105 and 106, March-April and May-June 2009); on the other hand, a host of contributors have debated the whole structure of modern archaeology in the recently edited book Archaeology and Capitalism (Left Coast Press, 2008). The debates in these two publications come literally from opposite ends of the spectrum– the former essentially arguing that submerged cultural heritage is a free-market resource to be bought and sold just like any other commodity, the latter effectively the opposite, that the archaeological community would be best to disentangle itself from established social, political and thus economic power structures and adopt an entirely new political ‘ethic’ for the discipline.

I disagree with both of these perspectives. Somewhere between the two poles outlined above lie most of the archaeologists I know and most of the work that we do. I am employed within a profession regulated both formally and informally by the state, funded by public as well as private finance– a regulated free-market. I fiscally as well as morally support this system, and am in return supported by it, individually via my work and corporately via the excellent social welfare system of Britain. I am also both a supporter and beneficiary of private enterprise, again professionally as well as personally: although employed jointly by a university and local government, the greater proportion of the income streams that are used to pay my salary are ultimately derived on the one hand from taxes and on the other hand from capital-driven innovation and investment by these organizations. The situation in international waters, and even in hotly disputed exclusive economic and contiguous zones may be rather different, but within the territorial boundaries of my nation state (and with comparable models at work within the boundaries of many other nations) the ‘polluter pays’ principle that funds the majority of archaeological activity – including the majority of my own work – is a well-established system that works, if not perfectly, then of a fashion, which has at heart a positive objective if not necessarily a positive outcome, and which is accepted both as an economic imperative as well as a social necessity.

If archaeologists do not ‘make’ things, we do still ‘produce’, and by any standards, archaeology contributes to society more than it costs, even in terms of pure financial profit/loss. Some of these products are tangible: publications and reports, websites, TV and radio media that people use and even pay for; lectures, seminars and presentations given to public and private audiences alike, usually in return for a fee of one sort or another; excavated materials that end up on display in or storage at museums and archives that people choose to visit, and even whole historic sites that are open to the public, as well as the archaeological projects that people volunteer, some even pay, to go on in order to become formally involved in archaeology. Other products are intangible: the benefits to society of an enhanced understanding of our common past; the transferable skills that students gain from their studies; and the pure economics of the ‘polluter pays’ system where legislation requires industries to pay for work on sites in advance of development. Altogether, such forms of ‘regulated’ capitalism pay an estimated 90 per cent of all archaeology: only some 10 per cent of money spent comes from the public purse or private philanthropy. And that 90 per cent of industrial funding represents at most a very few per cent of the total costs, let alone the end profits, of any development, so such environmental regulations are not the burden to or ‘block’ on development that might be supposed. The broader intangible and purely economic benefits of archaeology and more broadly ‘heritage’ to society are then incalculable– the money made through public interest in/participatory payment when visiting historic sites, of people choosing to pay a premium to live in old houses or historic districts, of people buying themed books, toys and computer games and watching related TV shows. And yet for all this good, people from both ends of the political spectrum clearly remain dissatisfied with the heritage community in general and with professional archaeology in particular.

Where, then, does this leave maritime archaeology in 2009? We have a global recession well underway, with no signs of abatement any time soon; a future that is looking increasingly towards the oceans for space, energy and resources; a risk of climate-change induced coastal change; and ongoing marine cultural resource management issues, merely one of which is the debate about the rights and wrongs of ‘for profit’ shipwreck recovery noted above. This is an issue brought to the fore of late through the ratification by more than twenty nations of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. But looking beyond such things as the Convention, what of other options? Many nations are unlikely to every ratify the Convention– informal disinterest on the one hand and formal lobbying by those opposed to it on the other will see to that. But the Convention was never meant to be a catchall solution to every problem.

From my own experiences in Britain at least, I look to the excellent relationship that has grown up in the last decade between the marine aggregates industry and archaeology, and wonder if a similar model cannot be followed for other industries, in other environments (both marine and terrestrial), and even between nations in international waters. The origins of this relationship lie in ‘big government’ – specifically, the ‘Aggregates Levy’ and its associated ‘Sustainability Fund’ (the ALSF) that began in the financial year 2002 and which is scheduled to remain in place until at least 2011. The Levy is, pure and simple, a preemptive environmental tax on the commercial exploitation of aggregates. A percentage of that tax has since its inception been redistributed via the government department DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to address the overarching environmental impacts associated with aggregate extraction, and a small proportion of that percentage of the Levy has been directed specifically towards the historic environment. Over the years the ALSF has funded over 250 projects involving the historic environment to a total value of over UK£23.1m. But the key thing is that although initially forced together, both industry and archaeology have come to appreciate the mutual benefit of this relationship. The aggregates industry may not like paying such a tax, but they like even less paying a tax for which they see no obvious benefit. But the involvement of archaeologists has shown this benefit: a reactive tax regime has evolved into a proactive and extremely cost-effective form of strategic resource management of both aggregate and heritage resources. Industry and the planning sector benefit from the acquisition of new datasets (allowing for better pre-planning and risk-avoidance); archaeology benefits from new investment (supporting management-based research into archaeological sites as well as the development of analytical techniques); all sectors benefit from collaborative data acquisition, analysis and management, together with the additional public relations benefit through media friendly enterprises, data-sharing and sponsorship.

As a direct model for the management of global marine cultural heritage, the Levy and the ALSF are not applicable: they were designed for the particular circumstances of the British territorial sea zone and this particular industry. But the basic principles that evolved here in the relationship between one industry and archaeology are workable for other industries, in other environments, and in collaboration with other nations:

o Be strategic, timely and well-managed, responding to currently pressing needs to identify, and help mitigate, shared risks;

o Show immediate functionality of use to all partners, such as modeling the locations of sites or seabed/water column dynamics around particular locations;

o Undertake from the outset partnership, with all partners being included in project development and design, data sharing and collection, and/or processing;

o Show efficiency, through the use of legacy data or industry platforms, or the industry provision of in-kind support via the loan of equipment;

o Undertake outreach, including significant PR potential for all partners, and the provision of accessible, user-friendly resources.

This is ‘for profit’ archaeology in the ‘real world’ that really works.


Dr. Joe Flatman is the County (administratively comparable to a US State) Archaeologist of Surrey in Southeast England, and a lecturer in archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. A Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, he was formerly a lecturer in archaeology at Flinders University in Australia, and before that at Cardiff University in Wales. Since 2000 he has served on the Executive Committee of the UK-based marine archaeological charity the Nautical Archaeology Society. His most recent publication is Ships and Shipping in Medieval Manuscripts (London and Chicago: British Library Press and the University of Chicago Press, 2009). He has a BA Archaeology and History, an MA Maritime Archaeology, a PhD Archaeology, all from the University of Southampton, England, and is a Member of the Institute for Archaeologists (MIfA).

* The opinions expressed by guest bloggers do not necessarily reflect those of the MUA, its staff, or its partner organizations.

My Zimbio
KudoSurf Me!


One comment

  1. Thanks for this great post! I look forward to reading more from you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: