Archaeology Matters: Give the Past a Future

A Council for British Archaeology poster from 1950, designed by Brian Hope-Taylor.

A Council for British Archaeology poster from 1950, designed by Brian Hope-Taylor.

Archaeology Matters: Give the Past a Future

What links rescue archaeology, wrecks, the campaign against treasure hunting, archaeology insurance, industrial archaeology, the Young Archaeologist Club and the Festival of Archaeology? Answer: the Council for British Archaeology (CBA). These are all subjects that the CBA has campaigned about over the last 70 years. Indeed, without the CBA Britain’s past would have been greatly impoverished. No-one else promotes archaeology across the professional, museum and voluntary sectors. Whilst other organisations have dropped the word ‘archaeology’ from their titles or use because it might be seen as too narrow (though as it’s the study of the physical remains of the human past you can’t get more breadth!) or because they want to appeal to a ‘wider’ professional sector, the CBA has championed archaeology as a way of looking at the past and interpreting the present, at a time when archaeology has become part of our popular culture. That’s why I was proud to be elected a Trustee of the CBA in 2013.

The CBA is the oldest national campaigning body for archaeology in the UK. Founded in 1944, the Council for British Archaeology has acted as the independent champion for archaeology, combating the pressure on Britain’s archaeological monuments and the wider historic environment from post-war redevelopment1 and successive waves of boom-and-bust construction to the neglect of property and landowners and the threat of the illegal antiquities market. It was instrumental in founding the discipline of Industrial Archaeology2 and in saving hundreds of industrial sites from demolition. It has supported and promoted voluntary, professional and academic archaeology. Its regional groups have been helping local archaeology societies since the 1970s with campaigns to save sites and in educating a wider public through conferences and publications. Thus, the CBA has been representing the interests of its members and everyone who is active in archaeology in the UK and cares about its future for over 70 years. Recently,

  • in 2014 over 7,800 young people participated in their local YAC Branch supported by 600 volunteers;
  • in 2014 a quarter of a million people experienced archaeology across the UK through the Festival of Archaeology;
  • since 2011 51 trainee community archaeologists have carried out year-long work placements taking archaeology out to wider audiences;
  • and the CBA continues to champion archaeology in the planning system, and its advocacy work has enhanced protection for wreck sites, set up better systems for safeguarding portable antiquities and pushed for archaeology in the formal education curriculum.

The CBA’s main source of income has been withdrawn. 2016 will be the CBA’s first without the funding that has been in place since the early days of the organisation in the 1940s. The result is that it will have a third less money to sustain its vital advocacy work and participation programmes. The timing of this cut couldn’t be worse, as the practice of archaeology in Britain, whether voluntary, professional or academic, faces great uncertainties. This is the result of cuts to the professional archaeology teams advising the local planning decisions that protect our archaeological heritage, a reduction in students applying to study archaeology at university and the declining membership of many of the traditional local archaeology societies. Furthermore, the number of professional archaeologists in the UK has fallen from a peak of c.7,000 in 2008 to around 4,000 in 2013, with a significant loss of the skills needed to drive the large-scale archaeology projects and innovative research for which British archaeologists are renowned the world over.

Without increased funding from membership and charitable income, the CBA’s activities will be reduced in the short term and along with that, its ability to make a difference now. In a few years there may not even be a Council for British Archaeology to speak up for the future of Britain’s past. We can all help save the future of our shared past by becoming a member or donating online at www.archaeologyuk.org/shop. If those of us who care about the past don’t shout about the current threats who will? Archaeology Matters: find out more here www.archaeologymatters.org.uk.

1) Jones G D B J, 1984, Past Imperfect. The Story of Rescue Archaeology. London: Heinemann, 48-52.

2) Palmer M, Nevell M & Sissons M, 2012, Industrial Archaeology: A Handbook. CBA Practical Handbook 21, 1-9.

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