Archaeology at MOLA (c) MOLA

Are archaeologists putting heritage sites at risk by talking about their work?

MOLA team

According to Historic England, thousands of heritage crimes happen every year. At heritage sites across the UK, theft, criminal damage, arson and anti-social behaviour offences are depriving the public of their access to Britain’s rich heritage. As information sharing becomes ever-easier in our modern digital world: on the internet, across social media, through open-access publications and networks we’re asking: are archaeologists putting heritage sites at risk by talking about it?

There’s no definitive answer to this question, but it is something we regularly question as we go about our day to day work. Timing is a major factor in planning how to share new information but as an educational charity, it’s in our DNA to create new knowledge and share it with the world.

So, what are the benefits of sharing information? Why do we do it?

The information doesn’t belong to archaeologists: Whilst it’s archaeologists who create this new information, we don’t own it. Information about our shared heritage belongs to the public and we strongly believe everyone should have access to it. That's why we developed the Time Truck, which takes archaeology out to the public, hosting free schools sessions and inviting the public on board to learn.

For the public good: The National Planning Policy Framework, the UK legislative guidance which governs much of our work  in the planning process, is clear that research into archaeology and the built environment can have “wider social, cultural, economic, and environmental benefits” and we share our findings to make the most of these. An example of this is our Built Heritage Youth Engagement Programme which provides new, hands-on practical ways for disadvantaged young people to gain transferrable and archaeological skills and engage with their local heritage with guidance from our experts.

For future research potential:  The information we create and share is a research resource that can be used by future generations for academic study. For example, CITiZAN (Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network) train volunteers in local areas to accurately record and monitor at-risk archaeological finds and features using GPS-enabled apps and photography as well as traditional methods, which feed into an interactive map of coastal and intertidal archaeology in around the UK, information that can then be used more widely.

To protect heritage: Engaging the public in our work both through participation and sharing our finds means that people are more informed about it and more invested in it. The more informed people are, the more likely they are to understand it and therefore want to protect it for future generations. Thames Discovery Programme mobilise the public to engage with and monitor heritage that would otherwise be lost forever to produce a rigorous academic record for posterity. They host lectures, walks, talks, publish information on their website and social media channels as well as in books, articles and archaeological reports. Since 2008 they’ve trained hundreds of dedicated volunteers to record and monitor the archaeology of London’s largest open-air archaeological site; the Thames foreshore.

How can we protect archaeology in the public domain?

Heritage crime is any offence which harms heritage assets and their settings, including theft and criminal damage. Although we’re not able to prevent all crimes being committed, we can take the necessary steps to report it when it does, and encourage you to, too.

There are lots of regulatory bodies that look after different heritage assets across the UK. Historic England along with the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC), the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), has established the Heritage Crime Programme. They have also created a national guide for reporting heritage crime.

In relation to our community projects we look to a variety of regulatory bodies. For example, Port of London Authority, the organisation responsible for the safety and protection of 95 miles of the River Thames. Both Thames Discovery Programme and CITiZAN make sure that they and their volunteers work within guidelines and regulations set out to ensure best practice and of course Health & Safety.

You can learn more about heritage crime and how our heritage is protected by law here:

Historic England's Heritage Protection Guide

The Portable Antiquities Scheme

The Crown Estate (for offshore archaeological discoveries)

Historic England's List of Protected Wrecks

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