Architectural detail from a historic building

How can the existing structures of archaeology incorporate a wider range of experiences and interests?

Dr Sadie Watson

As a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow, Dr Sadie Watson is undertaking a four-year project focusing on ensuring that public spending on archaeology for infrastructure projects leads to meaningful and relevant research and genuine community participation. In this blog, inspired by a paper given by a recent paper given by Laura Hampden at the 2019 CIfA conference, Sadie looks at how the existing structures within archaeology could be changed to incorporate a wider range of experiences and interests...

During Black History Month I wanted to take the opportunity to shine a spotlight on an excellent paper given by Laura Hampden of Historic England’s Greater London Historic Environment Record (which you can read here) at the 2019 CIfA Conference in Leeds where she presented practical ways in which we can approach decolonisation of archaeology using our existing frameworks. You can watch Laura’s paper here.

Laura’s work inspired me to think more broadly about Black history and archaeology and how we could embed some alternative considerations into our standardised templates for each stage of the archaeological process, starting with a desk based assessment.

I’m not going to pretend that it’s straightforward to challenge the way that things have been done for decades. It isn’t and it requires us to try and have a honest appraisal of where we are. Archaeology is an endeavour of colonial origins. It has evolved in many ways since, but to this day the perspectives of White people remain dominant in framing the consideration of archaeological values which are embedded in our policies, procedures and legislative frameworks.

This is a serious problem of our historiography, but it is not intractable. If we identify the barriers we see when we think about decolonising contracting archaeology there are the structural issues such as biased historical narratives and an exclusionary profession (see Alexander, 2020: 'Why the whiteness of archaeology is a problem'); and those that are more specific: our project designs, site reports and methodologies.

Thinking about the archaeological processes, the desk based assessment is often the first time a site will have been studied by an archaeologist, who will search the local HER and other sources to establish if there are any significant archaeological remains on the site or in the immediate vicinity.  Usually if archaeology is identified at this stage it will remain a key priority for any fieldwork that occurs before or during the development, this document is the thread that weaves through the entire archaeological process.

There has long been a heavy emphasis on the research value of our work and this is of course important to archaeologists but we should remind ourselves often that the research may be focussed towards perpetuating the colonial nature of our work, and that by maintaining this focus we could be bypassing entire aspects of the historic environment and any opportunities for other communities to enjoy, and benefit from, it.

However, archaeology as a process can help to situate people within their local environment, whether or not it is of specific traditional archaeological interest. It is important to remember that research aims need not necessarily be directly related to the archaeological work, but might instead focus on previous or current land use by particular members of the community, important or valued local history events or people, or the acknowledgement of the impact of change on the communities living and/or working in any buildings to be replaced, or open land to be developed. Large scale construction projects, particularly residential developments in cities, disrupt and uproot Black communities more significantly than White communities and there is often scant notice paid to their historic contributions or attachments in official statements or assessments.

While a wholescale democratisation of the planning system may not be within archaeology’s gift, we can certainly ask communities what they think about or might want from any archaeological work in their area, using a more open set of questions that those that currently exist on a standard desk based assessment template. These questions could include:

-        Are there any significant cultural buildings, spaces or events on the area/site?

-        What are local schools/libraries/community groups focusing on? Can the archaeology contribute to their aims and objectives?

-        Are there particular communities who will be affected by the development?

-        How can this change be reflected by the archaeological project and in the new development?

Archaeological study should not just be about the potential damage to buildings or below ground remains, but should incorporate all the aspects of life that contribute to a place and its people. The standard responses to acknowledging this and providing creative solutions to change caused by development should be widened to include consultation and inclusion of voices rarely heard in the existing structures within which archaeological practice in the UK operates.

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