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Preservation and the academically viable sample.

To dig, or not to dig, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrag'd professors, Or to take picks and shovels against our past, And by digs explain it? -- To dig -- explain -- Destroy; and by digging to say we end The thirst, and the thousand natural questions That we are heirs to, 'tis a consummation Devoutly wish'd by some. To dig -- explain; -- Destroy! perchance publish: ay, there's the rub; For through that publication what may come, When we have shovelled off this mud and soil, Must give us pause: there's the critique That makes a mockery of such conceit; For who would bear the developer's scorn, The professor's wrong, the academic's abuse, The pangs of ignorance, the law's delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, When he himself might his digs undertake With a bare trowel? Who would restraints bear, To grunt and swear under such restriction, But that the dread of critical review, That uncover'd error from which no Reputation returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear preservation Than fly to study what we know not of?. Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; And thus the impetus for revelation Is stifled with great policy and law; And enterprises of great pith and moment, With this regard, their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action. -- Soft you now! The fair Inspectorate! -- Colleague, in thy earmarks Be all my bids remember'd.

This adaptation of Hamlet's soliloquy describes a 'dilemma': to study and thus destroy or to preserve and thus severely restrict study. And, just as Hamlet was not expecting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to choose for him the alternative of 'not to be', so we cannot expect a simple right or wrong solution. The archaeological resource is finite and, inasmuch as we need to study it by destructive processes, we are like the confirmed tippler marooned on a desert island with his last bottle of whisky -- if he drinks it it's gone but, if he doesn't drink it, what use is it to him anyway? 'Use value' versus 'existence value'. Hamlet's tragedy was to fail to resolve his dilemma; how are we to avoid a similar fate?

In practice, the texts that guide us recognize this dilemma, albeit implicitly rather than explicitly. From the Institute of Field Archaeologists' Code of Conduct (Principle 2) we have:

The archaeologist has a responsibility for the conservation of the archaeological heritage.

Further, from the Code of Approved Practice for the Regulation of Contractual Arrangements in Field Archaeology (paragraph 2) we have:

An archaeologist's primary responsibility is to safeguard the archaeological resource and to seek preservation in situ as the first option.

However, from the Code of Conduct (Rule 2.3), we also have:

An archaeologist shall ensure that the objects of a research project are an adequate justification for the destruction of the archaeological evidence which it will entail.

This reference to both aspects of the dilemma is commonplace and any concerns we may have must be seen in the wider European and world context. For example, the recent European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage (Article 2) states:

Each party undertakes to institute, by means appropriate to the State in question, a legal system for the protection of the archaeological heritage, . . .

But also (Article 3):

To preserve the archaeological heritage and guarantee the scientific significance of archaeological research work, each party undertakes: . . . to ensure that archaeological excavations and prospecting are undertaken in a scientific manner . . .

And, in the explanatory notes:

This is not to say that the heritage must remain inviolate. By the use of scientific techniques, both destructive and non-destructive, the heritage can be used to provide information on the evolution of mankind . . .

These explanatory notes also confirm that the Convention is consistent with the Charter for the Protection and Management of the Archaeological Heritage produced by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) (this volume: 402-5, which includes:

Legislation should afford protection to the archaeological heritage that is appropriate to the needs, history, and traditions of each country and region, providing for in situ protection and research needs.


In exceptional cases, unthreatened sites may be excavated to elucidate research problems or to interpret them more effectively for the purpose of presenting them to the public. In such cases excavation must be preceded by thorough scientific evaluation of the significance of the site. Excavation should be partial, leaving a portion undisturbed for future research.

Whilst it is clear that the Code, the Convention, and the Charter all recognize both sides of the dilemma, they do not seek to resolve it. This would be unrealistic since it is not a single dilemma but one that is faced for each project that involves destructive techniques -- by each marooned tippler with his last bottle of whisky. So what further guidelines can we uncover?

It is instructive to look at what may be described as the 'management cycle' for the archaeological resource, identifying key activities involved in heritage management:

Recognition Identification/further research Recording/classification Evaluation

Management: Statutory Protection Advice Statutory Controls Advice Detailed recording Grant-aid Advice

Exploitation: Rescue-led research Voluntary research

Presentation Academic synthesis/identifying questions/developing hypotheses

This is not meant to be a perfect description or a unique formulation of heritage management activities, but the way in which they generally fall into a sequence is immediately recognizable with the final heading of 'Academic synthesis' providing a loop back into earlier parts of the cycle.

For the purposes of this paper, it is useful to identify three main activities in the cycle where excavation can occur and to distinguish between them. The two activities under 'Exploitation' are well recognized. The third activity is that of 'Identification' -- an early point in the cycle where further information is required before we can even begin to frame preservation policies. A good example is that of sites discovered by aerial photography but not belonging to recognized site types. An even clearer example is that of artefact scatter sites where, as a result of both site formation processes and post-depositional events, we may simply not know from surface traces whether they represent the survival of archaeological remains for which preservation or mitigation strategies are appropriate and justified, or whether they are simply material originally discarded on the contemporary ground surface and now disturbed by natural formation processes or agriculture.

At two points in the cycle, therefore, the answer to the question may be (or must be) 'to dig', whether this is to establish the basis for preservation policies, to identify if sufficient survives to merit preservation, to respond to direct threats where archaeological deposits are to be destroyed, or, more subtly, as part of rescue-led research projects, such as that for the Somerset Levels. However, in two other circumstances the answer is much less clear and we must ask the questions:

Under what circumstances should voluntary research be permitted through destructive means?

Under what circumstances should the fight against rescue-led research opportunities be fought the hardest?

The two questions are related, but the first is in some ways more difficult for us because it involves policing ourselves rather than others. How do we tackle them?

Firstly, it may be helpful to reflect that we recognize that different archaeological sites are not necessarily equally important. This is confirmed in our preservation policies. Nationally, only some 30-40% of surviving moated sites are likely to be scheduled, i.e. recognized as being of national importance. The figure for round barrows (excluding ring ditches) is likely to be about 60%. In contrast, that for long barrows or for henges will be 100%. This is not to say that the part of the archaeological resource represented by unscheduled examples of the more ubiquitous monument classes can be simply written off; indeed, within English Heritage we are currently examining the need for and viability of research programmes concentrating on those unscheduled sites which are under threat and for which other conservation measures seem inappropriate. It is fairly clear, however, that we can better afford the loss of an example of a numerous monument type than an example of a rare type. One reason is, of course, that the remaining examples still provide a viable and representative sample of the resource as a whole. Given this acceptance, under many circumstances there may seem to be little reason to restrict research archaeologists, who could simply be viewed as 'developers' and treated accordingly, subject, of course, to Rule 2.3 of the Code of Conduct. But is this sufficient guidance? I think not.

If we are prepared to allow the destruction of sites now because, amongst other things, there is still a viable sample for the future, our philosophy is incomplete unless we can provide cogent arguments concerning what that sample should be or, in extremis, what the minimum viable sample should be. Irrespective of voluntary research, we face this question for those parts of the archaeological resource under greatest threat, notably urban areas. Put simply, in the urban context, will the combination of individual scheduled monuments, incidentally protected remains in open spaces or under areas of listed buildings, and mitigation strategies, such as those recently published for York, ensure the survival of an adequate sample for future research? Our problem is that we do not know the answer.

For those parts of the resource under severe threat -- urban areas, areas of major gravel extraction, some kinds of industrial remains, etc. -- there is an obvious pressure on us to argue for the preservation of at least a minimum sample. Are there similar problems from the agenda for voluntary research? Given how many sites there are and how few research excavations actually take place, the immediate response might be 'no'. However, let us look at the sites that have been subjected to such study during, say, the last 50 years. For the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, the circumstances concerning the unique monuments of Stonehenge and Silbury Hill are well known; of the four identified major henge-enclosures, three have been examined. For the later Iron Age, we can note that of the three or four identified later prehistoric ports, Hengistbury Head has been extensively excavated. For the Roman period, Fishbourne has been excavated, the largest of the ten identified examples of 'major villas'. Of the 13 civitas capitals only three survive as greenfield sites -- Wroxeter, Silchester and Caistor by Norwich, and the first two have been excavated in the last 50 years. Of the 12 amphitheatres, three, at Silchester, Chester and Cirencester have been excavated. Finally, for the Saxon period, of the nine identified Saxon Palaces, two (Cheddar and Yeavering) have been excavated and, of course, the single identified royal boat burial site in England, Sutton Hoo.

I have deliberately presented the case in a prejudicial fashion. Excavation at some of these sites was quite restricted, in some cases the initial motivation was rescue, and I am not sure that 'major henge-enclosures' or 'major villas' can be accepted as genuine monument classes. However, there is an undeniable insight, especially if we also consider the work on other 'prime sites', such as Hadrian's Wall, Launceston Castle, Mount Grace Priory, the Dorset Cursus (albeit limited), and so on. Whilst the amount of research digging may have been limited, the sites selected have been the 'plums'. And, if you add this exploitation to that of the earlier researchers and the losses through other activities, the 'bites' taken from the rarer parts of the resource have been significant. Finally, if we look at the list of those who have had sufficient authority to gain research funds, and sufficient ambition to take the risks, it is a very short list -- and it is a legitimate question to ask what curbs there should be on this authority, ambition and risk.

Let me hammer the point home. We can list just ten Saxon Shore forts. Brancaster has been reduced by agriculture and survives as a cropmark site; the interior of Burgh Castle is ploughed and, as a result of the excavations covering about one-tenth of the internal area in 1958-61, we know that some of the deposits are plough-damaged. Walton Castle is no more -- it fell into the sea. Bradwell has not been excavated recently but is next to a nuclear power station. Only five-eighths of Reculver survives and that was extensively excavated in the 1960s (still unpublished). Richborough was mostly levelled and excavated in the 1920s and 1930s and only about one-twelfth is left, where the site huts stood. Dover, which has been built over, was partly excavated in the 1970s and 1980s and partly published. The geological circumstances at Lympne, partly excavated in the late 1970s, are such that archaeological interpretation is very difficult. About one-eighth of Portchester was excavated in the 1970s. Pevensey is largely untouched, although there were excavations in 1906-7 and in the 1920s. The two prime sites for research today are Portchester and Pevensey. Apart from the areas excavated by Professor Cunliffe, Portchester is largely unavailable, the other parts of the fort containing a church and graveyard, a medieval castle and a cricket pitch. The question is: if someone wished to excavate Pevensey, should we let them? We could put it another way: were we correct in allowing the excavation of the unique site at Sutton Hoo?

In seeking to respond to these questions, a key consideration must be what we propose to leave for the future. And, since we cannot endlessly take bites, we should at least be prepared to recognize explicitly the point beyond which the sample left for future work is likely to become unviable. And, we must also recognize that for some parts of the resource the issue cannot be put off.

I do not have an answer to the question of the minimum viable sample; indeed, I have got little further than my original thoughts when I first posed the question three years ago to the IFA Conference except to note that for those monument classes where the main reason for preservation is 'information gain' the minimum sample we have so far suggested for scheduling under the MPP is around 30%.

For individual sites I can only offer you the concept of the PBF: the 'professor boredom factor'. That is, if you allow a professor to excavate a site with the set of contemporary research questions in mind, perhaps his or her boredom threshold represents the minimum viable sample. I do not propose to consider this much further in this paper except to note, briefly, the points from my paper three years ago concerning the nature of the sample and its size.

Taking Danebury as a model, I noted that the sampling strategy appears to require three distinct elements: extensive excavation of unique features, an initial judged sample to obtain 'baseline information' of character and date, etc., and subsequent problem-solving work. The sample size had to be sufficient to answer the research questions posed and to have a reasonable chance of picking up and responding to discoveries which could not have been predicted. The PBF appears to have been around one-third of the interior, perhaps a little more.

Accordingly, if Professor Carver ceases his research programme at Sutton Hoo after excavating about two-fifths of the site and Professor Cunliffe ceases at Danebury after something over one-third of the interior, perhaps the minimal viable sample to answer the set of contemporary research questions may be between two-fifths and one-third, not chosen randomly but made up of specifically chosen features, an initial judged sample, and subsequent problem-solving work.

We have already established that there are parts of the archaeological resource whose future viability is potentially threatened by voluntary excavation. I challenge those who want to undertake this work to develop and respond to the idea of the 'minimal viable sample'. For my part, you might have gained the impression that I am against research excavation and that I interpret the motivations of those involved in the completely negative terms of greed, ambition, and the exercise of power. Although that is not the case, we must look at both sides of the dilemma and, accordingly, we should now look at the positive. As a beginning, I offer you a quote from Edna St Vincent Millay:

My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But, ah, my foes, and oh, my friends; It gives a lovely light!

At what stage would the recognition of archaeology be were it not for the light cast by the early excavators -- the barrow diggers in this country, Schliemann at Troy, Flinders Petrie and Carter in Egypt, and so on -- or of those who have sought to popularize, like Wheeler, Atkinson, Cunliffe, and others? And what light do we want to cast -- indeed, need to cast -- if we are to convince the world at large that the expense of preserving the remains of our past is merited by the knowledge of our past that can be unlocked?

Clearly we must have light -- we must light our candles -- but for those of you who wish voluntarily to light those which are the most precious there are also the heaviest responsibilities. I am sure that you will tell me that you will light them carefully, not with an oxy-acetylene torch -- we would expect nothing less. But we also need to know which candles you want to burn, why, and, perhaps most importantly, how much?

In conclusion, the stimulus for this paper came from the general injunction in the IFA's Code of Conduct on members to promote the conservation of the archaeological heritage. Taken in isolation, out of context, this generalization can be abused by being taken as the only rule; it is not, for example, possible to argue sensibly that the preservation in situ of a flint-scatter site must be a first option irrespective of a profound ignorance concerning its interpretation. In fact, we have seen that there are clear circumstances where 'to dig' can or must be the answer. Similarly, in recognition of the destructive nature of excavation, we must accept the responsibilities of undertaking such work voluntarily. Happily, this side of our dilemma is also expressed in the Code:

An archaeologist shall ensure that the objects of a research project are an adequate justification for the destruction of the archaeological evidence which it will entail.

However, as a profession I believe we are missing a vital ingredient in our discussions -- what, in extremis, would we accept as the minimum viable sample to leave for the future? And this is important because, as we have seen, and returning to my earlier metaphor, if marooned with my 'bottle of whisky', will I really leave it with its top unscrewed in hopes of a future generation of tipplers with more discerning and deserving palates? To quote John Wayne: the hell I will! Neither am I alone. Nor, if history is any guide, will the future be different. In short, the question is not whether I will unscrew the cap, but how much I, or we, should allow ourselves or any particular generation to drink?
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Title Annotation:preservation of archaeological heritage
Author:Startin, Bill
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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