ARCHAEOLOGY AND CULTURE a past for the future - title
©Museum of London Archaeology Service
"It is culture in its widest meaning that gives us our sense of identity. It draws us together. It enables us to understand and to articulate our experiences, our values and traditions. It opens up our minds. It helps make life worth living."

Chris Smith, Creative Britain, 1998

excavation photograph
©Norfolk Archaeological Unit

Why archaeology enriches us

Tony Blair’s Government has outlined its vision of the new millennium. Education will take priority. Prosperity will be fostered everywhere, with powers of decision-making devolved to Scotland, Wales, and local assemblies. All citizens will be better educated, forward-looking and self-aware. Democracy will be extended. Access will be granted to once-forbidden places. Information will be more freely available. Culture will be valued; creativity will be fostered.

It is an inspiring vision and archaeologists welcome it.

Yet without archaeology, and its wider expression in the conservation of the historic environment, this vision will never be fully realised.

At first glance, this may seem to be a paradox. Surely archaeology is about the past? What relevance can it have to our economic and cultural prosperity now? How can it enrich our future?

The answer is simple. If the historic environment is neglected, then the local, regional and national identities that we cherish so dearly will be undermined. Education and understanding will suffer. Access could become a sham. And our economy stands to lose huge sums in domestic and foreign revenues.

©South Trafford Archaeological Group/University of Manchester Archaeology Unit
rural excavation photograph
"Archaeology is partly the discovery of the treasures of the past, partly the meticulous work of the scientific analyst, partly the exercise of the creative imagination. But it is also the painstaking task of interpretation so that we come to understand what these things mean for the human story. And it is the conservation of the world's cultural heritage - against looting and careless destruction."

Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice (2 edn) 1996

building at risk photograph
©Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit


If we are to prosper, we need new infrastructure and new development. We need an environment - everywhere - that is attractive for business and for inward investment.

The Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English Regional Development Agencies and Regional Cultural Consortiums now exist to foster such an environment; we support them in their task. A new Architecture Commission will promote good architecture and environmental design.

Yet no area can prosper if it is not also an attractive place in which to live and work. In the post-war decades the historic hearts of great cities were mutilated for the sake of shopping developments, car parks, inner ring-roads and the like. Hailed as progressive at the time, today many such developments are widely regretted. Some have already been pulled down.

Latterly, we have seen the construction of out-of-town business parks and supermarkets and the infilling of green-belt land with new housing. Towns have often lost contact with their surrounding countryside and their commercial centres have withered. Once-distinctive places are becoming more and more alike.

What economic value can be placed on the cherishing of beautiful places and regional variety? This question is like asking: does it matter if an employer has a discontented workforce? Towns and rural communities will only thrive if people wish to live in them.

The historic environment is not something to be set apart, like a pretty ornament which we occasionally admire but never use. It is today’s environment, the environment of the here and now.

The buildings, the street-plans, the field-patterns, rural tracks and hedgerows of past centuries create the regional diversity that we value so highly. But they are themselves an expression of change over time. The historic environment is not the enemy of the new, it is the context within which we must adapt and change to meet the challenges of the present day. It is our cultural habitat.

building excavation photograph
©Norfolk Archaeological Unit


Were it not for our historic environment, tourists would not visit in such large numbers. Tourism currently contributes some £12.8 billion to our economy and the tourist industry and is the UK’s largest employer.

Many, if not most, visitors come to enjoy our scenery and our rich cultural history. But tourism cannot be sustained by caring only for honeypot sites like Stonehenge, nurturing them like oases in a desert. The splendour of our historic environment lies in its diversity and ubiquity: in our markets and shopping streets, our ports and harbours, our churches and chapels, our farms and fields and in the traces of vanished industries that brought wealth and hardship to our ancestors in the last two centuries.

It seems self-evident that the experience of visiting this country is enriched by the variety and contrast of the landscapes and settlements it contains.

That is why unnecessary losses matter. If we nibble away at the historic environment, we will gradually destroy an unparalleled and irreplaceable national asset for ourselves and our visitors.

learning surveying photograph
©Young Archaeologists' Club


Tony Blair has stated repeatedly that education takes precedence over all other areas of national policy. We agree. Only with an educated, articulate, confident and resourceful population can we hope to prosper in the new millennium.

Education, however, is more than the acquisition of a portfolio of business and telecommunications skills. It is more than training. Training and vocational skills are useful and necessary, but education alone empowers.

Educated citizens understand the society in which they live, the way it has developed and its place in the wider world. An educated citizen will get more enjoyment from living here, through an understanding of the historical forces that have shaped our communities and countryside, our institutions, and other facets of our national and local life.

But there has been a longstanding imbalance in the teaching of archaeology and history in schools. History for many primary schools begins with the Romans and does not necessarily deal with all subsequent periods through to modern times. Pupils over the age of 13 in secondary schools will seldom study any history before the last 150 years.

Medieval and early modern history have all but disappeared. Prehistory, in most schools, has practically never been studied at all - in spite of the ever-increasing knowledge we now possess on the first half-million years of human life on these islands.

Archaeology - including the excavation and handling of artefacts, and the interpretation of surviving remains - has an unrivalled ability to stir a child’s enthusiasm for the past, and to invoke a deeper appreciation of the local environment.

Education - whether in school or later life - can instil values of good citizenship, by providing a sense of identity through a shared inheritance. Regulation can never protect more than a fraction of the historic environment. Willing stewardship by local people with an educated concern for their past can do so much more.

©Young Archaeologists' Club
learning drawing photograph
©Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council
industrial archaeology photograph


A democratic society cherishes the idea of open access for all: access to the countryside, to information, and to knowledge. We welcome the Government’s resolve to make improved public access a priority in its reforms.

As archaeologists, we call for open access to the historic environment. This may seem like an uncontroversial request, easily granted. Who does not have some access to our historic fabric?

We say, however, that there is no access where there is no understanding. An excavation near your home may look no more than muddy trenches and heaps of spoil. Have somebody explain it to you, on the other hand, and the place you know becomes at once more interesting and more meaningful.

Likewise, if no-one tells you why particular buildings or neighbourhoods deserve special care or study, then steps to protect them may seem like yet more pointless and restrictive bureaucracy. But once reasons are explained the ideas of sustainable conservation will begin to make sense.

Certainly we need better access to our ancient monuments, landscapes and the buildings of more recent centuries. But we also need more information about the meaning of these places and how we care for them. This is a challenge to all the national, regional and local bodies that nurture or influence the preservation of the historic environment.

Understanding for the future

All heritage is local, whatever its wider national or regional value. All too often we bulldoze what we do not cherish and fail to cherish what we do not understand.

We applaud the Government for its strategic vision. But we urge it to remember the value of the past and its educational, cultural and economic significance to today’s society.

Archaeology, and the historic environment in its widest sense, realises that value and helps us all to appreciate our common cultural inheritance.



Council for British Archaeology logo Council for British Archaeology
St Mary's House
66 Bootham
York YO30 7BZ
Rescue logo
RESCUE: The British Archaeological Trust
15a Bull Plain
Hertford SG14 1DX
Institute of Field Archaeologists logo Standing Conference of Archaeological Unit Managers logo
Institute of Field Archaeologists
University of Reading
2 Earley Gate, PO Box 239
Reading RG6 6AU
Standing Conference of Archaeological Unit Managers
c/o Society of Antiquaries of London Burlington House
London W1V 0HS
  ALGAO logo Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers
c/o Heritage COnservation, ESD
Essex County Council
County Hall

March 2001