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Fifty Years of Archaeologists putting the Great into Britain

The UK government, struggling with Brexit and the pandemic, have reacted by ear-marking treasury cuts in a practice Britain does best: archaeology. In the week when Netflix chalked up a global success with its film, The Dig, about the 1939 rescue/research excavations at Sutton Hoo, the British government decided to downgrade funding to university courses in archaeology:

It is 50 years to the very month since RESCUE: the British Archaeological Trust was founded in a high-profile meeting in the Royal Albert Hall. I was present: a student freshman charged with setting out chairs. Academics whose names are now legends in our field made an impassioned plea for government support for salvage archaeology to be properly funded. Through great tenacity they succeeded, and many other European countries soon followed suit. Over the next decades British archaeological organizations hired thousands of graduates from British and European universities.

Initially funding was directed through the Royal Commission for Historic Buildings, the Department of Environment and Manpower Services (an unemployment scheme). After 1990 funding for archaeology was largely devolved through PPG 16, an advisory protocol, to developers. The result has been a world class archaeological service built on a raft of able university archaeology departments.

Turning back the clock fifty years is of course at the heart of Brexit. A leaner society will find the challenge to champion its archaeology and history increasingly difficult. More to the point, reduced investment will

limit the scope of new discoveries. At the end of the supply chain, the tourist industry is certain to suffer.

Now a new generation of archaeologists needs to take heart from the campaign led by Phil Barker and Philip Rahtz of Birmingham University in 1971. I remember the heady expectation they generated. That expectation has been exceeded as a vast volume of digital field reports now confirms. More, the historical narrative for the English-speaking peoples, to use Churchill’s description, has moved faster and further than anyone might have envisaged fifty years ago. In the face of this success, the UK government’s action will undoubtedly come to perplex historians as the British island tory will suffer for it.


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