We have a long and proud heritage from imposing Iron Age hillforts and henges, Roman ruins, inspiring medieval castles and churches. We wouldn’t know as much about the buried and hidden past if it wasn’t for some three or four centuries of those passionate enough to carefully dig it up, preserve it and help us learn about the past. Every year, various heritage charities come together to promote the wonderful, diverse and rich world of British archaeology in The Festival of British Archaeology.
What is the Festival of British Archaeology?
Falling in the last two weeks of July every year, the Festival of British Archaeology aims to encourage everybody to engage with the past. Members of the public are invited to visit and tour archaeological sites, handle materials, meet archaeologists discussing their work and see how this vital industry functions. In some cases, our most famous and impressive historical sites open up areas not often open to the public.
Why do we need It?
Archaeology has the reputation, especially amongst the young, as being stuffy and elitist. None of which is true – archaeologists are generally young, passionate people who love the past and want to inspire that love of the past in others. Not every archaeologist will make a big discovery, but the passion of the job inspires people to contribute towards the greater academic understanding of our past no matter how small.
Yet behind this is a serious message about encouraging people to understand the importance of heritage – particularly of conservation and preservation. In many ways, our past is under threat. We simply need the public to be aware of the major threats to our heritage and to be passionate enough to want to preserve it. It’s as much an awareness campaign as a period of fun and interactive learning.
The Challenges facing Archaeology Today
Lack of funding: A lack of money has always blighted heritage, even with the dawn of the National Lottery’s Heritage Lottery Fund. Government cuts in the last decade mean that finding and preserving new heritage stretches an already slender budget. Archaeology as an industry was in a great place ten years ago until the financial crisis of 2008 when it became apparent just how reliant it was on construction.
Poor pay and conditions for archaeologists: Archaeology is amongst the lowest paid jobs for graduates with a typical salary averaging the same as a non-graduate admin worker. Employment in this area is typically short-term contract, sometimes as little as two weeks. Many will travel the country chasing short-term contracts. Even permanent jobs are low paid. It’s difficult to attract and retain top talent with low pay and unstable work while promoting the importance of archaeology as tourism, academic pursuit and local and national pride.
Climate change: Climate change will affect all of us in all areas of life. Rising seas will erode land and damage heritage, ocean acidification will hasten the destruction of underwater archaeology and erratic weather will damage standing remains.
General erosion and damage: Climate change aside, there has always been natural erosion and preserving extant remains has always been a major part of archaeology. Walls crumble, artwork deteriorates and metal artefacts corrode. There is always a conservation battle in archaeology.
Heritage crimes: We tend to think of heritage crime as something big and shocking such as the iconoclasm of extremist groups: The Taliban destroying Buddhist statues and ISIS blowing up ruined temples in Palmyra, for example. However, heritage crime happens in the UK today. When any old building is deliberately targeted, it is a heritage crime – it doesn’t have to be ideological. The most common is the theft of valuable metals from old buildings. The second is mountain bike or scramble bike damage of historic ruins.