Last weekend saw two archaeological events, some 25 minutes travel apart, which I was fortunate enough to be able to attend.

The first was an Open Day, held by Wessex Archaeology and entitled Extracting the Past. It highlighted their recent work at the Kingsmead Quarry, Horton, west of Heathrow Airport. The area is a complex archaeological landscape with evidence of human occupation spanning a period of over 12,000 years, since the last Ice Age. Particular focus was given to the recently announced find  of a rare ‘Beaker Burial‘ of a woman, which included several gold beads (the bling always draws them in!)

The event, in the local Village Hall at Wraysbury, comprised of several information panels, leading through the story of the use of the area, from the Ice Age through to Roman and Anglo-Saxon times. In addition, cabinets of some of the wonderful finds were available to peruse, with several very knowledgeable, friendly and approachable staff on hand to answer any questions. We were greeted and guided as we arrived and generally made to feel most welcome. The various exhibits were explained as we moved around the hall, with someone always on hand to answer any queries or questions. My particular thanks go to Dr Alistair Barclay, who allowed us a close-up examination of an exquisitely worked Picardy bronze clothes pin.

A Beaker vessel from the quarry.

A Beaker vessel from the quarry. Fine lignite beads can be seen in the dish at bottom right.

As you’d expect of Wessex Archaeology, a  couple of experts ‘of Time Time fame‘ were also on hand  to draw in the public with known names:

Jackie McKinley was examining a human skeleton. Was it the Beaker woman herself? I’m not sure but doubt it, as the bones were open for examination by visitors. Jackie was explaining what the bones could tell us about the person and how they lived.

Meanwhile, in a side hall, Phil Harding was giving demonstrations of his flint knapping knowledge and skills, and generally entertaining his audience with tales of how he started knapping. I found this to be extremely informative, with Phil explaining in plain language the nuances of the different techniques, and what he looks for in a piece of flint when selecting a piece for a particular purpose.

Phil Harding, in his element!

Phil Harding, in his element!

In addition, there were activities for children – including simple pot making and excavation (in a sandpit!) as well as several trays of finds to identify by period.

In terms of outreach, and from what I saw and experienced, I’d have to say the event was an unqualified success. I had arrived relatively early in the day, and after an hour or so decided to take my leave, by which time the hall was filling up and getting quite busy – the event obviously  proving popular with the locals!

But I had another appointment, some 10 miles south as the crow flies, in Woking: the AGM of RESCUE, the British Archaeological Trust, of which Heritage Action are proud to hold Affiliate membership.

A relatively short business meeting was held, with the usual reports from Chair, Secretary and Treasurer, and elections for vacant posts. This was followed by an Open Meeting with Gail Boyle, chair of the Society of Museum Archaeologists and Duncan Brown from English Heritage talking about ‘Trouble in store: the crisis facing archaeological archives‘.

The bald facts are that many museums simply cannot keep pace with the scale of developer-led archaeology and, largely due to swingeing government cuts simply do not have the resources to deal with the finds and documentation archives created by development such as those from  Kingsmead Quarry, visited earlier in the day.

The point was made that although publication and deposition of findings is often a legal requirement attached to many developments, there is no associated legal requirement for local authorities a) to provide museum facilities or b) to provide deposition facilities, which creates a very large problem.

The talk centred around two documents – a report from the IfA’s ‘Southport Group‘ collated in 2010  which discussed the fact that:

Ultimately, the underlying principles of PPS5 and the Government Statement paint a vision of the future where planning-led investigation of the historic environment delivers far greater rewards and far more immediately recognisable benefits for society as a whole than ever before. Even if or when PPS5 is absorbed into the National Heritage Planning Framework, as anticipated will take place later this year, those principles are set to endure.

and also a recent survey and report produced by the Society of Museum Archaeologists (SMA) . The preface to the report states:

Despite a tacit acceptance that archaeological archives present their own particular  set of problems and a few clarion calls like the one above, penned by Dr Ian Longworth as far back as 1991, the archaeological world has continued to find it difficult to come to terms with housing the end product of its investigations.
A growing realisation that, in some areas at least, the situation had become critical resulted in a number of initiatives, not least the day-conference Trouble in Store, organised by the Federation of Archaeological Managers and Employers and held at York in July 2011.
Following the conference FAME and the Society of Museum Archaeologists embarked on a joint initiative, with financial assistance from English Heritage, to attempt to quantify and qualify the current picture, and produce a set of recommendations for future storage strategies.

The report (161 museums were surveyed, 134 provided responses) includes some quite damning statistics.

  • Only 84 museums were able to accept depositions without known conditions.
  • In 47 local authority areas, there were no museums accepting collections. An interactive map is available on the Archaeology Data Service (ADS) showing details of organisations that are accepting archaeological archives.
  • Only around 30% of museums had a specialist archaeology curator.
  • In terms of storage, on average, local history collections took up 45% of storage space compared with 22% for archaeological collections.
  • Archaeological collections and archives are used in many different ways. A significant number of these would be impossible without specialist archaeological expertise.

The report put forward a series of eight recommendations, and these are currently being worked on, in league with other organisations. In addition, a set of pan-European standards are being worked towards.

There was some discussion following the talk, with mention of use of a Cumbrian salt mine as an economical repository, but there was some concern about the effects of salt on some depositions. The situation is being monitored closely.

As a non-archaeologist, I was surprised at the scale of the problem – I’d been aware that Devizes Museum had announced they would take no more depositions due to lack of available space, but wasn’t aware that so many areas had no facility for deposition at all, nor about the legal dichotomy involved within the planning process. There is obviously much work to be done to try to resolve some of these issues, but with very few easy answers forthcoming.

Slides from the presentation can be viewed here.

We would urge everyone concerned about the multitude of threats to our archaeological heritage to support RESCUE in their campaigning work. Individual membership costs less than 5p per day (£15/year) and every membership helps.