CIfA response to SAL Future of Archaeology Manifesto

On Tuesday 8 December, The Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) published a manifesto entitled ‘The Future of Archaeology’, which set out a proposal for structural and cultural changes to archaeology in England. CIfA welcomes this contribution to an ongoing conversation about the evolution of the discipline in England.

We strongly support the manifesto’s six ‘Principles for the development of the current structure’, which are

  1. to improve public benefit from development-led archaeology
  2. to integrate in-depth, comparative and synthetic research in all archaeological work
  3. to improve archaeological archives, ensuring sustainable provision and high standards for access and curation
  4. to maintain effective local government archaeology services and ensure they are resourced to improve to meet developing needs
  5. to improve information management to enable better use of data
  6. to encourage collaboration, for example through arrangements between commercial archaeologists and academic specialists to improve further research outcomes

Much work has been – and continues to be – undertaken to achieve these goals, and there is a great deal of good practice in the current system. This existing good practice should not be undervalued. Nonetheless, we recognise the need to act further, with a focus on securing the mechanisms for change, to achieve the Society’s optimistic vision.

What have we learned since Southport?

The manifesto explicitly draws on previous sector-wide work such as the 2011 Southport Report and reflects increasing sector recognition that there is a need to design and deliver public benefit, improve how we contribute to knowledge gain and manage physical and digital archives, and protect local authority archaeology services.

These themes were considered again as part of the Historic England/CIfA 21st-Century Challenges in Archaeology workshops, and have informed the priorities and work programmes of CIfA’s work in England ever since. Completed and ongoing initiatives include

  • Revision to CIfA guidance on Written Schemes of Investigation and associated training: to include specific guidance on inclusion of research aims, public benefit outcomes, access to specialist input and provision for archives deposition within WSIs
  • Archives Selection Toolkit: to support the creation of accessible archives
  • Finds Recording Toolkit: to support improvements in the quality of finds reporting
  • Dig Digital Think Archive project: to support the creation of accessible digital archives and promote the reuse of data for research and public benefit
  • Evaluation Strategies project: to develop and implement strategic improvements in the practice of archaeological field evaluation in England
  • Standards and guidance reformat project: to reformat CIfA Standards and guidance and to emphasise that the purpose of all archaeological work is public benefit
  • Write Here! Write Now!: to revise CIfA Standards and provide further guidance on reporting to support comparability, data reuse and synthetic research
  • Public benefit web-pages and professional practice paper (forthcoming): to promote the value of archaeology to society and celebrate the ways in which archaeologists deliver public benefit

Despite much progress, we recognise that the Southport recommendations haven’t effected the kind of systemic change we hoped for ten years ago. Our experience highlights the need to ensure that initiatives like these identify the mechanisms for, and barriers to, change – not just the nature of desired change. Proposals like Southport and the Society’s manifesto need to be presented and developed in ways that nurture collaboration and ‘buy-in’, by focusing on the provision of longer term support and encouragement for change rather than on real or perceived shortcomings.

The follow-up programme to the 21st-Century Challenges in Archaeology report may provide that opportunity. Additionally, CIfA’s Strategic Plan for 2021-30 will put research, value and public benefit at the heart of what it means to be professional.

Structural change in the sector

Although details of the proposals in the SAL manifesto will attract scrutiny and modification, we applaud the Society’s bravery in proposing their model for critique. We would welcome further exploration of the regional hubs proposal as a way of providing additional support for archaeology services, research agenda and archives, so that our ideas are ready to be adapted and applied to future local government structural changes.

More broadly, CIfA recognises that change is necessary, whether sooner or later, to keep pace with wider society. Archaeologists must continue to develop new models for delivery, proactively shaping the future of archaeology. We look forward to taking part in a conversation with all archaeologists about continuing the long history of improvements in our discipline. This will ensure that, through our advocacy, we can respond when needed to influence progressive change.