Thursday, November 10, 2005

London Archaeology

Getting educated

Just recently I signed up for a short course on London Archaeology at City University this was in part because I've always been interested in Archaeology, along with just wanting to learn something (preferably in an area not related to what I do for a living) besides which I've never been very good at doing nothing!

What I thought to learn

When signing up for this course, I was never really sure what kind of things I'd learn/do over the course of those 10 weeks, perhaps:

  • Be Indiana Jones like and go traipsing through secret underground caverns in the centre of London
  • Getting down and dirty through the mud at an actual dig, trying to find those rare artifacts (some actual hands on experience)
  • Perhaps just learning about the history of London, from the prehistoric until now..

What I didn't expect to learn was the actual process of how modern archaeology works, and the history, not of London (though we have learnt some of that); but of archaeology itself...

I'm going to make this bit short as I'm sure that people's attention span isn't that long (and I've spent longer getting to this spot than I originally thought), so without further ado...

State of Archaeology in London

Archaeology in London is now a legal requirement for any development process, not sure of the exact wording in the books, but in essence:

Developers must cover the cost of any archaeological investigation/recording/retrieval that their development may disturb

What does this mean?
Well aside from it making sure that possible archaeological evidence is found and properly maintained (ie: you're not dumping a huge building on top of a beautiful roman mosaic floor or the remains of a temple), it has also pushed the financial burden of said investigation and process away from the government and squarely into the hands of the person/company that would be doing the damage...

Not a bad thing..?

I agree, actually making it a requirement in law is brilliant! Except for 2 things... The first is contained in the above statement..

Economic burden:
Say you've purchased an old old house that is falling apart, and you decide that rather than fixing up the house the best use of that land is to knock down the house and build a new one, perhaps even you've borrowed money because you're going to build a beautiful 3 story house/apartment block and the money you make from this is going to pay for your retirement! Yay!

You've spoken to the archaeologists and they've said (by giving you a desk based assessment) "nah not much likely to be here." So you've worked out your budget, you've borrowed your money, you've got your terms and conditions and as long as you can have it ready within 1 year, you'll of paid of that loan and be laughing to the bank.

The workmen come in and after demolishing that house start to dig away... and they hit something, it's a coffin (after calling the police and finding out, no it's not a new grave, at least not in the last 1000 years), the archaeologist come along and say "oh, sorry... we were wrong, the romans had their cemeteries outside of the town, this is a new found cemetery! Fantasic! We're going to need 2 years to excavate these coffins because the weight of the apartment will damage anything left insitu"

Suddenly you've hit the problem of rather than the development taking 1 year (with known costs), it's going to take 3 years, and you're going to have to come up with the money to cover the costs of a dozen archaeologists working on the site for 2 years along with termination of the contracts with the builders/plumbers/electricians/etc...

So you declare bankruptcy and now you're in financial direstraits and this possible archaeological find is just left there, there isn't even money to produce a report saying "we found a grave, with evidence to suggest further graves in region x. All graves are being left in situ"...

no one wins under such a circumstance, of course it's an extreme example but it can happen. This is compounded (at least in terms of the negatives to the archaeological side of things), by the Thatcher efforts a privatisation, namely she privatised the Archaeological Services which of course means that the archaeologists are now bound to the developers, with all the caveats and terms in the contracts that they will enforce.

to be continued.... (have a think for yourselves as to what are the effects of having the archaeologists privatised and having to both bid for the contract and accept the contracts terms and conditions)



Daniel F said...

When you're right, you're right. Thats some majorly sucky decision making there. When stuff is privatised and it's a heavy competition area it can lead to cutting corners and stuff just to get the lowest tender. Can you imagine an archaeoligist cutting corners? Yuck.

If I was the one knocking down a house on a tight budget and I was to come across a fossilised roman donkey, I'd be thinking twice about reporting it. Sure, it'd be the right thing to do, but bankrupcy over some dudes who died 1000 years ago? Eek

Biscuit said...

Yep, and cutting corners is exactly what happens!

Say a developer is going to be putting support pilons(sp?) in, and so is going to dig 3-4 holes of 5 metres in depth... Have a guess where the 'archaeological survey' is going to take place?

You guessed it! In the holes, and only in the holes, everything else is 'protected' for future generations by letting it remain 'in situ'...