This article appeared in the Spring 1969 (Issue #15) edition of the Kent Archaeological Review.
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Local Archaeology in the 1970's.
A one-day Conference on the Place and Work of County and Local Archaeological Societies took place at the University of London Institute of Archaeology on November 9th. Delegates from all parts of the country attended and the discussions ranged from the origins of the county archaeological societies to "Societies and Conservation" and the place of societies in the future. One of the few items on field excavations concerned the archaeological Emergency System in Kent which is organised by the KARGC. Probably the most stimulating of all the papers was that given on Societies in the 1970's by Mr Arthur Percival, Honorary Secretary of the Faversham Society and Librarian for the Civic Trust. The following passages from Mr Percival's paper highlight problems which many local societies already face.
Today's younger generation, better educated and more mature for its age than its predecessors, is anxious to get things done. It is not enough to grumble about derelict canals, or complain about the plight of old people who are lonely, or look wistfully at the field where surface finds have been made. Young people today are prepared to do something about these things -- to restore the locks and banks of the canal, to visit the elderly and keep them company, to do some trial trenching. Just as we have junior civic trusts and branches of International Voluntary Service, we have local archaeological research groups -- often formed in places where there is already a local archaeological society whose members show a marked disinclination to do any practical fieldwork. As the term 'group' suggests, the members have a more informal approach and tend to be drawn from a broader social spectrum. Understandably, they profess a deep contempt for the 'armchair archaeologists' who belong to a society only to listen to lectures, take part in outings, and perhaps to sit on a committee. At the same time the groups themselves are sometimes frighteningly happy-go-lucky in their work. Reports are not published or sometimes ever written; significant finds are hoarded in private curio cabinets; and occasionally the group disintegrates before the members have had time to fill in all the trial trenches dug in the autumn.
Not that I hold any brief for the established local or county societies. They are as often at fault. If they were doing their job properly there might be no need for splinter groups. But too many of them are passive in their approach, delighted to hear about what other people have been doing but never keen to dirty their own fingernails. Really, one suspects, they just do not want to move with the times. They have found a comfortable formula, and they intend to stick to it. 'What's all the fuss about?' they tend to ask. 'We've still got 500 members and we keep them happy. What more could you ask?'
Well, the main question to ask is whether they are satisfied with the current state of archaeological anarchy -- for that is what it is. In one and the same small area does it really make sense to have so many groups -- and so many types of group -- active (if 'active' is the right word)? Oh yes, I know a lot of good work is being done despite the complexity of the structure -- but there is a lot more that needs to be done.
What is so ironical about all this is that this should really be a vintage period for voluntary archaeology. There are so many factors in its favour. I have already mentioned the immense enthusiasm among young people. Then archaeology is one of the few fields in which the amateur is still on roughly even terms with the professional. True, no real amateur earning his living for 48 weeks in the year will be able to tackle a major dig, but he can still direct and write up a smaller dig as competently as most professionals. Equally the university don may be a more prolific writer on history than the bank clerk or trade union official, but the quality of his work may not be any higher. And it is as true today as it has ever been that many people's best work is done in their spare time.
Archaeology has a positive role to perform, and the local society can acquire new impetus and stature. Research projects can be undertaken not single-handed but by groups of members, and the results can be published in exhibitions as well as in books and pamphlets.
The point about group-work is an important one. There are far too many societies where all the work is done by a small minority of members. There are any number of reasons for this. On research, there are always people who will corner a particular subject and cling desperately to it till their dying day. On organisation, there is often a core of stalwarts anxious for martyrdom, who complain that their calls for assistance are never answered but who at the same time would never dream of actually asking anyone to do anything. While paying lip-service to democracy they perpetuate an unhealthy oligarchy. One acknowledges that there will always be members, perhaps as many as 50 per cent of the total, who join the society merely to offer it moral and financial support. Fair enough. The Honorary Secretary probably knows who they are, or if he does not, he can soon find out. But the society must seek to involve everyone else in its work. The secret of success in a voluntary organisation is to isolate the jobs that need to be done and then distribute them as widely as possible. True, volunteers do not come forward very often -- and sometimes when they do, one wishes they hadn't. But there is nothing to stop, say, the Vice-Chairman making it his job to visit members, size them up and invite them to undertake particular tasks. Maybe a Committee member has criticised the pedestrian character of the press reports of society meetings, and the Hon. Secretary, who writes them as well as doing most of the rest of the work, takes umbrage. Well, this is one job he should obviously be relieved of without delay. Equally, when there is a special research project that needs tackling, the society should assign it to an ad hoc group (please, not a sub-committee) which can meet informally, get on with the job, and report back as and when required.
Last of all I want to think for a moment about the structure of voluntary archaeology. 'Rickety' is the word I use, and I don't think this is an unfair description. In fact the picture is very much that of a rambling old house which has been constantly extended in an effort to keep it up-to-date. The foundations are of different periods. they overlap in places, and the older ones are showing signs of subsidence. Parts of the superstructure, too, are showing signs of fatigue. Here and there there are quite serious outbreaks of dry rot, though the affected timber sometimes looks quite healthy till you stab it with a penknife, and the blade sinks into a spongy void. There are some rooms that are really no longer needed, but the owner is so busy with running repairs to the rest of the house that he never has time to take stock of it as a whole. Communications are difficult, with blocked-up doors, winding passages, and staircases that lead nowhere. The house is impossible to run without paid help, and piecemeal repairs are continually needed, though they fail to remedy the basic defects. If the house is not to deteriorate still further, then an architect must be called in to draw up plans for complete rehabilitation. He will have to be quite ruthless, retaining only what is sound, simplifying layout, providing new amenities, and making sure that one part of the house can be reached from another as quickly and conveniently as possible.
Archaeological societies must be quite ruthless, too. There will be a vast amount for them to do in the 1970's, but much of the work will never get done if they cannot overhaul the framework within which they operate. The foundations must be simple and strong and reliable. They must be provided by a county body which can give leadership, offer inspiration and inspire confidence. This body must be lean, compact, reliable and efficient. It cannot be fragmented. Real leadership cannot be offered by the uncoordinated work of a number of overlapping organisations. In some counties today there is not only a county archaeological society, but also a county local history committee sponsored by the Council of Social Service, a congress or council of archaeological research groups, a CBA Group, and possibly a county buildings preservation trust or committee. Each of these bodies has to have its own officers and committee, its own members or constituent bodies, its own accounts, and maybe its own headquarters. Effort that should he concentrated is dissipated, and an unimaginable amount of extra paperwork is generated. Local societies themselves are often at a loss to know which body to approach over a particular problem, and really it takes time and patience to discover the precise demarcation lines.
Clearly something must be done to re-order the foundations of local archaeology. The lead must be taken by the county societies, for they are the only bodies with a broad potential. They must begin by taking stock of the situation. Why, first of all, are there these other organisations with overlapping interests? Is it just that the county society's constitution is outmoded, or could it be that the society as a whole has failed to move with the times? Then they must ask what are the jobs that need doing, what is their order of priority, which can be done by individual local societies, which by groups of societies, and which only by the county society? In all likelihood an alarming picture will turn up -- one of duplicated effort, missed opportunities, dormant or defunct local societies, and apparent apathy in many areas. In face of this there will be no argument about the need for re-organisation. The county society, taking the lead, will call a meeting with the other county bodies, explain the position to them, outline a strategy, and suggest that the time for consolidation has come.
The re-invigorated county society can then get down to work. It can arrange a couple of conferences a year on subjects of topical interest and invite local societies to send representatives. It can offer societies a service of advice, guidance and information, maybe publishing a periodical newsletter to enable them to keep abreast of one another's activities, maybe issuing special information sheets on new projects or developments, maybe distributing practice notes on such work as observation on building sites or the recording of local place-names. It can maintain a pool of equipment from which societies can draw. It can offer grants towards particular projects. Even if these have to be quite small, they will serve as a big fillip to local societies with limited funds. Their own money-raising efforts will be redoubled, and they may even succeed in obtaining additional funds from local authorities and other sources. The county society can also stimulate the growth of new local bodies: the pace here cannot be forced, and perhaps the best thing is to 'adopt' two or three areas a year, enlisting the help of local members and neighbouring societies in an effort to get new societies formed in each. Small inaugural grants can be offered to help the societies get off the ground -- and in most cases probably not more than £15 will be needed.
The county society can also see that the work of local societies is co-ordinated as far as possible. I am thinking not of Big Brother-type interference, but of timely help. If the footings of a substantial Roman building are exposed by a bulldozer working on a motorway extension, excavation will have to be carried out rapidly or not at all. The local society (if there is one, of course) cannot be expected to handle the operation single-handed. It must have help -- and have it quickly. In my own county this particular challenge has been met by the Kent Archaeological Research Groups Council, which has devised a system designed to cater for any emergency and the system works extremely well. I can speak from experience. You name the labour-force -- and it appears and gets on with the job, with a minimum of talk and fuss.
I hope that what I have had to say has been provocative, if not helpful. I know that it is a British trait to treasure anomalies, to rejoice in that fact that Hull still has its own telephone system, to revel in the knowledge that the pubs in Carlisle have never been denationalised. We cherish our anachronisms, too-the top hats worn by the Bank of England messengers, the old railways signs headed London Brighton and South Coast railway, and the horse trams on the Isle of Man. But we must be careful not to carry our love of anomalies and anachronisms too far. We must be able to distinguish between what is merely curious and what is not only curious but also downright inefficient. Without any question the present framework of voluntary archaeology falls into the second category. We must reshape it with vigour and without any trace of sentimentality.