open archaeology

If I told you, I’d have to kill you….

The Day of Archaeology is meant to be an opportunity to give the wider public an insight into the work of archaeologists -‘a life in the day of an archaeologist’. Most posts will be about the specific work the archaeologist is doing on the Day of Archaeology, but this one won’t be. I’m not allowed to tell you what I am digging, or where I am working. I’d like to say that if I told you I’d have to kill you, but the reality is I’d probably just be thrown off the project.

It is not that I am working on some top secret government excavation, it is simply that my client- who is developing the site- doesn’t want any uncontrolled publicity. So….instead I’m going to talk about some of the issues around publicity and openness in commercial archaeology.

Archaeology as public benefit

One clear justification for archaeological work is that it has a public benefit, and that people are interested in what we do- in fact several major contracting units are ‘educational charities’ as the carrying out and dissemination of archaeological work is considered to be of intrinsic benefit. Many commercial archaeologists spend a lot of their time trying to inform people of what exactly it is we are actually doing, after all there is little point in doing our work if people can’t hear about it. So it can seem a trifle odd that we spend a lot of our time palming off passers-by with vague statements, weasel words and (frankly) bullshit. We would (usually) love to tell you more, but often we simply aren’t allowed.

Confidentiality

Why? Well, a lot of sites have confidentiality clauses written in, as do many employment contracts. You simply aren’t allowed to talk about what you are working on. Breaking the confidentiality clause can have serious repercussions- I know of several archaeologists who have been severely reprimanded for posting photos or comments on Facebook about the sites they work on, and of at least one archaeologist who has been sacked for tweeting about their job. I would bet that at least a few Day of Archaeology bloggers will be breaching their contracts by posting about their site!

Most archaeological work in the UK is done within the planning system and since planning applications are often locally very contentious ‘the archaeology’ can become a football for use by all sides. As someone who spends a lot of time working in development archaeology, but who is also facing the prospect of 140 new houses in the field behind my home, I can kind of see both sides. If there are any possible archaeological remains on a site then those can be used to lobby to stop development (although only development would usually see those remains excavated) and dry, factual archaeological statements can be twisted by both sides to support their argument. It’s a sad situation that sees archaeologists stuck in the middle and often not able to talk about what they have found. They can be attacked by vested interests on both sides, and often it is easier to keep quiet and not say anything at all.

In my personal view however, keeping quiet is usually not a good idea. People will always fill a vacuum with noise; better to have good, open communication to the locals- it is their heritage after all. Desk Based Assessments and Evaluation reports will usually be posted on the Planning Portal, so the question to clients is why not make the most out of what you are paying to have dug up?

Making it public

Several large commercial excavations have managed to deal with the issues of publicity and control in an adult way: producing real-time blogs, websites and updates throughout the life of the project. There are some really supportive clients who realise that archaeology can bring excellent publicity for their company -last year I worked on one such site for a local pub who were fantastic clients and who actively supported blogging about their site; they ended up with a short piece in The Sun and Current Archaeology, and lots of free publicity for their business, as well as the respect of many locals for funding what turned out to be a very important excavation.

Public talks, open days and displays can all get the information out to those who are interested; local societies are always interested in talks on local excavations. Displays of key finds are also a good way of telling a site’s story- although dusty cabinets in office foyers can feel a bit unloved, especially after a few years have passed, but they can work really well in getting museum finds into the wider world.

The Risks

Of course there can be some good reasons why you might want to keep shtum on a finding- you might need to do complex specialist tests like DNA or radio carbon, further background research or prepare a decent press release so you can tell the story better. There are also times when you don’t want rivals to steal your findings: excavation reports can take years to come out and there are some ‘academics’ who are known to use information heard ‘down the pub’ to try and beat the scoop by rushing out articles based on incomplete evidence.

There is also a risk of attracting nighthawks– thieves who use metal-detectors to rob sites of finds and disturb the archaeological deposits. I’m not sure whether publicity does attract significantly more nighthawks, but it is a risk. Sites with human remains are often considered similarly risky to publicise- on many cemetery sites you simply can’t lift all exposed burials every day, and there is a risk of people breaking in to steal skulls, as well as legal obligations to keep the remains screened from public view that can be problematic.

And partly some of the reticence is because we are a bit scarred by press reports that exaggerate and embellish the carefully crafted press statement, and home in on the irrelevant or the photogenic. This makes us want to control the media more, rather than realising that we just have to accept occasionally crap reporting and rely on the intelligence of the public to follow the links to the real story.

The Public Face of Archaeology

The public face of archaeology is vitally important: we carry out excavations because people are interested in what we do, and they are interested in us. If we don’t try and communicate and stay sealed off behind our hoardings then we shouldn’t expect the public to support or understand the work we do. Clients will often be reticent about opening up a wider public engagement and worry about the risk of bad publicity, but as long as the excavation is being done properly, and the reasons, methodology and findings are clearly communicated, then there is seldom a risk of this. Some clients will wait until after the site is finished before sending out a press release and this is perhaps a happy medium between full openness and secrecy. There are real risks, especially if you make unexpected discoveries, but in my view it is nearly always better to get good, factual information out first, rather than having to react to bad press.

The Cost

Of course the key question is cost, everything costs money, and clients are concerned about the cost of hoarding posters, viewing galleries, open days and the possible pressure to do further work beyond the brief. And our time as archaeologists is also dear -evenings giving lectures or weekend open days are not always paid, and we have a hard enough job meeting deadlines without the extra work of organising public engagement and writing blog posts in our spare time. But the cost is usually worth it for all parties -the archaeologists benefit from having to communicate their findings in a clear and understandable way, and can learn new skills at public events, ties are made with local communities, the public benefit from learning about their archaeology and heritage, and the clients generally get good publicity and a visible profile.

Sensible site publicity doesn’t need to be hard work, many sites post construction updates on their hoardings, and archaeology can easily be added into this. It doesn’t need to be academic level, peer-reviewed text, just a basic outline of what is known and what has been found. A few photos and some background text and that is enough for most people who are walking past the site, if you can link to a company website or a project blog then fantastic- you can use QR codes so passers-by can scan get more information on the spot.

So the next time an archaeologist spins you some vague bullshit through the Heras fence about ‘old stuff’, or is evasive and changes the subject when you ask if ‘you’ve found anything interesting’, just remember that they may actually be itching to tell you all about the ditch they’ve been digging, or the pottery they just found, they just aren’t allowed.