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Is It Rubbish or Is It Rubbish

Page history last edited by Tess Barrett 9 years, 8 months ago


Usually, our editorials take as their starting point some new situation confronting the Trust, originating either at national or at local level and bearing upon one aspect or another of our work in York. Prompted by an article in the latest number of a leading archaeological journal, we take a look in this issue at the fundamental validity of the operation on which so much of our time and your money is spent.


The declared aim of Hugh Thompson's paper, ‘Rescue archaeology: research or rubbish collection?’ (Antiquity 49 (1975), 43-45) is to provoke debate on the purpose of archaeology today. With some justification, he takes exception to the following definition, published recently in the CBA/Rescue pamphlet, Archaeology and Government: ‘All active archaeology is research. What has come to be known as rescue archaeology forms part of this general research effort. Every rescue excavation provides further valuable information’. Mr. Thompson concludes that urban archaeology conducted on this basis ‘is better described as rubbish collection than research’, and suggests that because they imagine all sites lying within a historic urban complex to be potentially of equal value, ‘our archaeological units rush from one site to another, and their finds stores are filled to bursting with useless rubbish’.


To what extent is the Trust guilty of this kind of phrenetic activity? Do we really spend our lives charging from one corner of the city to another at the wave of a planning application, indiscriminately grubbing up pottery and bones and soil samples simply because they are ‘threatened,’ or could our reactions perhaps be more intellectual than instinctive, conforming to some underlying master plan which is not immediately apparent to the casual observers?


Perhaps a word of explanation will be necessary for those of our readers who are not familiar with the term ‘rescue archaeology’: it gained currency in the trendy nineteen-sixties, the archaeological counterpart of Beatlemania, Carnaby Street and swinging London. Another curious phenomenon which swept the profession at this time was the concept of a new archaeology, later described neatly by Professor Richard Atkinson as ‘old hat with a new hatband’: the distinction between rescue archaeology and any other sort of archaeology is of the same order, except that rescue sites are by definition threatened with some degree of destruction. The distinction drawn by Mr. Thompson is of a more fundamental nature, however, for he suggests that whereas research excavations are normally mounted to answer specific questions, in the rescue situation the fact of the threat has become the principal motive for excavation and the information recovered is consequently of a rather random nature.


The fact Is that in our experience in York, the scale of the threat (including what is at ground level conservation and not destruction) so far exceeds our capability to deal with it in toto that we have simply no alternative but to concentrate our efforts on those sites which are likely to give a maximum return in archaeological information for the money invested an them. From the many threatened sites (on average about twenty) brought to the notice of the Trust's executive committee at its quarterly meetings, usually no more than two or three are chosen for attention. Several factors affect the choices made, including the nature of the development, its scale, the depth of the likely disturbance in relation to the known depth of stratigraphy in the area, and so on. Foremost among these considerations, however, is the question of what the site is likely to be able to tell us about a particular area or chronological phase or perhaps an individual building of historical importance. (Urban development is the basic theme around which our efforts are planned; hopefully, with the publication of our work, Mr Thompson will be provided with a definition of the term which he will find acceptable.) Occasionally it is decided to investigate the upper levels and to abandon the lower strata to the developer's bulldozer; sometimes we may ourselves remove mechanically the later material in order to be able to elucidate some problem of the earlier phases within a limited time schedule.


Clearly it is impossible to predict exactly what will be achieved in any excavation and will doubtless be many that do not merit individual publication. It is, nonetheless, an article of faith within the Trust that all the significant information should find its way into our research reports. These will appear in the form of Fascicules or individual chapters from one or other of eighteen volumes which will ultimately contain the fruits of all this activity, covering between them the historical, archaeological and environmental evidence from every quarter of the city, for each phase of its development. The publication of the first of these reports (within the next few months) will represent a commitment in print to produce all the others, but already every excavation undertaken by the Trust is planned to answer meaningful quite specific questions within this broad framework. Naturally we maintain some degree of flexibility in order to cope with exceptional opportunities which crop up outside our planned campaigns; usually it is the accidental discovery on a building site of some particularly significant information which triggers off one of these excavations (see our ‘Keyhole Archaeology’ series) but there is never any question of digging for the sake of it.


Perhaps we are fortunate in being able to consider virtually the whole of York as an archaeological entity and to select particular elements for close investigation in the same way that a research excavation might be concentrated on one part or another of an individual site. (Total excavation remains an expensive ideal, rarely achieved even on research digs of any size.) If we do not match up to our research role as defined by Mr. Thompson, in ‘extending the bounds of knowledge... by sorting observed facts into a meaningful conclusion’, we shall have failed to capitalise on the marvelous opportunities available to us, but whatever the cause, it is unlikely to be due to an unhealthy preoccupation with other peoples’ rubbish.


Editors: A.G. MacGregor, R.A. Hall, S.A.J. Bradley


Editorial Assistance: S. Bishop

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