Archaeology and Brexit

Sun 16-10-18

In a recent news magazine programme on Radio 4, there was a discussion about fruit.

“We all love oranges,” says a reporter. “But if you love oranges, you’re in for a shock. Because a new survey has found out that you don’t.”

Later in the feature the presenter asks a representative of an organisation which promotes apples and which commissioned the survey, “What do you have to say about this link between oranges and cancer?”

“I’ve nothing to say about this link,” he replies, “because it doesn’t exist.”

“This kind of refusal to engage with the year’s biggest health story,” responds a celebrity greengrocer, “is just going to worry people further. It’s on the internet, so it’s not madness, is it? People don’t talk about nonsense on the internet!”

That is, of course, a spoof (the excellent Agendum, a current affairs parody). But if you’re only half awake it would be easy to mistake it for reality. We know that experts have or are easily accused of having concealed agendas, that the internet is a place that can be influential, misleading and conspiratorial, and that if we’re not too careful any of us can become part of the problem.

All of that has been massively enlarged in the UK by Brexit, the subject of a series of articles published by the journal Antiquity in December, bookended by pieces by Kenny Brophy at the University of Glasgow.

The Antiquity debate is not about how Brexit might affect the practice of archaeology, though this is potentially transformative. Mike Heyworth rounded up a few of the issues in the March/April 2017 edition of British Archaeology, and I did the same in the May/June 2017 edition. In July last year one excavating consultancy, Headland Archaeology, publicly advertised for EU staff: “On some sites over 70% of the field team are from overseas EU member states; at present the majority are from southern Europe, primarily Italy and Spain… We find our employees who have travelled from their home countries amongst our most motivated… We hope that our relationship with our European colleagues will continue long into the future, without them we will simply not have the staff to deliver on some of the major projects on the horizon and suspect that many other parts of the construction industry will feel exactly the same.”

These are real concerns, and like most of the arts, industry and business, archaeology is not prepared for Brexit, simply because even now we don’t know what is going to happen. But this is not Brophy’s prime interest in Antiquity. Instead he looks back to a famous article in the same journal published in 1966, in which Grahame Clark bemoaned the unhelpful influence of an island-invaded mentality on ideas about prehistory. Now he sees how Brexit is in a similar fashion getting in the way of a balanced understanding of ancient Britain. People are using “the ancient past to justify opinions on contemporary issues such as immigration, race and identity, political self-determination, national identity and borders,” he writes, especially  in “media associated with the alt-right”; “the evoking of events from thousands of years ago as relevant to contemporary political discourse is not a problem consigned to the Clarkean past – it remains deeply problematic.”

I have seen this often over recent years, and many archaeologists I talk to are aware of the problem. This is really happening. It is not the first time that archaeology has been drawn into nationalistic debates, most famously in Nazi Germany (Spoilheap in the new British Archaeology touches on that), but it has happened here before too. I remember when I was writing Fairweather Eden in the 1990s how the Times reported the discovery of early-human remains at Boxgrove. “Here was not the short and stumbling figure of Neanderthal Man,’ wrote its leader writer of a bone that indicated a statuesque, muscular male. “Every Englishman may walk a little taller in the recognition that he is descended from such a striking creature.” I was not amused to find my book (co-written with Mark Roberts) later featuring on a British National Party website!

Brophy gives examples of archaeological research covered in the media with a Brexit angle. Ancient DNA suggesting mesolithic Cheddar Man had dark skin was “viewed through the prisms of immigration, British identity, race and Brexit”. When Mail online covered a story about the apparent near-replacement in the British population of neolithic DNA by Beaker DNA, one commenter said, “Today you can replace the word ‘Beaker’ with ‘Muslim’ “. This “underscore[es] the urgency with which archaeologists must respond,” says Brophy, “in a more forceful and proactive manner than is currently the case; it is, after all, our research that is providing fuel for these discussions.”

What should we do?

First, says Brophy, we need to know more about how people “consume and use archaeological research”. We need to act on this knowledge, by thinking about how “results might be perceived and exploited by the media and the public”, by being politically aware.

We need to take more care about how we tell people about our research; “press releases [should be] crafted to avoid clickbait headlines and becoming hostages to fortune… While there is no reason why archaeologists cannot contribute to debates on mass migration, conflict, political instability, identity politics and climate change, this should be done with caution and clarity.”

Finally, archaeologists “have a responsibility to be vigilant and should be prepared to enter the public arena to correct mistakes.”

Other contributors have supportive views.

We might cringe at some of the analogies made, writes Andrew Gardner, but references to archaeological work in discussions of “current questions of identity” are good. It’s good to “participate in debates shaping the present.” But how to do it? It might help to understand why greater knowledge seems to come with greater public suspicion of experts. It’s tough out there, so we should all help each other.

Chiara Bonacchi says “Influencing public opinion requires more substantial and profound public engagement” than Brophy asks for. She illustrates with a story in the Times which covered her own research and was written by a sympathetic journalist, only to be given a misleading headline and photo by editors: “there are mechanisms,” she says, “that simply escape our control”. It’s difficult stuff. “Influencing public opinion is possible, but not fast or easy.”

Nathan Schlanger cautions against being careless with distinctions between good and bad archaeology. Perhaps the real issue is that “liberal-minded archaeologists and heritage advocates” are struggling with the effects of relinquishing authorial power to a less disciplined public. Turning the argument on its head, he sees modern society threatening the proper conduct of archaeology: global economic challenges, for example, have led to “a sharp decline in professional expertise, watered-down protective regulations and weakened institutional capacities.” More darkly he imagines a future in which the UK heritage agenda is sponsored not by a neutral EU but an ideological national government seeking control of interpretations of the past. Echoing Gardner, Schlanger says we should “stand shoulder to shoulder” across all archaeological sectors.

All of this is fair and interesting, and given new significance by current events. In the past it was easy to dismiss theories of aliens, lost civilisations and conspiracies about archaeologists hiding their discoveries. They still occur (see the Letters pages in the new British Archaeology). But the ultimate fear, Schlanger’s potential distortion of history for ideological ends, is more insidious for being more believable. We need to engage. I have three recommendations (I’ve been saying this for decades, but worth rehearsing again), in order of significance:

  1. As everyone says, we should make the effort to correct falsehoods. But do it positively: don’t sneer at ignorance, but take the opportunity to widen the conversation and build understanding. Misapprehensions are opportunities.
  2. Bonacchi makes good points about media (the subject of her research). As a journalist, an editor and an archaeologist I’m aware that most archaeologists – and it shows most when they complain about public coverage – don’t really understand how media work. To engage we need that understanding. We should learn how the traditional press works, how TV and radio work, how social media work. As essential life skills, these should be taught as part of every archaeology degree.
  3. And most importantly, we should not let charlatans have all the good stories. Stop bleating about everyone who gets it wrong, and write our own! Take control! Don’t complain if people are less interested in erudite academic fashions than in seeing themselves in the past, but welcome that interest and run with it. Again, this could be the subject of undergraduate teaching. How to write. How to tell stories. How to present technical research for daytime TV. Understand that simplification and synthesis are not acts of dumbing down, but of progression, of raising horizons and seeking greater prizes. It’s really not easy, and the enterprise deserves respect and encouragement.

Antiquity 92, December 2018

Kenneth Brophy, “The Brexit hypothesis and prehistory”

Chiara Bonacchi, “Public archaeology cannot just ‘fly at dusk’: the reality and complexities of generating public impact”

Andrew Gardner, “Power, knowledge and the past”

Nathan Schlanger, “The Brexit syndrome: towards a hostile historic environment?”

Kenneth Brophy, “Countering the Brexit hypothesis through solidarity, advocacy and activism”

Image at top is from the Sun, October 16 2018

Cover with Spine



2 thoughts on “Archaeology and Brexit

  1. I wonder why archaeology is having to recruit from the E.U when we keep hearing that home grown archaeologists can’t get jobs. Would appreciate some thoughts on that. I am an amateur and don’t need to be looking for jobs but I also used to be a careers adviser and I used to say then that it was difficult to get jobs and I still hear that from professional colleagues.


    ACE Archaeology Club Secretary

    1. There is now a recognised national shortage of archaeologists with excavation skills and experience. To help resolve this many archaeological consultancies have their own training schemes, and it is common for a significant proportion of those on field projects to come from outside the UK. The situation has been made more urgent with major infrastructure schemes in progress such as HS2, which are employing many hundreds of fieldworkers.

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