Howtoreach the drinking public spoilheap I’ll be honest. If I’d been able to find a good story about the News of the World, archaeologists and vicars, you’d be reading about it here. One archaeologist confessed, on the CBA’s talk list (britarch.ac.uk/discuss), to having worked for the NoW – in the staff canteen. You’d find more archaeological scandal in the Prehistoric Society than News International. Yet getting itself into the papers has never really been a problem for archaeology. The press love missing links, treasure, cannibals and Roman murders. The Sunday Sport’s “World War II bomber found on the moon” was about a fantastic archaeological discovery.Thedifficulty for archaeologists, perhaps, is persuading journalists to write abut what they actually want people to read. Right now, that could be
Festival of Britain, a country exhausted by war, loss of empire and economic depression tried to convince itself that things were getting better. The past had no place in this. Archaeologists wanted to change that.
On the face of it, they succeeded. At the South Bank festival, as Jacquetta Hawkes put it, many hundreds of thousands of people walked through a display of British prehistory. How did that happen? Hawkes (“with the blessing of the CBA”) “went to meet the appropriate official”, and he asked her to tell them what to do with a big gallery. Meanwhile at the CBA (where Hawkes and her friend Mortimer Wheeler were vice presidents) a great plot was underway – to educate the public. As Britain regenerated, industry would grow, houses and roads would be built, and archaeology would be lost. The phrase “salvage excavation” had summed up as the threat to heritage posed by the recession and government cuts. We’ve been here before, so perhaps we can learn from the past. Sixty years ago, as crowds massed in London for the
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been used. Something had to be done.
A pamphlet called Gravel, Sand & History was written to “explain in simple terms” the importance of recording things that people found in quarries.
Copies were distributed to 700 pits.
Brian Hope-Taylor, an eminent archaeologist with an eye for design, created a poster for the CBA, headlined “History from the ground”. It urged people to report their archaeological finds. Ten thousand copies were handed out, to libraries, village halls, public schools and, “where possible, to public houses”. The media caught the interest (perhaps Jacquetta called up a friend?), and the poster “was shown during a Television Programme by the British Broadcasting Corporation”. As a result, local authorities asked for copies to give to schools, and a further 20,000 were printed.
And finally, the CBA launched an excavations calendar, to bring together archaeologists needing labour and the committed public. All good stuff. But there was a problem.
OGS Crawford nailed it in his journal Antiquity, then the nearest the country had to British Archaeology. The public, he wrote, lacked a “sense of proportion”. People idolised heritage with emotive associations (like the Stone of Scone, which had been taken from the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey and was, suspected a horrified English press, somewhere in Scotland). But they did not understand how the story of the nation’s past lay in ordinary things, like buildings, hillforts and fields, that were being flattened almost daily. Few knew or cared that they lived in a time of the “greatest and most relentless destruction [of heritage] that has ever taken place”.
Sixty years later, this issue is still alive. (Think not? Substitute Staffordshire hoard for Stone of Scone in the above). The difference is that we can see what happened after 1951. It took 20 years, and almost identical rhetoric, before the government began to recognise public concern for archaeology. Crawford’s editorial was barely written when the Stone of Scone was returned – repaired.
It’s a hard lesson, but if you want something to happen, sometimes it’s more effective to appeal to emotion than intellect. Simply telling the public what you want to – as Rupert Murdoch discovered – is not enough. You have to convince people that your cause is theirs. And to do that, almost certainly you have to go back and ask yourself: what do you really want?