There is distinct evidence within the archaeological archives that many significant technological advances in history came about as a reaction to a catastrophe or a significant threat. Humanity has always responded to events by innovating and adapting.
In a post Covid-19 world, it’s right to speculate that the conception and physical development of sites will never be the same again.
Archaeological work usually involves teams of diggers excavating in close proximity to each other. Working next to machines and demolition in the pursuit of archaeological material is risky business. Construction sites have always been dangerous places, coupled with the complexity of Covid-19, the traditional way of physically approaching archaeological work is now called into question.
Only recently have digital recording systems for archaeology been cautiously tested to record sites. The use of drones to survey large rural sites and historic buildings is becoming more commonplace. How can we harness this technology to assist in recording archaeology sites in a way that we are no longer able to do using people?
The time is upon us to innovate, develop, challenge and question our approach – to ask ourselves why we do archaeology the way we do. If the answer is ‘because that’s the way it’s always been done’ then we need to do better. Archaeologists are required to interpret what they see, to think laterally and to challenge their perceptions when faced with complex problems. Whilst we apply high level analysis to what we see, we do not scrutinise or challenge our methods for working anywhere near enough.
Traditionally, the main output from large archaeological sites has been a monograph, journal article and a paper archive. Whilst satisfying archaeological peers, how accessible is this material really to the wider public? Development-led archaeology is responsible for the vast majority of archaeological work in the UK and is paid for by developers because it is enshrined in the planning system. Archaeology is part of the NPPF because it is something we, the public, value. This then begs the question as to why archaeological results are not more accessible and useful to the public?
For example, a digitally interactive model of a historic burial ground has the potential to advance the interpretation of what archaeologists analysing the site would do anyway (albeit in a much longer, roundabout way using paper records), and would produce a meaningful, interactive tool more engaging to the public than a large technical tome.
To ensure archaeology remains valued and part of the NPPF, we must advance and develop our industry and use technology to innovate what we do, now that we are restricted in our working proximity. The time is right for industry and local authority archaeologists and peers in the industry to collaborate, and to apply the high-level critical thinking skills that archaeologists are renowned for. The fact that we cannot do things as we have always done is something to celebrate; we need to grasp the opportunity to leave our own mark on the profession that we are all so passionate about. A failure to do so could leave archaeology being left behind in a bygone age, and risk being relegated from the position it covets within the NPPF.