Archaeology Confronts Neoliberalism

I got the latest catalogue of books on archaeology and history from Oxbow Books, an Oxford based bookseller and publisher, which specialises in them, a few days ago. Among the books listed was one critical of neoliberalism, and which explored the possibilities of challenging it from within the profession. The book’s entitled Archaeology and Neoliberalism. It’s edited by Pablo Aparicio Resco, and will be published by JAS Arquelogia. The blurb for it in the catalogue states

The effects of neoliberalism as ideology can be seen in every corner of the planet, worsening inequalities and empowering markets over people. How is this affecting archaeology? Can archaeology transcend it? This volume delves into the context of archaeological practice within the neoliberal world and the opportunities and challenges of activism from the profession.

This isn’t an issue I really know anything about. However, I’m not surprised that many archaeologists are concerned about the damage neoliberalism is doing to archaeology. 15 years ago, when I was doing my Masters at UWE, one of the essay questions set was ‘Why do some Historians see heritage as a dirty word?’ Part of the answer to that question was that some historians strongly criticised the heritage industry for its commodification of the past into something to be bought, sold and consumed. They placed the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of Maggie Thatcher and her Tory government. Rather than being an object of value or investigation for its own sake, Thatcherite free market ideology saw it very much in terms of its monetary value. They contrasted this with the old Conservative ethos, which saw culture as something that was above its simple cash value.

Social critics were also concerned about the way Thatcherism was destroying Britain’s real industries, and replacing them with theme parks, in which they were recreated, in a sanitised version that was calculated not to present too many difficult questions and represented the Tory view of history. One example of this was a theme park representing a mining village. It was on the site of a real mining village, whose mine had been closed down. However, other pieces of mining equipment and related buildings and structures, which were never in that particularly village, were put there from other mining towns and villages elsewhere. It thus showed what an imaginary mining village was like, rather than the real mining community that had actually existed. It was also a dead heritage attraction, a museum, instead of a living community based around a still thriving industry.

There were also concerns about the way heritage was being repackaged to present a right-wing, nationalistic view of history. For example, the Colonial Williamsburg museum in America was originally set up to present a view of America as a land of technological progress, as the simple tools and implements used by the early pioneers had been succeeded by ever more elaborate and efficient machines. They also pointed to the way extreme right-wing pressure groups and organisations, like the Heritage Foundation, had also been strongly involved in shaping the official, Reaganite version of American ‘heritage’. And similar movements had occurred elsewhere in the world, including France, Spain and the Caribbean. In Spain the concern to preserve and celebrate the country’s many different autonomous regions, from Catalonia, the Basque country, Castille, Aragon and Granada, meant that the view of the country’s history taught in schools differed greatly according to where you were.

Archaeology’s a different subject than history, and it’s methodology and philosophy is slightly different. History is based on written texts, while archaeology is based on material remains, although it also uses written evidence to some extent. History tends to be about individuals, while archaeology is more about societies. Nevertheless, as they are both about the investigation of the human past, they also overlap in many areas and I would imagine that some of the above issues are still highly relevant in the archaeological context.

There’s also an additional problem in that over the past few decades, the Thatcherite decision to make universities more business orientated has resulted in the formation of several different private archaeological companies, which all compete against each other. I’ve heard from older archaeologists that as a result, the archaeological work being done today is less thorough and of poorer quality than when digs were conducted by local authorities.

I haven’t read the book, but I’m sure that the editor and contributors to this book are right about neoliberalism damaging archaeology and the necessity of archaeologists campaigning against it and its effects on their subject. By its very nature, the past needs to be investigated on its own terms, and there can be multiple viewpoints all legitimately drawn from the same piece of evidence. And especially in the case of historical archaeology, which in the American context means the investigation of the impact of European colonisation from the 15th century onwards, there are strongly emotive and controversial issues of invasion, capitalism, imperialism, the enslavement of Black Africans and the genocide of the indigenous peoples. For historians and archaeologists of slavery, for example, there’s a strong debate about the role this played in the formation of European capitalism and the industrial revolution. Such issues cannot and should not be censored or ignored in order to produce a nice, conservative interpretation of the past that won’t offend the Conservative or Republican parties and their paymasters in multinational industry, or challenge their cosy conception that the free market is always right, even when it falsifies the misery and injustice of the past and creates real poverty today.

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2 Responses to “Archaeology Confronts Neoliberalism”

  1. Florence Says:

    I too was pleased to see the Ox Bow catalogue on the door mat. One of the immediate aspects of neoliberalism has been the destruction and dumbing down of the (state) education system at all levels. Recently there was a petition organised to prevent the loss of A level archaeology from the syllabus entirely. A major casualty has been HFE, especially in such subjects. It is easier now to get a (soft) degree in “Managing Heritage” than it is in archaeology and History, forensic anthropology etc. .

    The “quick digs” for the seemingly main funding sources has lead to many more “strip” excavations – literally simply stripping off the top soil and recording the traces of rings and ditches, and sieving soil from test pits. These are trends that we need to see reversed. Again, even these digs are in danger from the changes to the planning laws reducing the requirement for archaeological examination under planning approvals, and to be left (weakly) in the realms of “if appropriate” or “if it is considered required”. We all know what that will mean. ~

    I too look forward to obtaining a copy of the book, and hopefully a few more too, from the new catalogue, although for the many who fight against the neoliberal destruction of most of that we hold dear, such as the NHS, will have little energy I fear for the less tangible.

    • Beastrabban Says:

      Thanks for the appreciation and the information, Florence. It’s been over a decade since I did that part of the archaeology course, and so I really am not at all up to date on the way archaeology is being run down in favour of developers. A little while ago Private Eye reported in its ‘Rotten Boroughs’ column the efforts by one Tory council leader to undermine some of the laws protecting ancient monuments. This particular Tory politico owned a large amount of land, which he wanted to develop, but was also a rich archaeological site. So he wanted to trash the archaeology for his own profit as a developer.

      I’ve also heard some real horror stories about some of the daft ideas some companies have had for acquiring national monuments and exploiting them. Starbucks at one time wanted to acquire Stonehenge and turn it into the central attraction in a coffee house built around it. Of course it was turned down.

      There’s also a problem in that the decisions on whether to let developers go ahead with construction on sites of archaeological interest are often taken by councillors in sessions lasting only half an hour and in which they’ve been given little, if any, information prior to that present during the decision making process. That in itself has meant that there’s a danger of wrong decisions being made, simply through sheer pressure of time.

      And you’re right that the campaign against the Tories’ attacks on the NHS, and the welfare state and Britain’s working people generally will leave many too exhausted to be able to devote much time to some of the other issues, like the threat to our heritage. But at least books like this are beginning to raise the issue, which archaeologists are starting to tackle.

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