Public Archaeology in the Climate Emergency

Public Archaeology in the Climate Emergency

Submitted by Ellie Chambers

On the first day of my (very brief) stint in commercial archaeology I was told not to worry if anyone started complaining to me. “They’ll come over and moan that they don’t like the quarry, but once they find out you’re an archaeologist they’ll calm down and just ask if you’ve found anything yet.” At the time this was reassuring, after getting up at 5am and working in the sun all day the thought of being shouted at was particularly unappealing. But thinking back it makes me wonder how much companies hide behind archaeologists? Are we just a jolly public-facing curio, an interesting distraction, whilst behind us they can get on with their evil corporate shenanigans?


Commercial archaeology is a key component within the development process in the UK to protect and conserve the historic environment, but that means that archaeologists have to work within an industry that currently contributes 40% of UK carbon emissions. The involvement of archaeologists on development sites has been a hard-fought and ongoing battle against the government in order to ensure vital information about past societies isn’t lost under concrete forever. There is no option to refuse to work with polluters without leading to the loss of the entire commercial archaeology sector, but we do not have to let archaeology become a tool to distract people from the damage that projects are causing and we cannot lie to ourselves that protecting the historic environment outweighs the damage that is being done to our modern world.


Take the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists’ recent guide to providing ‘Public Benefit’. With the best intentions to show an ethical approach to public work, they choose to use the High Speed 2 excavations and public engagement strategy as an example of delivering public benefit. High Speed 2 (HS2) is government-funded high speed railway intended to connect large UK cities and reduce travel time. The project has been heavily criticised for its delays, massive over-expenditure, significant damage to protected habitats, and social upheaval. UK charity The Wildlife Trusts has released a report showing that the project will have a significant and irreversible impact on British wildlife and that it will take over 100 years to offset the carbon emitted during its construction. The historic natural environment is under significant threat due to HS2, and the project is accelerating the loss of biodiversity across the country that scientists fear will lead to mass extinctions. The ‘green corridor’ of newly planted trees and shrubs that HS2 hails as the height of their commitment to sustainability is nothing more than green-washing, with the National Trust calling it “a sticking plaster solution.” 


But back to archaeology, despite claiming that public benefit goes beyond contributing to public knowledge and stating that it should ‘include individual or communal wellbeing, improving community cohesion, improving educational, environmental or economic conditions or providing these opportunities’ the significant environmental implications and the long-term wellbeing of local communities have not been considered in this case. How can we justify archaeology in the ‘public benefit’ when the public are disadvantaged by the project that we are working on? Public archaeology cannot become a tool for oppressive corporations to use against valid public concerns. The benefits of improving knowledge about the past are insignificant when the very reason that we have that knowledge is due to environmental destruction. This smoke and mirrors is not going unnoticed either, with The Independent recently running an article titled ‘Is archaeology being used to make HS2 look good?’ (text accessible here). 


People will dismiss these concerns as naive. In an ideal world, archaeologists would only be needed for sustainable social housing projects, where everyone is paid fairly, the weather is consistently balmy, and we find the Holy Grail. I know that this blue-sky thinking is not commercially viable, and that people have had to fight to get archaeologists on development sites. I am not suggesting that archaeology retreats from any projects with a negative environmental impact, but I do not agree that we can pretend that the knowledge we learn from the historic environment is of equal or higher value to local people, or society at large, than living in a safe and clean environment. 


As more and more HS2 discoveries hit the news, archaeology further cements the project as a positive endeavour, adorning us with brilliant knowledge about past people (and feeding nationalist ideas about the exceptionalism of Britain, but that is for another blog…) The ability to plan a public engagement strategy in advance is being lauded by CIfA, with HS2 representatives speaking at their upcoming conference. This is just one example of the toxic relationship growing between public archaeology and polluters, but I fear that the preservation of the historic environment will be used increasingly frequently to justify the destruction of the natural world. At the same time, archaeologists’ main focus seems to be on the loss of archaeology due to the climate crisis, with shockingly little responsibility being taken for our role in destructive industries. At a time when museums are under fire for accepting money from fossil fuel giants, where is the outrage at archaeology’s willingness to shield polluters from the public that they are harming, and pretend that it is a service? 


It should, at the very least, be deeply concerning to archaeologists that the bodies who govern us are willing to be tools of the perpetrators of climate destruction, if not a call to drastically revise our leadership and the discipline’s priorities to adequately appreciate the role of archaeology in a climate emergency.  In our current situation, ethical public archaeology cannot exist without addressing the impact that our work has on the climate. We cannot allow public archaeology to continue to be weaponised against the public in the interests of polluting corporations, and we need to drastically revise the mechanisms which have led to this being viewed as acceptable across the discipline.


Ellie Chambers is a PhD researcher at the University of Chester. You can find her on Twitter at @ellie_chambers2 or on her website 

All opinions expressed here are Ellie’s own.

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