Archaeology in Ireland can be proud of its standards


OPINION:Archaeologists are strictly regulated and are motivated by a deep and genuine interest in the past and its remains, writes Margaret Gowen.

MAGGIE RONAYNE'S article (Archaeology needs to recover its core principles and ethics, The Irish Times, July 15th) displays a remarkably inaccurate, wildly biased, and completely unfounded perspective on the practice of archaeology, and especially commercial archaeology, in Ireland.

In her article, Ronayne wrote that crucial questions of professional ethics and standards, particularly archaeologists' accountability to the community, had been sidelined. She claimed that lip service was paid to heritage but the Government tended to protect the roads industry while archaeologists were used to destroy archaeology.

In my view, all archaeologists are motivated by a deep and genuine interest in the past and its material remains. The guiding influence of past generations and the training that have shaped the development of modern archaeology embody universally accepted ethical principles. These have been formulated over time in relation to the preservation, study, excavation, analysis and dissemination of professional work.

As someone who has spent over 25 years working in commercial archaeology and developing standards of practice in that context, I and a great many of my commercial archaeology colleagues take great offence at the accusation that "archaeologists are used to destroy archaeology - not only physical remains but also our profession's core principles".

Commercial archaeologists primarily mediate for the heritage resource in development planning, using the policy presumption for preservation of archaeological remains first and foremost. They engage in the scientific excavation and recording of archaeological sites only where this is deemed, by the State, to be appropriate.

Our work is underpinned by the European Convention on the Protection of Archaeological Heritage (1992), which was ratified by Ireland in 1997. The Irish National Monuments Acts (1930 - 2004), and their particular interface with the Planning and Development Acts (1963, 2000, 2004 and 2006) embody a rigorous regulatory system, considered to be one of the most strict in Europe.

Ronayne's campaign, extremely anti-development as it is, seeks to persuade the public of her case by singling out the archaeological profession for her extreme views.

Members of the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland are drawn from all sectors of the profession (academic, State sector heritage management, local government, museums, State agencies and the private sector, from graduate level to the most senior positions within the profession). The institute's members all adhere to its code of practice and its guidelines on best practice, each of which embody a range of fundamental ethical principles in relation to professional conduct. The institute has received no complaints of malpractice and no representation from site-based staff in relation to conditions of employment or standards of practice.

Commercial (market-led) archaeology has been long established internationally. The market is an artificial one, however, that exists only because State legislation requires and upholds the protection and management of heritage and the archaeological resource (a non-renewable resource).

As with other forms of environmental protection and control, the Irish State and many other European states have adopted a "polluter pays" principle to the payment for such protection and management. Commercial archaeologists therefore serve a variety of State, community, professional and client stakeholders in a highly regulated professional environment.

A fundamental error made by Ronayne is her premise that a commissioning client for commercial archaeological work has an undue, if not sole, right of influence on the nature and quality of the work undertaken. She also tries to persuade her readers that the influence of a commissioning client will always be negative for heritage. This is simply not supportable, nor is there any evidence to back it up.

The role of archaeologists involved in development projects is a dual one. Rather than taking the position of anti-development campaigners, they can and do play an important constructive role in terms of protecting archaeological heritage and minimising the impact of a development. They also maximise the return to knowledge through archaeological discovery and research arising as a consequence of development.

If mistakes have been made in the past, they have been made through a failure on the part of the profession, generally, to communicate the case for archaeology and for archaeological landscapes adequately within the due process of planning.

What has been recognised, especially in recent years, is that the profession must seek to assist in integrating archaeological practice more fully within spatial planning and, more importantly, must seek to achieve the appropriate weighting of their particular concerns, among a myriad of others, in that context. This now, incontrovertibly, extends to a need for the statutory designation and management of important archaeological landscapes.

What is so depressing about Ronayne's viewpoint is that it fails to acknowledge that, in compliance with best international practice and standards, an extraordinary amount of seriously good, highly regulated, successful, licensed - and publicly presented - archaeological work has been undertaken and underwritten by State agencies and private developers in Ireland over the past 20 years.

Delegates at the recent 6th World Archaeological Congress (WAC) in Dublin were singularly impressed by what they heard and saw of Irish archaeology.

Of great importance was the well-considered statement from the congress, reflecting the concern of the archaeological profession in Ireland, in expressing opposition to any further concerted development along the route of the M3 motorway, a position supported by Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, John Gormley. Secondary development now poses a much greater threat to the Tara landscape. Our efforts as archaeologists should concentrate on convincing Government and all stakeholders to define, protect and manage that landscape and others.

• Margaret Gowen is chairwoman of the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland