Archaeology needs to recover its core principles and ethics


OPINION:There was lively debate on the M3 motorway at the recent World Archaeological Congress in Dublin but also disturbing developments about the congress itself, writes Maggie Ronayne

The World Archaeological Congress (WAC) was founded in 1986 when archaeologists decided to implement the UN-sanctioned cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa.

Yet at the congress that concluded in Dublin on July 4th, there was an attempt to co-opt the profession to serve development by multinationals. The presence of the US military shocked many, as did sponsorship by Rio Tinto, the mining and exploration company.

The programme for the Dublin congress intended to ignore Tara and the M3, the biggest controversy in Irish archaeology since Wood Quay in 1979 - not surprising given that the National Roads Authority (NRA) was one of its sponsors. I pressed for debate and campaigners urged me on.

A Tara panel, scene of stormy presentations from various sides, did eventually occur. A good precedent was set: campaigners participated and proposed resolutions. Voting on resolutions opposing cultural destruction by the M3 was too close to call more than once and they were forwarded to the WAC's assembly for discussion. On July 11th, the WAC issued a press release on Tara and the M3 which said: "We do not question the validity of the planning process undertaken in Ireland."

Many of us clearly do.

My article in Public Archaeologyabout road development in Ireland and corruption in development planning processes was widely circulated. Most archaeologists are now employed by private companies on temporary, short-term contracts. As in other countries, this has gone in tandem with increasingly bureaucratic, corporate control of universities and pressure on academics to orient our teaching to prioritise the needs of industry.

Crucial questions of professional ethics and standards, particularly our accountability to the community, are sidelined. Colleagues in the private sector give regular reports of bad practice and cutting corners on roads projects, including the M3. I quoted an archaeologist who directed test-trenching on the M3 route: "A number of times, I was told to change an interpretation which served to lessen the potential or numbers of sites."

Reports from this fieldwork informed the Minister for the Environment's decision on salvage excavation licences for the M3.

The article provoked international debate and an outpouring via e-mail and phone; people seemed to need to get out of their system what they had swallowed for years.

Field colleagues contacted me to confirm they also had experienced bad practices on the road projects but, for the most part, those on precarious, temporary contracts don't come forward; they fear being sacked, blacklisted or bullied out of their profession.

There is lip service to heritage but the Government tends to protect the roads industry while archaeologists are used to destroy archaeology - not only physical remains but also our profession's core principles.

There are new structures in place that invite us to contravene basic standards and enable bad practice. For example, a developer's archaeologists oversee those doing the testing for potential archaeology on a road route; they have sight of, and admit they may comment on or edit, test-trenching reports. Notwithstanding the best intentions of the NRA's archaeologists, the developer employs them and there is a built-in conflict of interest. This needs changing.

Much is made of whether archaeology could stop projects like the M3. My experience working with communities in campaigns against cultural destruction in various countries is that archaeology alone rarely stops developers.

Problems with archaeology on the M3 should surely be investigated but by a people's inquiry (facilitated by academia perhaps) also looking at reported land speculation and toll profits, failure to consider cheaper and more effective public transport or energy provision, the circumstances surrounding the sale of national resources to the private sector, attempts to divide local communities and failure to properly consult and inform them, involvement of multinationals with links to corrupt development elsewhere or profiteering in war zones, and an investigation of all the professional structures and the often strange planning decisions that permit disputed developments.

These are issues that communities all over Ireland and worldwide struggle with as they fight for their lives, livelihoods, land and culture. The M3 construction and indeed other disputed developments such as Shell's pipeline and refinery in Mayo, must stop while this inquiry happens; we have won the battle to halt far bigger developments - it is never too late.

The Tara debate was the talk of the congress; many international colleagues expressed shock at the remarks of Brian Duffy, the State's chief archaeologist: "I don't care where the money comes from if it pays for good archaeological work."

Many felt that the partisan nature of the State sector indicated that few field colleagues in the private sector would consider reporting instances of bad practice. Following the debate on Tara and several similar cases from other countries, WAC's final plenary passed the following resolution: "Noting the increasing role of the private sector/cultural resource management in the profession, the World Archaeological Congress expresses serious concern at the potential for erosion of standards and professional ethics. The congress calls for explicit inclusion of these concerns in its Code of Ethics. The congress calls on all colleagues to support those field archaeologists working in the private sector, who are striving to maintain professional standards in difficult conditions."

There have been recent reports on the reversal of privatisation in New Zealand, reflecting a growing trend. There is a similar feeling in archaeology that independent regulation of this sector is needed with some advocating a return to archaeology as a wholly public sector service. Others besides me think that Ireland might provide a model.

As recession hits and the corporations seek others who will do the work for less, who will defend our standards and values based on the autonomy of professions? What will remain of our cultural roots, so vital to sustaining this island's communities?

Those defending our heritage are not opposing development; rather, we support communities pressing for development which meets their needs.

One thing is sure: embedding ourselves with destroyers of culture and communities, with its brown envelope culture, supports neither professions, nor communities, nor cultural heritage nor this island's future. Ireland and the wider world are in a "state of chassis" once again, and it is time to speak out.

• Maggie Ronayne is a lecturer in archaeology at NUI Galway