Archaeology and heritage

Archaeology and heritage – how positive PR can turn an inconvenience into a triumph for a developer

The role of developers as benefactors to the nation’s heritage, rather than its despoilers, should be clearly understood

Otherwise entitled “Herein lies the opportunity for developers”, we asked Helen Martin-Bacon of Commercial Archaeology for a personal overview of her experiences of all things heritage and archaeological – and why a chance discovery can sometimes turn out to be a blessing in disguise. 

And as you will see, she doesn’t pull any punches…

When I first started my career in archaeology in the late 1970s public views of archaeology were generally fairly low. The reaction of people I knew at the time to my heartfelt desire to make archaeology my career was either bewilderment or derision and during my time in the field I heard many public definitions of archaeology including:

  • Digging up old bricks and stuff
  • Looking for dinosaurs
  • Farting around with a trowel and a brush
  • Looking for gold.

Perhaps each definition has a modicum of truth to it but all are very wide of the mark.

Similarly, from developer clients I have also heard archaeology defined in a variety of ways (some not repeatable!!) and these have included:

  • An obstruction
  • An irritation
  • Pointless
  • An unwanted cost.

This is perhaps understandable.

A developer’s job is to provide for the living and not the dead and even as a heritage professional I can sympathise with a developer who is facing substantial costs and time delays because the Romans decided to build a villa in the middle of their application area.

Please don’t blame me, I find myself saying to an irate client, it’s the Romans’ fault!

How “contamination” can provide a positive PR source

Put simply, archaeological remains are a form of ground contamination to a developer and they need to be ‘sterilised’ if planning conditions require it. However, archaeological remains are the only form of contamination which can offer a developer an incredibly valuable source of positive PR if handled correctly.

There has been a huge sea change over the past decade in the way the British public view archaeology. Archaeologists are no longer viewed as bearded weirdos doing a job which is of little use to anyone but are now valued professionals who provide the public with a conduit to their collective heritage. This transformation of public opinion has been driven by a number of factors such as the popularity of TV documentaries, Time Team has been a strong influence, but also by deeper drivers such as reactions against globalisation and questions of national identity and collective heritage.

However, whilst the popular view of archaeology as a profession has changed for the better, there is still a great amount of misunderstanding amongst the public regarding how archaeology in the UK works.

Why developers are often the “good guys”

Specifically, the misconception that developers are the destroyers of the country’s archaeological heritage rather than the enablers of archaeological investigation is still quite widespread.

I have seen many a developer berated at heated public consultations with accusations, usually mistaken, that their intention is to ride rough-shod over concerns about the impacts of a scheme on local heritage and archaeology. I have also seen local heritage and archaeology assets hi-jacked to gather local opposition to an unpopular scheme even when they are not really relevant to it.

Herein lies the opportunity for developers…

Garnering popular enthusiasm for the country’s heritage, both on a local, regional and national level, can pay huge dividends for a developer especially where proposed schemes are controversial or unpopular. As a developer is having to fund archaeological investigation to fulfil a planning condition why not maximise that financial outlay by employing positive PR to assuage public opposition or even simply to establish in the public psyche that actually the developer is a major contributor to the country’s collective heritage and should be appreciated for that.

Whether positive heritage PR is channelled through outreach activities, for example open days on interesting archaeological sites or exhibitions in local libraries, where a developer embraces public engagement in the archaeological investigations they are funding, the benefits can be considerable. The goodwill generated when a developer engages the public in the archaeological work they are paying for should never be underestimated.

The role of developers as benefactors to the nation’s heritage, rather than its despoilers, should be clearly understood as a major national benefit and managed correctly PR based around heritage and archaeology can do this very effectively.