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Archaeology and Contemporary Society

By news editor, on 15 March 2012

With on-going national debates about cultural identity, funding for the arts, planning and the environment, there is no doubt that archaeology has a role to play in contemporary society.

On 12 March, the UCL Institute of Archaeology hosted a panel debate on this topic as part of a programme of events to mark its 75th anniversary.

The debate was chaired by cultural analyst and consultant Professor Sara Selwood and the panellists represented a very diverse set of viewpoints on archaeology and the human past.

Marxist intellectual Neil Faulkner has worked in community archaeology for many years following a PhD at UCL; sociologist Tiffany Jenkins directs the arts programme at the Institute of Ideas and has written widely on heritage and museums issues; Ben Cowell is the author of The Heritage Obsession (The History Press Ltd.) and works as assistant director of external affairs for the National Trust; and Nathan Schlanger coordinates research on archaeology and development for INRAP, the French national institute for preventative archaeological research.

Professor Selwood opened the questioning with some general remarks on archaeology in society and the panel responded vigorously, with Faulkner in particular offering a searing Marxist critique of the economic crisis and its largely negative effects on the world of archaeology.

Jenkins emerged as the most confident and forthright of the speakers, offering convincing and opinionated answers to many of the questions. Questions from the audience ranged across issues of inclusion, the values of archaeology and the boundaries of the discipline.

Schlanger provided a valuable European perspective on many of these questions, and Cowell added an insider’s view of the political sphere. A question from Sefryn Penrose, a graduate archaeology student at Oxford, raised the issue of archaeological approaches to modern society and Faulkner seized upon the excavation of a transit van by Bristol University as an example of contemporary archaeology going too far into self-referential idiocy – a view that was hotly contested by some in the audience.

As we left the lecture hall and moved outside for a reception I could hear many of the points raised in the debate being argued and picked apart by members of the audience and the panel – a sure sign that they had raised some vital and sensitive issues and created a lively and intellectually stimulating event.

The ‘Archaeology and Contemporary Society’ Debate was one of a series of events being held to mark the UCL Institute of Archaeology’s 75th anniversary.

Review by Dr Gabriel Moshenska, UCL Institute of Archaeology.

Watch the debate again at: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/calendar/articles/20120312

Image credit: Ken Walton

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