Making Choices: Valletta, Development, Archaeology and Society

Barney Sloane

Cite this as: Sloane, B. 2018 Making Choices: Valletta, Development, Archaeology and Society, Internet Archaeology 49.

1. Introduction

The annual symposium of the European Archaeological Council (EAC), took place in Amersfoort in March 2014. The theme was Setting the Agenda: Giving new meaning to the European archaeological heritage. One of the three themes considered was 'Dare to Choose' — decision-making in archaeological heritage management. This priority responded to the recognition that, in terms of archaeological sites,

"there is a growing acceptance that not everything necessarily has the same value and significance (even in strictly academic terms); that not everything can (or should) be protected or conserved (there's simply too much); and that not everything can (or should) be recorded/excavated (there are insufficient resources).' (Olivier 2014, 13).

This is a hugely important observation, since there may be circumstances (such as in the operation of a state's spatial planning policy) where decisions may be challenged for a variety of 'non-heritage' related reasons, or where the consequences and impacts of those decisions may be unpopular in a social context, or even financially unsustainable. For obvious reasons, it is then vital that the decision-making process, and the evidence on which those decisions are based, are clear, transparent, and open to public scrutiny.

The outcome of the symposium was published in the Amersfoort Agenda in 2015 (EAC 2015), and challenged archaeologists to consider how we might best begin to tackle a transformation in the way we approach our archaeological heritage management and, at the same time, the increasing external pressures on resources we have to undertake that management. The proposed transformation was framed within three key objectives:

Following the publication of the Amersfoort Agenda, the Board of the EAC worked to develop an action plan through which it would be possible to translate these objectives into reality. The mechanism was the setting up of an EAC Working Group on 'Making Choices'. The working group's first objective was to understand better the context in which archaeological choices are made and, crucially, the current level of application of any clear criteria for making such choices.

The importance of choice in the management of development-led archaeology (also known as 'preventive', 'rescue', 'investment-led' archaeology, where the location of any investigation is decided not by archaeological research drivers but by spatial planning and land-development decisions) was considered to be a vital component of this, attracting as it does both public and private funding in the majority and bringing significant concerns from a wide variety of stakeholders regarding such matters as funding, timing and the design of the investigation. To gather suitable evidence, a survey of member states was undertaken.

It should be noted that the relationship between the individual legal frameworks governing the protection and investigation of archaeological heritage in each state and the professional judgements reached by those charged with managing and undertaking investigation and research is very important. In some states any archaeological site which is older than a particular date is automatically given legal protection. In others, there are criteria enshrined in law about what kinds of remains are 'monuments' which can be given legal protection. Whatever the legal structure, choices and the criteria informing them are a key part of archaeological heritage management.

2. The survey

Between December 15th 2016 and February 14th 2017, EAC member states were invited to complete a survey which was designed around the relevant key articles in the Valletta and Faro Conventions. The survey asked 23 questions about the way in which decision-makers for archaeological heritage management make their choices. A total of 22 substantive responses were received (Figure 1). This included regional responses as follows: one Italian region (Trento), one Swiss Canton (Berne), and two German Länder (Baaden-Württemberg, Bavaria).

Figure 1
Figure 1: Distribution of countries responding to the survey

The structure of the survey focused on four key areas, namely: characterisation, inventorisation and protection; investigation and proportionality, research and skills; legacy, dissemination and archives; and funding and public involvement. It further asked for views from each state as to how the EAC might be able to help in developing guidance or support tools.

The results provided a fascinating insight into the application of Valletta across much of Europe. Unsurprisingly, there was more that united state approaches than divided them, but the variety of policies and practices adopted is significant. The full report of the working group will be published on the EAC website in spring 2018. This article provides a quick summary of the key findings.

3. Classification, inventorisation and protection

The most fundamental choice that any state must make is what archaeological heritage is protected by its laws. All respondents recognise the particular significance of World Heritage Sites in addition to their own list of protected archaeological monuments, but member states divide here broadly into two camps. The first group protects all archaeological remains whatever their nature — there is no choice in this matter. The second group applies certain criteria to protect the archaeology of greater importance. The most common criterion was the age or date of the site — with more than half of states setting a general expectation that archaeological remains must be older than a certain date, and others requiring the remains to be more than a century old (for example). However, other criteria were identified, including symbolic value; aesthetic, technical or intrinsic value; architectural design, urban design and landscape context; intangible value/collective memory; research and scientific historic value; and condition. Here, there is clearly choice and, consequently, the exercise of professional, informed judgement. All respondents recognise the particular significance of World Heritage Sites in addition to their own list of protected archaeological monuments.

Inventorisation of these sites is increasingly managed through a form of archaeological atlas, where the sites are located on a map (often now digital), and some of their attributes recorded (often now in a database). Further levels of professional judgement (informed also by practical considerations) are required to determine what exactly is being protected. This may be fairly clear in the case of a Roman fort or medieval castle, but is much less clear in the case of a prehistoric field system.

Some states have more than the one 'list' of protected sites. This allows for the classification of sites which are not immediately judged as so important that they receive full legal protection, but which still have evident value and significance. The management of change of these sites (such as through the impact of land development) can therefore take this significance into account.

Beyond these broad frameworks, no states operate any explicit ranking of comparative significance for archaeological sites. By this we mean that the basis for legal protection of, for example, an early medieval graveyard may simply be that (a) it is early medieval and (b) that it is a graveyard. This clearly makes for a simpler legal framework but is an important factor when decisions about change management are required, and a subject upon which fully 50% the survey respondents wanted guidance or support.

4. Sensitivity to change: what to keep and what to lose

Whether the state legal system protects all archaeology automatically or whether only some identified sites meet the grade required by the criteria, for most states there will be decisions to make when a proposal is made to change the nature of that site. This is most often as a result of land development, although other activities — pure research, erosion or agricultural activity — may trigger management decisions. Such management decisions revolve around three basic questions:

This approach to choice should result in a decision which is proportionate and reasonable. It could range from a decision to keep the site unchanged completely, through to the lightest of investigative responses. It should take into account the practicalities of the case (such as physical accessibility, ability to fund, urgency of the change and so on). Critically, a framework for such decisions can be developed well in advance of any particular proposal meaning that all stakeholders can work from the same starting point.

The assessment of significance requires some form of benchmarking capability to provide appropriate context. A number of mechanisms for creating this capability can be envisaged: direct professional knowledge of the decision-makers; access to distributed expertise (such as through experts in universities, museums and/or archaeological units, or through knowledge in libraries, on the web etc.); or more formal priority-focused research frameworks. It can be inferred from the survey results that the first two approaches are the most commonly used. Only four states have a published national framework of scientific or research objectives for archaeological work. In three further states, there are some regional frameworks, or ones concerned with particular sites, areas or themes (such as World Heritage Sites). The remaining 15 states do not have any formal framework. In some cases, work towards producing a national framework is taking place. The absence of a framework, emphatically, does not mean that there is no understanding. It does however mean that there is no formal national research agenda and, without this, (especially to those outside the archaeological community) there may be a perceived lack of transparency in the decision-making process. This may be why 27% of responding states specifically requested guidance on setting up research frameworks or effectively synthesising the results of past investigations.

In contrast, all 22 states seek a clear understanding of the physical impact of proposed change, at least where human agency is involved. Almost all surveyed states choose to require the excavation only of the portion of a site that will be removed or impacted by the change. But this focus appears primarily to be on the physical nature of the impact (how much physically will be lost) rather than a more nuanced assessment of the impact on the site's significance (what knowledge or value will be lost).

As far as stakeholder representation in such decision-making is concerned, the key players appear to be the state representatives, the archaeologists and the funders (if different from the first). Public involvement in the process is seen as occurring earlier in the sequence, during the decision-making about any planning application. Once that decision has been made, few states see any potential (and possibly have little appetite) for meaningful public engagement. Experimental new models here may provide new ways of compliance with the Faro Convention.

Overall, there is a clear opportunity for the expression of choice to be more clearly informed by current knowledge; for research priorities at a national, regional and local scale to be considered; and for more nuanced approaches to decision-making on each site to be articulated to non-specialist stakeholders at a point well before any specific change is proposed. Setting an early framework for such decisions will be of great benefit when, for example, a new development scheme is introduced.

5. Designing the investigation

The third key area where choice and professional judgement is regularly exercised by decision-makers is in the designing of the specific archaeological project. Here, decisions focus around linked issues of the practicalities and intellectual thrust and legacy of the investigation. In development-led archaeology, this is perhaps the most frequent focus for debate, negotiation (and possibly dispute) as it is where the full economic cost — measured both in financial impact and indirect impacts of time (often characterised as 'delay') — becomes clear. Choices at this stage can be used as powerful illustrations of cause and effect, giving transparency to the stakeholders in the process and justification for resources required.

The survey showed that almost all states consider the physical impact on a site. So stakeholders can agree how much and which parts of a site will be disturbed or removed as part of the proposed change. Less clear are the criteria used to assess the significance of what will be lost in terms of the importance or significance of the site. One key to this is the articulation of a research design, which sets out the objectives of the investigation in archaeological terms and prescribes the methods to be used to achieve them. Most, but not all, states (n=15) require some kind of written proposal or project design for archaeological investigations, but this obligation varies depending on the type of the excavated site and the causes of archaeological fieldwork: in a number of cases this is related only to formally protected sites. In some states, the research design is preceded by an assessment of the importance of the site regarding territorial planning and present knowledge of the site obtained by archival research.

In the Baltic countries, the research design is also submitted to the owner or investor and may even be subject to their approval. In these cases, the research design is not exclusively a means of ensuring the quality and scientific level of archaeological fieldwork. Such communication with the investor also allows basic control of the intended fieldwork, and promotes transparency of the decision-making process.

However, there seems to be a significant contrast between the fairly widespread use of research designs for individual investigations and the relative absence of wider national frameworks of objectives noted above. For 10 of the 15 states which require a research design, there is no national framework to which these might be linked. This suggests that the development of research goals is arrived at through a less formal intellectual process, perhaps combining personal knowledge, library use and peer advice.

For the five states that neither used research frameworks nor required research designs, oversight of the scientific outcomes was obtained in a number of ways. In some cases 'quality assurance' was the objective, achieved through review of proposals and licences before work starts. In other cases the mechanism was the monitoring of work as it is undertaken, and/or through formal review of completed reports. Some states simply required that a report must be published (which makes the results open to the normal processes of academic review and criticism).

The scientific legacy of investigations is also of central importance in considering the future of the resulting archives. Only one state specifically referenced the need for a formal archive strategy in the project design for an investigation, and only four states specified any limitations on what should be selected on-site for retention. For the remainder, the assumption was that everything the archaeologists deemed worthy of keeping ought to be kept. Despite the existence of an EAC standard and guidance for archaeological archives, only six states specified the use of any standard or policy. This is against a background of known pressure on storage space across member states. More judicious selection and retention would be beneficial, linked to the significance of the site and the artefacts.

In terms of 'making choices' the approach to a more rigorous design, with a focus on what is significant, is an aspect of archaeological conduct that is of central importance. Without being explicit about what we set out to do, how can we know afterwards how well we have succeeded? Guidance about linking research designs to perceived significance may be very valuable.

6. Public value

Wider public involvement in development-led archaeology is a complex area. The survey suggested that states do welcome the involvement of the public as recipients of knowledge. Common themes were:

As far as participation is concerned a number of practical barriers were noted: commercial arrangements that require the excavation, time constraints, health and safety constraints, and the management/supervision of people on site. This last appears to be seen as an important aspect of ensuring the remains are being investigated by people who are qualified and experienced in the activity, and who can be relied upon to do the work to a good professional standard.

There is an evident tension here between what seems to be right for the professional conduct of archaeology, often on busy and dangerous development sites, and the objective in Article 12 a of the Faro Convention which asks signatories to 'encourage everyone to participate in the process of identification, study, interpretation, protection, conservation and presentation of the cultural heritage'. Two philosophical directions are possible: to accept that there are practical limits to public participation in some aspects of cultural heritage, or to think more creatively (and perhaps more bravely) about how such barriers could be set aside.

In thinking more creatively about engagement and participation, one aspect of the survey which was not the subject of a formal question seems to be highly relevant. About a third of respondents, when asked how EAC could help them perform their role as archaeological heritage managers, expressed a desire for support in advocating the value of development-led archaeology better. The Working Group considered this through the lens of what public value or benefits archaeology brought to society and it became clear that there are multiple benefits. Central of course is the reason which Valletta recognised — to enhance our knowledge of the history of mankind and its relation with the natural environment. But there are others, all interlocking of course, but whose impacts have not been properly explored. These include:

When considering these, it will be evident that both the investor (state or private) paying for the investigation and the society in receipt of its results and outcomes will be able to share benefits. How we attempt to measure the benefits is something that could fruitfully be discussed further. In terms of the public at large, it may be equally true that participation in realising these benefits will be as inspiring as any opportunity to take up a trowel and dig.

The key points in the report upon which this article is based will feed into the EAC forward strategy and, it is hoped, to changes in the manner in which we all make choices for our shared archaeological heritage. The full Working Group report can be found on the EAC website.


This article benefited enormously from the work of the EAC Making Choices Working Group: Bernhard Hebert (Austria); Ann DeGraeve (Belgium); Jan Marik (Czech Republic); Adrian Olivier and Roger Thomas (England); Eszter Kreiter and Katalin Wollak (Hungary); Sean Kirwan (Ireland); John O'Keefe (Northern Ireland); Eva Skyllberg (Sweden). I am also very grateful to Angharad Bullward, Desislava Gradinarova and Djurra Scharff for their assistance with Working Group coordination.


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