I am delighted to learn that Wales has a new heritage bill as outlined here and here. This is great news and I’m looking forward to learning how the bill, if it does go through, will help support the fragile resources of Wales’s ancient monuments and historic buildings. In particular, I’m interested in whether it can prevent the theft, deliberate and accidental damage to historic churches, chapels and their associated burial grounds. Also from an archaeodeath perspective, I have two serious questions.
Support Welsh Archaeology!
First, the bill needs to be matched with a u-turn to prevent the erosion of HE provision for archaeological teaching in Wales, continued support for the UK’s last-remaining Royal Commission: the RCHMW, our ANOBs, the four Welsh trusts and local museums and local government, all of whom have worked hard over the long term against shrinking budgets to maintain research, education, management and conservation of Wales’s many cultural assets.
To add to this, governmental support to foster and facilitate the work of community groups and local volunteers is desperately needed. Equally, the important work of archaeological consultants and commercial units, including third sector employers, needs careful consideration and inclusion in any broader vision for Welsh heritage.
In short, protecting monuments is a tiny fraction of the big picture, and the big picture is less than rosy. Colleagues in Wales, as in England, speak of a spiral downwards in funding, support and vision for archaeological research and teaching, and this is surely the next challenge.
Research and Education for Protection
In my view, it all begins with universities, both in Wales and elsewhere in the UK. If we don’t have a steady flow of promising students training in archaeology and heritage, we cannot create and foster the next generation of archaeologists working in the academic, governmental, commercial and museum sectors. We cannot let this long-term infrastructure disappear and it might well happen if things go down the route of parts of England, where wholesale closure of Historic Environment offices and museums is now taking place.
Without this wider support, it is not simply individual monuments that remain at risk in the medium-long term, it is entire cultural landscapes from upland relict field systems and cairns, Roman forts and early medieval stones, to historic townscapes and castles.
Protecting the Dykes!
For example, the early medieval linear earthworks of the Welsh border are a case in point. Sometimes in England, sometimes in Wales, running through upland, farmland, villages and suburbs, Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke are a unique pair of monuments that reveal complex, rich and varied stories about Wales, its origins and history as well as about communities today. They are constantly under threat from damage and neglect, allowing ridiculous situations to arise like the debacle of destruction at Chirk as discussed here.
What of the Dragons?
Oh, and a final point. Will the heritage bill ensure the protection of Wales’ most rare of heritage resources: dragons! My kids have been working to protect the iron ‘dragon egg’ sculpture in our local country park at Alyn Waters, and yet these future-dragons seemto have no official heritage protection whatsoever!
This might seem a frivolous point, but there is an underlying very serious question. When will heritage legislation be extended beyond the tangible. When will folklore, legend and the mythical realm of stories be part of the protected heritage? How can we work towards the protection of intangible places and environments which are so central to the cultural imagination of western Britain?
For me, it is the intersection between tangible and intangible heritage – social memories that materialise in some places, but relate to broader networks of stories and substance, that are the key to a new framework for understanding the historic environment.