Today, the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, signed a letter officially notifying the European Council’s president of the UK’s intention to withdraw from the union as required under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. This ‘historical moment’ is what the press love, but it is part of a long and complex, ugly and acrimonious process that will be costly for our past as well as our future.
With permission, today I photographed one of my colleague’s offices at the University of Chester. Like me, she is a Europhile and voted against leaving the EU. Like most historians, heritage specialists and archaeologists, she has been astounded by the unfolding horror of Brexit since the referendum result of June 2016. For her, I suspect the dismay is political and ideological as much as it is economic and academic, rooted in a keen awareness of Europe’s distant and recent past, and the many terrors and atrocities that a union was intended to combat.
For me, it is perhaps more prosaic, a desperate sadness and frustration at the maelstrom of wasted time, energy, argument, anger and money that will be involved in a process that has no plan and no predictable end in sight. We both see it as pandering to fascists in our society and fulfilling an agenda of the far-right: a failed attempt to sort out long-running disputes among the Conservative Party for which the UK population must now pay the price. We are already seeing the fall-out of this new politics in the treatment of refugees and the cuts to public services, but also in attitudes towards the humanities and towards cultural heritage, history and archaeology.
In many ways, her deployment of the European flag is a shorthand for many concerns and affiliations, not necessarily with all the EU does and has done, but will the hopes and aspirations, benefits and allegiances it denotes.
However, rather than attempt to tackle the broader issues regarding Brexit and its origins and contexts, I want to address specific connections between Brexit and archaeology. What are they? There are many! I suppose your tuning in in anticipation of an erudite critique of Brexit from the perspective of an academic and archaeologist. An impassioned call to support archaeology and archaeologists in the face of massive impending cuts to legislation which protects and manages our cultural heritage, and the funding to curate and deploy it. I can’t promise this, because so far this year my only response has been a KLF-style scream:
“2017: WHAT THE FxxKS GOING ON?!?!?”
Therefore, please consider below a working document and I hope to refine it in the light of comments and queries.
The Views of Heritage Specialists and Archaeologists
Before you read this and think I’m a lone voice in the wilderness (since perhaps you are keen to regard me as a disconnected ivory tower academic who cares little about the real world), let’s clear one thing up. Across the archaeology and heritage sectors, Brexit is regarded by almost all commentators and experts as a potential disaster for heritage assets, museums and landscapes requiring management and conservation, as well as for those serving to educate and research Britain’s past. It also constitutes a political shambles of misdirection and delusional thinking about what it means to be ‘British’ and/or ‘English’. In particular, it represents the wholesale abuse of the past in the present. As one colleague stated to me: never as public archaeology and public history been more important than now, given the widespread manipulation of the distant and recent past we’ve seen in the media over the last 18 months.
As well as various views on Brexit by commentators in the arts and humanities, the Council for British Archaeology published an immediate post-referendum response to Brexit outlining its many serious potential threats. Likewise, there is a statement by the Museums Association, immediately post-referendum, about the profound implications for museums including the significant tightening on public spending and access to regional funding, cultural funding and university and research funding. Subsequently, the Society of Antiquaries of London, of which I am a Fellow, published a Brexit special of their SALON (online newsletter). You will see a litany of the great, the good and the brilliant in the world of archaeology, heritage and history expressing an almost-united view that Brexit is a needless and unstoppable threat to archaeology, history and heritage.
Issues for Practitioners and Assets
We’ve already seen that it is not only what Brexit does, but the uncertainty it brings. Consequently Brexit has already had massive effects. What its lasting effects will be, I cannot say at this stage, so much is still speculation and concern. However, it is worth stating that Brexit potentially affects every part of the UK, its seascapes and its landscapes, as well as the museums, heritage sites and historic landscapes, as well as the trade in cultural objects.
Brexit also threatens the livelihoods and security of UK archaeologists struggling to retain funding and a platform to conduct their work. I’m already aware of projects forestalled and abandoned, and those not afforded jobs because of the shift in behaviour and expectations in the wake of the referendum.
It also promises to impede the careers of archaeologists and heritage professionals with EU citizenship working in the UK. Already, I’ve heard heartbreaking stories of new challenges and uncertainties, racism and other personal abuses suffered since the Brexit vote. It also affects significantly the recruitment and experience of EU students wishing to study for UK academic degrees in archaeology, heritage and museums studies and the fortunes of UK students and scholars working abroad.
The Politics of the Past
Underlying all of this is the political and popular abuses of the past to justify and manipulate the debate about Britishness and Englishness in the run-up and aftermath of the referendum. The abuse of archaeology has taken place wholesale on both sides of the debate, with a focus on the ‘island’ identity of Britain and ‘England’ in particular. Such appropriations and manipulations of Britishness and Englishness have many tendrils, and while most are rooted in our recent past, but others stretching back into the Middle Ages, Antiquity and Prehistory.
For the Middle Ages, the nature and character of Anglo-Saxon origins and the Norman invasion have figured in Brexit debates. I won’t cite examples here on purpose, for encouraging traffic to banal and wrong narratives from my blog. Some see a fantasy of valorising immigration and the ‘mongrel’ nation in the history of these island, as a vain attempt to justify the ‘naturalness’ of the EU. Others, particularly the far-right and ancestry obsessives, find new fantasies in traditional archaeological evidence and discoveries, historical metanarratives, as well as new DNA and other scientific studies regarding struggles to define Britain’s distinctiveness and cohesion in the past despite the onset of many waves of successful and would-be invaders. Anti-immigrant and anti-EU narratives have won the day in such popular discourses on the past, despite the complex history of migration and Continental connections which is revealed in the long-term prehistory and history of these islands.
Archaeology as Perspective
Academic engagement with Brexit beyond comments via social media and institutional statements have been more limited as yet. In terms of academic published responses, there are currently few but there will be more in coming months and years. One early kick-off regarding archaeology and Brexit is a recently published journal article by Dr Andy Gardner. He has written about Brexit and archaeology for the Journal of Social Archaeology from a perspective of ‘Border Studies’. He recognises Brexit in terms of how archaeologists often become embroiled, even culpable, in historical legitimacy claims as mentioned above.
Yet this isn’t his primary focus; more than this he argues that archaeology offers long-term comprative perspectives on imperial identities and British identity from the 4th and 5th centuries AD onwards as it emerges from Roman imperialism and grappled with English imperialism. This relates to Brexist where he sees a broad correlation between the referendum results in England and those identifying as ‘English’, although this obviously doesn’t really explain the Welsh or Cornish vote. His sketch is crude and problematic in parts (as all grand sketches are), but his perspective is interesting and important and I need to reflect on it further.
Then, he moves on to consider how the circumstances of imperial fragmentation were (ironically) implicated in the creation of new frontier identities of both the Roman and British empires; what he refers to as the ‘deep history of bordering practices’. In so doing, ’empires’ draw their own conclusion and he argues this provides a context for understanding how we’ve arrived at Brexit following the fragmentation of the British Empire. His point is that archaeology offers long-term perspective and border studies are key, although I think there remain many other dimensions to what archaeology can offer to the debate. To this end, Andy is co-hosting a research seminar at UCL with Rodney Harrison on Brexit, Archaeology and Heritage on 5th May 2017 where many more views are set to be expressed. Hence, the myriad of intersections between archaeology and Brexit set to be further explored and debated in coming months.
Archaeodeath and Brexit
Mortuary archaeology has many specific intersections with Brexit and these need airing relating to practitioners, assets, political abuses and perspectives. I haven’t quite worked through all of them yet in my mind. Funding and research into death and the dead in the human past is threatened by Brexit, especially comparative studies across Europe and beyond. Meanwhile, any contraction of funding, resources and expertise in the UK archaeology sector as a result of Brexit potentially threatens existing mortuary heritage assets from prehistoric burial mounds to historic cemeteries, and the careful management, conservation of these landscapes as well as the high-quality investigation of new discoveries.
One particular archaeodeath issue linked closely to my interests is migration and identity formation. In particular, archaeologists have to take partial responsibility as a sector for indulging far-right narratives on the early medieval past that simplify and misrepresent migration, kingdom formation and religious conversation. In failing to provide robust narratives, particularly of the character of the Anglo-Saxon migrations, I feel we have left open the door for extremists to popular this intellectual space. Even Gardner in his recent paper deliberately avoids this key issue. Here, burial evidence is key and remains so, as it does to reveal the mortuary monuments of immigrants and their interactions with indigenous groups down through the ages. It also reveals emigration across the world from these islands. We need to be aware of, and critically engaged with the ongoing abuses of the past in debates about Britain’s place in these islands and in Europe; the profession should be robust in its defence against fascism and its historic fantasies.
Archaeodeath also needs to persist in exploring the many traces of former conflicts within Europe and how they have affected these shores. There are no other features of our landscapes that do this than the memorials of our cathedrals; revealing the many conflicts across the British Empire, and its affects on Britain. Take the poignant ruins of Coventry Cathedral as perhaps our most well-known example.
Mortuary archaeologists also need to be attentive to nationalist fantasies in commemorating war and peace. This is the archaeodeath search for the roots of delusions that inspired Brexit, such as the political, economic and ideological processes of empire and its aftermath outlined by Gardner. In particular, one has to look to memorials and monuments that have populated our landscape and conveyed and constituted very specific and distorted narratives of Englishness and Britishness. For example, I’ve discussed this for war memorials in general, and for the myriad of monuments at the National Memorial Arboretum within the context of our culture of valorising the remembrance war and conflict.
We also need to look towards archaeodeath to chart and explore the material traces of Brexit itself on how we commemorate and celebrate our heritage. How is Englishness, Welshness, Scottishness and other regional identities, including Cornishness, conceived and repackaged post-Brexit?
Part of this will be exploring the specific material culture of Brexit itself, including my colleague’s use of the EU flag, or the annoying student who still has a ‘Vote Leave’ poster up in the window of their student accommodation on the main campus of the University of Chester… Such flags and posters have denoted affiliations and divided friends, families and communities, like IndyRef did for Scotland in 2014.
Looking more specifically at mortuary contexts, this will include how we mourn, dispose of the dead, commemorate their passing through material culture, monuments and landscape.
We might also start to consider how Brexit will directly affect the costs and character of how we deal with our dead, and how mortuary arenas are increasingly utilised to signal national affiliations.
Then, finally, we must look to how Brexit will affect the interpretation of our monuments and landscapes, as well as their conservation and management. Will sites like the Pillar of Eliseg take on new narratives as the post-Brexit world reconfigures our national, regional and local politics.
If there is consensus among historians, heritage specialists and archaeologists that Brexit can bring little that’s good and nothing that’s certain, we look to the future with trepidation, but also with an archaeodeath gaze towards how our past will be changing…
Gardner, A. 2017. Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities: a comparative view, Journal of Social Archaeology 17(1): 3-26. http://DOI: 10.1177/1469605316686875