To the Things Themselves? Examining the Theoretical Bases of PPS5

Organisers Stephen Townend AIfA (Entec UK) and Ken Whittaker (Entec UK)
Emails Stephen.Townend@entecuk.co.uk, ken.whittaker@entecuk.co.uk

In a recent essay Prof Fulford (2011) renews the oft debated issue of the role for academe in the commercial archaeological sector, with reference to the analysis and interpretation of major fieldwork programmes and the synthesis of new data. Yet he overlooks a pressing need for academe to provide theoretical clarity in the formulation and implementation of planning policy.

In March of 2010, DCMS released PPS5, the replacement policy documents for the long serving PPGs15 and 16. With it were published a Practice Guide and a statement from the Government on the historic environment for England. Before that, in 2008, Conservation Principles was published which set the stage for the forthcoming policy document and guidance.

The policy documents have, in May 2011, been added to by the publication in draft of the report of the Southport Group, which seeks to set a framework for delivering the requirements of PPS5.

Where PPGs15 and 16 had been overwhelmingly pragmatic, with a focus on the independent reality of archaeological/historical objects, the new suite of documents explicitly take a line that biases the interpretation of things and places by the people that engage with them.

Conservation principles and the practice guide, in particular, are shot through with all the big ideas in archaeological theory of the last 20 years e.g. significance, value, authenticity, aesthetics, community, memory, agency, multivocality and questions of ontology.

The new policy on the historic environment forEnglandis, apparently therefore, a broadly phenomenological approach that takes the position that things and places have no meaningful existence, beyond their interpreted context. Great! You might say; about time! You might say, but look a little closer and it quickly becomes apparent that no-one has looked a little closer.

This session aims to explore the philosophical and theoretical bases for the new suite of guidance and policy on the historic environment and to open it up for critique. We are seeking to ask questions of the assertions made in documents that set the basis for the curation of archaeology, buildings and places inEnglandfor the foreseeable future.

We consider that these big ideas are somewhat glibly and inconsistently imported into the policy and guidance and are argued for primarily by assertion. While we remain broadly positive about the direction taken with the new policy, we nonetheless have concerns that the complex philosophical positions signposted in the documentation have not been thoroughly and openly considered and are not, therefore, necessarily the best underpinning for policy.

The need to address this is urgent. There is a clear risk the opportunity afforded by policies promoting academic and public service interests, will be yet again be ‘commandeered by companies operating like giant businesses at national and international level’ (Carver 2010). The self-appointed Southport Group, by its composition and its manifesto, reflects institutional and commercial self-interest in the interpretation and implementation of PPS5 policies, advocating barriers to entry to the commercial sector on the one hand and prescribing the manner of public involvement on the other.

We invite contributors to consider, for example, the notion of ‘value’ that is asserted to underpin PPS5, or ‘significance’; apparently a quality that the historic environment possesses. We encourage contributions from archaeological and social theorists with an interest in the constitution of things and experiences.

This session is intended to be accompanied by a sister session at the IFA later this year which examines the application of new policy.

Carver, M. E. 2010. Editorial, Antiquity 84 (2010): 935–938 http://antiquity.ac.uk/Ant/084/0933/ant0840933.pdf.

Fulford, M. 2011. The impact of commercial archaeology on the UK heritage, in History for the taking?: Perspectives on material heritage, 33-54, British Academy Policy Centre http://www.britac.ac.uk/policy/History-for-the-taking.cfm

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