A new breed of guardians for our national heritage: Conservation of archaeological sites requires local management, not remote bureaucracy, says Tom Greeves

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The Independent Online
THE VISITOR facilities at Stonehenge are a national disgrace, a parliamentary committee said last week, and something must be done. Important though they are, the facilities should be of less concern than this prime archaeological monument itself.

English Heritage, the quango responsible for national monuments, claims that Stonehenge, like Hadrian's Wall, is a 'symbolic site'. This means that it is to be admired and cared for, not only for its own sake, but in the interests of the social cohesion of the nation. This is remarkable stuff - and it is bunkum.

Hadrian's Wall was, no doubt, a symbol of the might of the Roman Empire in the second century AD, but it was also a symbol of oppression if you happened to be on the wrong side of it. Stonehenge, despite everything, remains a numinous spot, and is respected and revered for many different reasons. But neither it nor Hadrian's Wall actually represents the essence of English nationhood.

Most archaeological sites have no contemporary symbolism at all. None the less, they often have a powerful presence in the land and tell us much about the past and ourselves. They give distinctive character to their localities and can help remind us how our land has been treated.

The concept of a 'monument of national importance' is in itself a stumbling block. It implies something specific and impressive, with connotations of military service to the nation. They are not applicable to the subtle and commonplace features of the English countryside.

English Heritage imbues such places with a spurious 'national' quality, which can then be conveniently linked to notions of England, royalty and St George, with the implication that only a national body of expertise - English Heritage - can look after them. Most of these sites do not need the distant and paternalistic care of English Heritage, however. They need sheep, which are the best conservers of all.

Even obviously striking sites such as Avebury, Mayburgh Henge or Wayland's Smithy mean far more to their locality than to England. They help create a distinctive sense of place and remind us that the cultivation of difference is a healthy pursuit. They need to be recognised for these qualities, not because they happen to be in England, and certainly not because they are claimed for the English nation.

Over the past 20 years, the concentration of archaeological expertise has shifted significantly from a handful of academic centres and the old Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments to the county level. English Heritage, to give it credit, has encouraged this by appointing local Field Monument wardens and fieldworkers for their Monuments Protection Programme. These, and their county colleagues, are people who know the land well, who know the owners and occupiers, and whose local knowledge will be respected for those reasons.

The majority of sites will be far better off under the watchful eye of the local authority archaeologists and, it is to be hoped, local communities, than they ever could be under English Heritage's guardianship. They will still be protected by law, but one level of remote bureaucracy will have been removed.

Local recognition, respect and responsibility are fundamental concepts in the environmental thinking of the Nineties and they need to be nurtured. Parish councils have a vital role to play by ensuring that information stored in county Sites & Monuments Records is available locally and by encouraging local management and imaginative celebration of such places.

At the end of the millenium, both the nation state and the paraphernalia of conventional heritage management appear shaky. Everyone needs to look more carefully at the natural and cultural resources of their own area. The process should be boosted by the transfer of some 200 archaeological sites and historic buildings to the guardianship of local authorities or other conservation bodies. But we still need a far-reaching debate about what our cultural heritage represents and how it might best be looked after.

The author is a cultural environmentalist.