Personal Awakenings in Archaeology



By Joe Flatman


Dave Conlin of the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology (ACUA) recently wrote a blog post ‘Underwater Archaeology is Waking Up’ ( that really resonated with me. As Dave introduces himself:


‘I’m too old, too unhip, too cranky, and too white to lay claim to even a sliver of what is now being called by a younger generation as ‘woke’; and… as a white heterosexual American male, I am acutely aware that through the happenstance of some cosmic lottery, I was born into the (current) top tier of global privilege’.


What goes for Dave goes (bar the nationality) for me too – and yet I find myself more and more involved in issues of equality and diversity, both in my professional and personal lives. Professionally I’m spending a lot of time working on how to better represent the diverse heritage of peoples and places through the National Heritage List of England (NHLE), and personally I’m trying to be an ‘equality activist’ through my work with the CIfA Equality and Diversity Group ( The question is – why? What’s my journey to, if not ‘woke’, then at least ‘awakening’, when plenty of people in my position sail blissfully along below the radar of equality and diversity?


As I outline in another blog about my work with the Fawcett Society (, a substantial part of my desire to be an activist in terms of equality is a personal journey of identity politics in my non-professional life. In the wider world I simply got to a tipping point where I could not, and would not, stand quiet any more, unmoved by the very real suffering and sacrifice of others. My desire to be an active worker on equality in issues within our profession stems, inevitably, from this same source, but is strangely both more and yet also paradoxically less personal. Like Dave, I grew up in a world that I now recognise to be profoundly unfair, unequal and unacceptable. Many elements of these unacceptable behaviours and cultural inequalities remain in place to this day, even where they have been driven to the margins or begun to be challenged. A recent cross-sector event on equality and diversity in heritage hosted by the CIfA Equality and Diversity Group in July 2018 heard of just some of the dreadful experiences and circumstances faced, often on a daily basis, by many different individuals actively working in our community today, here and now, in 2018 – anything from bullying and harassment, by way of denial of opportunities and advancement, right up to violent verbal and physical assault.


But for all the evidence provided, it can be easy to still stand remote and largely unmoved by such evidence even when directly confronted by it – to be the analytical ‘scientist’ archaeologist that so many of us, trained in the 1980s and 1990s, were taught was the model to strive towards and emulate. To be emotional, to emote, be moved – to be ‘woke’ – wasn’t really encouraged under such circumstances for any of us of that and previous generations, least of all by a typically repressed middle-class, heterosexual white Englishman. And yet let us make no denials: this is and ought to be personal and profoundly, gut- and soul-wrenchingly emotive. Lives have been fundamentally and irrevocably impacted in a negative way; livelihoods and careers ruined; individuals’ mental and physical wellbeing permanently damaged. And the moral responsibility for this lies with us all.


Organisations like British Women Archaeologists (BWA) and British Archaeological Jobs and Resources (BAJR) have built-up dossiers of evidence on the embedded cultures of harassment, inequality and discrimination within our community. Being confronted by such overwhelming evidence points to one conclusion – we’re all complicit in this. Even if we are not the perpetrators, we’ve all of us – each and every one of us, to a greater or lesser extent – turned a blind eye at some point. At a personal level, I think with shame not of the great heroic moments of my career but of the un-heroic: of those times that I didn’t call-out the colleague or contractor who made a remark that was derogatory to or harassed a co-worker; of those times that I didn’t challenge the bullies and the sleazeballs who still permeate our communities; of those times where I chose the path of least resistance and passivity.


The more we are faced with such evidence, both as a community and as individuals, the clearer, at least to me, it becomes: we must, we have, to do more, faster than ever, to challenge and overcome such discrimination and to fundamentally alter the very nature of both our working environments and, even more profoundly, the philosophical frameworks and constructs of our cultural communities. Dave’s blog concludes with a characteristically optimistic assessment: ‘as our toehold in the next millennium has grown into a beachhead, our world is changing and it makes me pleased and proud to see that our field is changing with it’. And Dave is right to be optimistic – much is changing, much for the better. But we cannot choose the path of least resistance and we cannot be passive.


The more I think about it, the more, at least to me I reach the conclusion that if we’re not activists for equality and diversity in our professional lives, then we’re not being professionals at all. At the 6 July event, the real ‘light-bulb’ moment for me was when several attendees framed equality and diversity issues in the context of health and safety. Appalling behaviours in terms of health and safety regularly occurred on archaeological sites in the past, leading to catastrophic, life-changing circumstances for some individuals. Gradually, but with growing power and influence, as informed by wider improvements outside of the sector, such bad practice was challenged and transformed. The ‘new normal’ of PPE, of risk assessments, of the frameworks of the Construction Skills Certification Scheme in the UK (and its equivalents around the world) arose. The journey to this point was not easy and is still occasionally questioned. But few fundamentally question the benefits of ‘now’ versus ‘then’ in terms of H+S. Equality and diversity issues framed in this context seem at once both a lot more personal (and personally beneficial) and also a lot more professional. And that really is surely an optimistic future to look towards.

For more information on the 6 July 2018 cross-sector event hosted by the CIfA Equality and Diversity Group, please see our website ( and follow us online @CIFA_Equality.


Joe Flatman is the Secretary of the CIfA Equality and Diversity Group. He works at Historic England, and tweets in a personal capacity @joeflatman.