Thursday, December 22, 2016

Drumclay Crannog: a site in a post-truth landscape?

According to many commentators, we now live in an era of ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-factual’ politics. We have seen it in action in the US with the election of Donald Trump and in the UK with the pro-Brexit campaign. I had presumed that it was largely confined to that political realm and had not entered other aspects of our lives. My naivety on this matter was rudely shattered recently when I saw a piece from The Fermanagh Herald reporting that the consortium behind the A32 Cherrymount Link Project had received an award for their handling of the excavation of Drumclay crannog. I’m not particularly familiar with The Fermanagh Herald, but I still had to check to ensure that it wasn’t affiliated in some way with such reliable news outlets as The Onion or Waterford Whispers News. But, alas, no. The Fermanagh Herald is, as I suspected, a real newspaper that was reporting on a real event.

On Monday 28 November last the CEEQUAL Outstanding Achievement Awards 2016 were held at the Institution of Civil Engineers in London and the group behind the road scheme (Roads Service NI, Amey, and McLaughlin & Harvey/PT McWilliams JV) waked away with a Highly Commended award in the ‘Historic Environment’ category. The Fermanagh Herald piece noted: “[the] judges ... who recognise and celebrate projects that represent best practice performances in a particular field of civil engineering, commended the project team on their approach to the rare and important finds, stating the project received exceptional support in preserving this significant site. The judges were impressed by the lengths the team went to, not only to preserved (sic) a nationally significant artefact but also to support the wide dissemination of the findings to schools and the wider public".

Well … isn’t that nice? Well done everyone! …

Except …

Hang on one minute …

This bears fudge-all resemblance to the facts.

If I understand it correctly, CEEQUAL based their assessment on a written submission by Charlene Jones of McLaughlin & Harvey (one of the partners in the road scheme) [here]. This was then verified by Dion Williams of Doran Consulting. According to their website: “Doran Consulting offers a wealth of expertise and experience in the creation of economic, innovative and sustainable engineering solutions. Doran Consulting’s skilled and committed workforce provide civil, structural, CDMC, water, waste water and traffic engineering expertise and other specialised advice and consulting support to a wide client base both nationally and internationally.” I’m sure that are ably qualified to consult on all and any of these matters, but I wonder how thorough their process of verification really was. Was it just confined to correcting spellings and grammar? … ensuring that the document used consistent justification to the left margin, perhaps? Maybe they insisted that all the section headers were in bold and at the same point size? It must be something like that, because it certainly didn’t involve all that much in the line of fact checking.

“Really?”, I hear you cry!

Well, let’s take a closer look at some of the claims here.

The only method of determining the exact location was to de-water the site and commence investigation works.” I can find no nicer way of addressing the inaccuracies in this statement (without resorting to profanity) than saying that it’s utter nonsense and can only have been written by someone entirely unfamiliar with the planning and excavation history of the site, or one attempting to mislead the reader. The truth of the matter is that archaeological test trenching was carried out on the crannog in January 2011 and Declan Hurl’s ill-fated Phase 1 excavation began in July 2012. The excavation of the surrounding land and dewatering of the area had begun in April 2012 – three months previously. Even in my interview with Amey’s Rodney Moffett, he never once intimated, claimed, or suggested that the dewatering was anything other than an engineering solution. There was no suggestion that the dewatering was carried out as an aid to the archaeological excavation. Even Declan Hurl’s vastly self-serving and rose-tinted open letter (“Apologia Pro Excavatio Sua”) makes no such outrageous suggestion. Instead, it is clear that the dewatering programme was distinctly and directly responsible for substantial damage to the archaeological site. In a paper to the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland it was noted that “The water levels around the crannog were lowered following road excavation works which evidently left the site drying out and exposed. The solid material … sank. The northern part of the site showed significant large cracks to 6m in depth when inspected.” This is reiterated in Prof. Cooney’s report, where he explicitly links these works to the partial collapse of the site. The evidence is clear – there was no relationship between the dewatering of the area and the archaeological excavation, other than a negative one. These works partially destroyed the archaeological site and were not conceived of nor implemented as an aid to the excavation.

Just so we’re clear (and to help anyone not completely conversant with the history of this debacle) the planning and early excavation history (Phase 1 excavation) of this internationally important crannog (early medieval lake dwelling) was such an unmitigated disaster that it required direct intervention by a government minister – Alex Attwood, the then Minister for the Environment – to insist on a properly funded excavation (Phase 2 excavation) with an appropriate timescale. Part of Attwood’s direction was to commission Prof Gabriel Cooney of UCD, and Chairman of the Historic Monuments Council, to write a report on the conduct of the planning process and Phase 1 excavation so that disasters like this could never happen again.

Now back to the statements made in the submission made to CEEQUAL …

From the outset of this project McLaughlin & Harvey/PT McWilliams liaised with the NIEA as to the initial locating and investigation works of the Crannog, which then progressed to a preliminary archaeological dig to determine if this was a viable Crannog settlement.Prof. Cooney’s report noted that “A key shortcoming in the process was that EHS (as it was then) [NIEA] does not appear to have been consulted either on the Scheme Assessment Report Stage 2: Preferred Options Report (June 2007) or on the Environmental Statement (September 2007)”. To my mind, at least, it is clear that, had there been early and substantive consultation with the NIEA, much of the Phase 1 excavation omnishambles that followed could have been avoided. Admittedly, Rodney Moffett has attempted to rebut this point. He is on record saying: “Prof Cooney misses the fact that RPS liaised with the NIEA between 2006-2008, which is unfortunate and disappointing. Prior to that, Scott Wilson (who were another consultant who are now Aecom) liaised with NIEA, as I understand, looking at the line originally.” In the same interview, he noted that this point had been raised with the Department of the Environment. To date, no evidence that I am aware of has entered the public realm to substantiate this claim. Until such time as it does, it seems reasonable to treat the similar claims presented in the CEEQUAL submission with a certain amount of intense scepticism.

At this stage [the dewatering of the site] the road design was to include for the Crannog, with no disruption to the structure. [¶] However, the initial archaeological findings being that the Drumclay Crannog was artefact rich, and had potentially settlement finds dating back thousands of years. Due to these findings it was then agreed that the Drumclay Crannog would have a controlled full excavation, with archaeological logging of this structure step by step to determine the Crannog construction make-up and insight to the living conditions, materials and tools used by its settlers.” Soooo … the narrative being peddled here is that the dewatering was to help the excavation of the crannog. At the same time the plan was to create a bridge/raft over the site so it didn’t need to be excavated at all. But, at the same time it was because of the great finds and preservation that the whole site had to be excavated. As was noted in the paper presented to the IAI “The site of the crannog was to be bridged according to the Roads Service. The Roads Service claims that this methodology was agreed with the NIEA. It is clear from the methodology outlined in this document that the crannog and its environs would be unlikely to survive these alterations to the environment in which it was preserved.” Basically, the considered consensus was that the attempt to preserve the crannog in situ using a raft or engineered bridge was flawed and doomed to failure precisely because the dewatering of the area had cause damage and would eventually result in the complete destruction of the site. Prof. Cooney noted that by late 2011 NIEA were attempting to impress upon the consortium “the high cost of excavating a crannog and the inherent difficulties of piling/rafting over the crannog.” He goes further to argue that “It does not appear that RS/Amey and from late 2011 MHPT JV had a coherent or consistent strategy to mitigate the impact of the road on the crannog”. The Phase 1 excavation, directed by Declan Hurl, attempted to minimise the importance of the site and the findings there and scheduled a brief excavation, expected to last a mere six weeks. It was only through the vocal advocacy of a broad range of professionals and passionate non-specialists that brought public and political scrutiny to this deplorable situation. The evidence is clear that without this external intervention the Drumclay crannog would have been inadequately excavated and recorded, and quickly disposed of. This dismissive attitude towards the site was maintained by Declan Hurl – the archaeologist directly employed by Amey, the engineering firm – as late as Autumn 2015 when his dyspeptic “Apologia Pro Excavatio Sua” was published in Archaeology Ireland magazine. In this he described the site as “a disintegrating mound in the midst of a construction site with serious time pressures.” and “a potentially crumbling mound in the middle of a drained and cracking bog surrounded by construction plant.” While it may be granted that the statements in the CEEQUAL submission are, broadly, correct, they are so selective in their wording as to place them on only the most nodding terms with the actual situation.

McLaughlin & Harvey/PT McWilliams cooperation was paramount to the archaeological dig, hence the road construction programme was stalled within this area, and when required, mechanical assistance was provided.” I’m genuinely finding it difficult to read through this without laughing. It’s clear what they’re doing here – they’re spinning every fact into a positive because they want to take home the award! The author must also have presumed (hoped?) that no one with any knowledge of the actual facts of the excavation and planning history would ever read it. True, the contractors on site did cooperate with the archaeologists and provide necessary assistance … up to a point. They were responsible for unlicensed trenching through the site while the site director was on another job in England. Cooney puts it bluntly: “Under the terms of Article 41 of the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 Amey acted illegally in undertaking mechanical excavation of trenches on FERM 211:061 in February 2012 and presenting this under the auspices of an archaeological excavation license, AE/10/199.” Rodney Moffett would later attempt to spin this as a communications error between the Amey engineers and the NIEA representatives in that it was not made clear that this should have been carried out under archaeological supervision. While I have been lacerating in my criticism of NIEA failures of action and leadership in the past, this is one area where I fail to find them wanting. As I’ve said before: “It’s an archaeological site and the company has an archaeologist on staff – why could you possibly think that this is not an archaeological issue? It’s not like Amey have never dealt with archaeological sites before. As Rodney Moffett says later on in the interview: “this is not the first site that archaeology has been on … we’ve done several …” … well, if that is the case, why wasn’t there even a basic understanding that these works should be archaeologically monitored?” Even if we ignore the fiasco of the Phase 1 excavation, and concentrate on the properly run Phase 2 excavation, the idea that the construction firms should receive special mention and acknowledgment for their assistance is laughable. Why? Well, simply put – it’s because they’re legally obliged to do this as a condition of their planning permission. Put it this way … I went out in my car yesterday afternoon. I wasn’t drunk, I adhered to the speed limits, and I singularly failed to run over any pedestrians on the footpaths. Aren’t I great? Now gimme my prize! No? Why? Because that’s what you’re meant to do! Sure, there are different levels of help and assistance you can receive from construction workers. In my time in commercial archaeology I encountered a wide range of them from obstructive, unmitigated swine to those that lived up to their legal obligations. Sure, the latter are great, but they’re doing nothing more than that which is required of them. While Rodney Moffett’s interview with me consistently attempted to spin towards the most positive interpretations and explanations, he never once tried to suggest that the construction consortium ever went above and beyond in their attempts to assist the excavation.

These fascinating finds led to the Crannog being publicised nationally on the television and on the radio on numerous occasions.” This is true … there were great finds, it got on TV and radio. Even Prince Charles and Camilla came to have a look. But this still bugs me. The reason that the Drumclay crannog initially ended up on TV and radio was not through the wonders of the finds. At the very start, the only reason that the site received any coverage was because a number of people vocally and vociferously campaigned for the excavation to be given more time and funding. The responses that we were getting from NIEA and Declan Hurl (as Amey’s on site archaeologist) was that the site was nothing special and would be adequately resolved within the allotted six-week timescale. It was only after the then Minister of the Environment, Alex Attwood, visited the site and was convinced of its importance that positive change was effected. While the wording is literally true, it distorts the truth and misrepresents the actual events to the point that they bear no real relation to the facts.

It may seem uncharitable but I do object to the sentence in the CEEQUAL submission that reads “The Environment Minister at the time, Alex Attwood, also visited the site.” I feel that, to the unwary, this might read like the site was so great and so important that good old Alex wandered along to one of the open days to dispense praise and general be impressed with how great the engineers and construction firms were doing. Look at it the other way about – when you read that sentence (which is true), do you get any impression that Minister Attwood turned up on site as a result of the public and political scrutiny that the site came under? Do you get any feeling that it was Minister Attwood who dictated the terms of the exclusion zone around the site and insisted that the excavation be properly funded? No? … me neither …

The downloadable 2016 Outstanding Achievement Awards PDF booklet notes for Drumclay that “They [the judges] were impressed by the lengths the team went … to support the wide dissemination of the findings to schools and the wider public.” Again, there is much truth in this. A series of excellent open days were organised [here], along with a very well attended one day conference in Enniskillen [here]. What the statement fails to acknowledge is that there is a vast amount of post-excavation work yet to be completed before the site can be properly analysed and published. While the engineers and construction folks are getting together and awarding each other prizes, this fact is being ignored.

Let’s not forget that the Phase 1 excavation, led by Amey employee Declan Hurl, was described in Prof Cooney’s report in the following terms: “It is clear that the conduct of the excavation did not meet the standards set out in NIEA’s Excavation Standards Manual (ESM) or the standards set by professional archaeological bodies such as the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA) or the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland (IAI)”. Contrast this with his description of the Phase 2 excavation that was the result of the advocacy campaign, Minister Attwood’s intervention, and the involvement of appropriately skilled archaeologists: “The excavation yielded an enormous volume of artefacts, structures and datasets that will transform our understanding of crannogs and inform wider discussion of early medieval Ireland ... It delivered a rescue excavation carried out to a very high professional standard and to an integrated research design in a highly pressurised environment. It is a landmark excavation and has provided a wealth of data which will transform our understanding of early medieval Ireland”. Of course there was a hugely significant site here and it was excavated to a remarkably high standard. It even won the award for Rescue Excavation of the Year for 2016 at the Current Archaeology Awards. But it had little if anything to do with Roads Service NI, Amey, and McLaughlin & Harvey/PT McWilliams JV. Indeed, Amey’s own archaeologist, Declan Hurl, in his Apologia takes the opportunity to attempt to denigrate the form of this Phase 2 excavation. This is the same person who that tempestuously interrogated the site crew when the situation was publicised on this blog. It is also the same person who summarily dismissed one employee for admitting to passing on evidence of the rich finds and well-preserved structures that survived there. In conversation with Rodney Moffett, the Associate Director of Amey NI, he attempted to defend Declan Hurl and the conduct of the Phase 1 excavation to the best of his ability, though he was somewhat nuanced in his tone. He said: “I’ll be honest in that in terms of Declan, he’s a very passionate individual who has a style that some people might call it ‘belligerent’, if that’s a word I can use.” In the same conversation, he also said: “Was Declan authoritarian in his approach? Yes, I would accept that he probably was. Was he professionally efficient in his role? I’m not in a position to say, but when I asked people whose opinion I respect, I was concerned that their initial answer wasn’t a complete yes. These people did not challenge his professional ability per se, but they did, and it’s easy in hindsight, but they did express concerns that the approach being adopted was, in their view, slightly old-fashioned and not in line with modern techniques.” In discussing the overall context of the excavation, he was particularly clear: “No … listen … this job did not go well, and I fully acknowledge that! ... ultimately, there are lessons to be learned.”

Let’s be clear here – I’m not suggesting that every sentence in the CEEQUAL submission is a lie. I’m more intimating that there’s selective reporting, obfuscation, and a certain inclination towards the disingenuous throughout. But why does this matter? At its simplest level, it suggests that Doran Consulting failed to do their job of verifying the submission well or even at all. It suggests that CEEQUAL have damaged their reputation by awarding a prize to a troubled project, thus giving some veneer of undeserved success. I would even go so far as to suggest that it should be a matter of concern to the other winners at the CEEQUAL awards. If one of the nominees can be demonstrated to having massaged the facts sufficiently to get a Highly Commended out of this, it can only raise questions about the value of the actual winners. From a wholly archaeological perspective, this is a depressing and worrying development. It allows Amey, and any other engineering firms watching, to walk away feeling that this deplorable situation was not just a success, but one that deserved to be awarded prizes. OK, maybe not the top one, but it still got Highly Commended!

Where are the lessons learned? Where is any acknowledgment that this was a less than perfect situation? Where is there any indication that the fiasco of the planning and Phase 1 excavation at Drumclay will not be allowed to happen again?

As we have seen elsewhere, allowing such post-truth narratives to progress unchecked is damaging to our political and economic wellbeing. By the same token, allowing this factually unencumbered award to go unprotested and unremarked damages us all. Most especially, it damages our heritage and normalises its depreciation by elements who then seek to congratulate themselves on a job well done.

[Statements have been sought from both CEEQUAL and Doran Consulting. At the time of publication neither had responded]

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An initial response was received from CEEQUAL at 17:59 on 22/12/2016, acknowledging receipt of my request and promising one after the Christmas season.