Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Two roads diverged near a crannog | Excuses and half-truths and the Department for Regional Development


Some time ago (December 2014) I was casually surfing the internet when it suddenly occurred to me to Google the name of my favourite Fermanagh crannog. I will admit to a certain degree of trepidation in finding that one page bore the distinctly suspect title of ‘Recent Releases - February 2013’, but was reassured to discover that it emanated from the Department of Regional Development and not something more affiliated with an Onanistic teen. The document is full of fascinating questions and their official replies. For example, someone requested a copy of the DRD alternative route analysis/strategy associated with the Belfast on the Move initiative (DRD/2013-0052). Someone else was looking for details of the numbers of collisions at a junction in Lurgan over the previous six years (DRD/2013-0048). Someone even wanted details of DRD staff in legally recognised relationships (marriage or in civil partnerships) (DRD/2013-0042) … why, we can only guess …

In amongst this cornucopia of questions and answers is the linguistic equivalent of an iceberg … or maybe a Claymore mine … above the surface is a simple – one sentence – question requesting: ‘Information relating to the archaeological dig on a crannog in Enniskillen beginning in 2012’ (DRD/2013-0038). Of course, the explosive charge is contained in the paragraph beneath the surface … a tightly worded list of 13 questions, several with detailed sub-questions. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that, given the timing of the request (February 6th 2013) it was most likely submitted by Prof Gabriel Cooney as part of his research for the report commissioned by Alex Attwood in July 2012. Even if these questions were not submitted by Prof Cooney, they display an in-depth knowledge of the site and its broad planning and excavation history. So, somebody was asking the right questions. Unless stated otherwise stated, all quotes are from this set of questions and replies (replies are dated the 6th of March 2013). The answers given by DRD surprised and distressed me and I have wanted to both write a rebuttal and ask further questions about it ever since. However, I felt it was better to hold fire until Prof Cooney’sreport on the site was published. Now that the report is available and I have offered a detailed response and analysis to it, I thought it was appropriate to turn my attention back in this direction.

You, dear reader, will be grateful to know that I have no intention of going through the whole thing in depth and commenting on each point at length. Instead, I merely intend to pick out a few key points worthy, in my opinion, of further comment, analysis, and investigation.

In the context of my review of Cooney’s report, I’ve already commented on part of question 1d, regarding the awarding of the excavation licence. From the DRD response, it is clear that Declan Hurl was the sole licenced archaeologist for the first phase of the project, becoming jointly responsible with Dr Nora Bermingham on July 30th 2012. This much we knew. What was less clear (and is not covered in Cooney’s report) is when and why Declan Hurl subsequently left the project. This is a key question in understanding his roles and responsibilities, along with how he was treated by Amey, his direct employers. The salient detail that this response adds is that ‘1 An extension was granted to Dr Bermingham’s license on 29 January 2013, (Mr Hurl being no longer involved in the excavation).’ Thus, at the very least, Declan Hurl appears to have left the project by that date.

The answer to Question 1f is revealing. The question centres on whether or not there was consultation between Roads Service, Amey, and DOE Planning. The answer notes that: ‘Roads Service consulted with NIEA Built Heritage, which advised the proposed road alignment ran close to a number of known archaeological sites.’ On the surface this looks completely kosher … Roads Service were totally on the ball and doing their job and all that. Except … not really. It’s true that there was contact between Roads Service & NIEA about the Drumclay crannog. However, it’s only in Cooney’s report, where he carefully dissects the timelines of events, that it becomes clear that although Roads Service had files on the project going back to July 2004 the NIEA were only contacted in January 2008 … a full 42 months after the project kicked off. By this stage, all the important decisions about route selection along with perceived notions of the impact to the archaeological resource were pretty much firmly established. To put it in a bit of context, it’s like saying that you had a wonderful dinner when in reality you turned up late and only helped clear the dishes from  the table and do the washing up. Cooney identifies this exceptional lag in reaching out to NIEA as a significant contributing factor to the planning fiasco that ensued.

Question 2 asks for ‘Details of how the archaeologist was unaware of the crannog, despite being recorded.’ DRD’s response is that Declan Hurl inspected the site, but was unable to confirm the location of the site, partly due to changes in the landscape such as the infilling of the little lake and related watercourses. The answer clearly claims that ‘The possible crannog site was identified during September 2009, when further borehole investigations identified an area of firmer ground’. However, Cooney demonstrates that Roads Service were advised on this in the ‘Cultural Heritage’ section of the Environmental Statement report (September 2007). The document was prepared by John Cronin and Associates and explicitly states that the crannog ‘is located along the proposed route ... The site will be directly impacted on by the proposed link road’ (Emphasis mine). The same report states this again in a later section: ‘The proposed Cherrymount Link Road will directly impact a recorded archaeological site at the junction of three townlands: FERM 211:061, a crannog and location of a dugout canoe’ (Emphasis mine). I would ask the DRD if it is not now time to admit that their answer was incorrect and to publish a retraction?

It’s probably only a minor point, but the DRD’s list of published questions doesn’t contain a 4f … yet they still provide an answer to it … ‘4)(f) Roads Service, its advisors (Amey) and NIEA have been in frequent consultation at site level for the duration of the dig.  Towards the end of July 2012, upon recognition of the unprecedented significance of the site, NIEA co-opted Dr Bermingham to co-direct the dig’. Another minor point is that where Question 5 asks for ‘The identity of the owners of the archaeological consultancy contracted to supply the excavation crew’ the DRD response misspells it. Their answer is ‘Farrimund MacManus’ when it should be ‘FarrimondMacManus.’ As I say, these are minor points, but (I believe) should be corrected in the interests of clarity and completeness.

Question 9 is really important … to me, personally, as much as to the general conduct of the public advocacy campaign. The question asks DRD to give an ‘Explanation for the public criticism of the Director for being inexperienced and unprepared by his crew members and by Robert Chapple, another archaeologist.’ I think that the best thing to do here is give the full DRD answer and then attempt to unpack the important bits in the context of Prof Cooney’s report:
‘The original Director of the dig was tasked with establishing what resource and time would be required to resolve the crannog.  In discussion with NIEA, focus was placed on excavating the “habitation layers”, with less importance placed on the underlying “construction layers”.  On this premise, the Director indicated he needed 12 diggers and approximately 6 weeks to excavate the crannog.  The unprecedented nature of the monument could not have been foreseen.  As evidenced by NIEA’s subsequent report and recommendation (assisted by Dr Bermingham), wherein, it states that 20 archaeologists and a further 8 weeks was required to resolve the site.  The dig is currently in its 38th week which includes the Christmas break.  The criticism levelled at the original Director of the dig was unwarranted, unprofessional and took no cognisance of the emerging and unprecedented nature of the features and artefacts being uncovered.  Mr Chapple never visited the site, despite NIEA inviting him to do so, and had no first-hand knowledge of the site or the excavation;’
So … where to start? … Let’s go with the nature of the crannog itself. The DRD reply notes that ‘focus was placed on excavating the “habitation layers”, with less importance placed on the underlying “construction layers”. They also claim that ‘The unprecedented nature of the monument could not have been foreseen’ and again they mention the ‘emerging and unprecedented nature of the features and artefacts being uncovered.’ Cooney’s report throws crucial light on these statements that clearly demonstrates them to be either wholly false or strategically misleading. While it may be true to say that discussions with NIEA focused on “habitation layers” over “construction layers”. The statement carries the implication that Declan Hurl and NIEA were in agreement on this issue, when Cooney’s report explicitly states that ‘In discussion between the excavation director and NIEA: Built Heritage the question of what were occupation layers and what were construction layers was consistently raised’. The report maintains that:
‘As the excavation proceeded it became apparent that the depth and complexity of the stratigraphy was much greater than the excavation director had anticipated.’
and
‘The excavation director maintained the view that the occupation level was shallow, focused on the Late Medieval period in date and that construction levels were being exposed’
and (crucially)
‘The investigative excavations carried out on the crannog were limited both in area and depth. It was assumed that there was limited, very shallow Late Medieval occupation of the crannog and that the site was constructed in this period. This view is not supported either by the archaeological literature on the nature and dating of crannogs, nor by the geotechnical drawings of the crannog FERM 211:061 which were submitted as part of the discussion over a mitigation strategy. These clearly indicate a realisation on the part of RS/Amey that the crannog had a considerable depth’ (Emphasis mine).
Cooney’s criticisms of Declan Hurl’s excavation include the following:
‘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).’
and
‘It is clear that there was no effective environmental strategy for the site’
Just in case there’s any doubt, Cooney unequivocally spells it out:
‘The central issue was the non-professional standard of the conduct of the excavation under the site director’ (Emphasis mine)
And yet … the DRD response to the criticism of Declan Hurl’s direction of the site by both myself and a number of the excavation crew is to characterise it as ‘unwarranted, unprofessional and took no cognisance of the emerging and unprecedented nature of the features and artefacts being uncovered.’ Considering Cooney’s  findings – that Declan Hurl’s understanding of the site bore little resemblance to the current state of knowledge of crannogs and that his management of the excavation was clearly non-professional – I believe it is time to challenge the DRD’s statement. For this reason, I call on the DRD to retract their statement as it is plainly counterfactual and issue an unreserved apology to myself and the various members of the excavation crew who brought this situation to wider public and professional attention.

The final point that the DRD answer gives is that I never visited the site, even though I’d been invited to, and thus I had no first-hank knowledge of anything. I’m going to beg the reader’s indulgence here as I am going to take a bit of time to analyse and rebut this point. I would start by saying that DRD are perfectly correct in their statement … I hadn’t visited the site during the Phase 1 excavation, I was given the opportunity to do so but declined, and yes, I had no first-hand knowledge of the site. When stated in this way, it just happens to look remarkably favourable to the particular light that the DRD are attempting to cast upon it. However, there is a ‘But’ … and it’s even larger than anything enjoyed by Sir Mix-a-Lot … the truth of the matter is that I did not need to visit the site and, although it may have been desirable, I did not need first-hand experience of the situation. As I have stated publicly since I first assisted in bringing this situation to wider attention, I had been approached by a number of experienced and trusted archaeologists from the excavation crew who were consistent and credible in their criticisms of Declan Hurl’s mismanagement of the site. It was only after several conversations with these individuals, independently detailing the escalating crisis, and asking that I use what influence I have, did I reluctantly get involved. Over the first, crucial, handful of days the loosely-affiliated advocacy group raised significant professional and media interest in the site. Despite initial statements from NIEA and Roads Service that everything was in order and the excavation was running smoothly, the group succeeded in raising sufficient political interest to have the then Minister, Alex Attwood, visit the site. The rest, as they say in France, is L'Histoire …

This only leaves the issue of my invitation to visit the site that I refused. Once again, the DRD response is deceptively straightforward … the opportunity was offered to me, but I refused. What it leaves out … whether by accident or design … is the context of my refusal. The meeting was scheduled for the Friday the 27th of July 2012 and it was clear from the list of expected attendees that the discussion would focus on the future of the crannog, not the set of circumstances that led to that point. I felt then – as I do now – that I would have little to bring to such a discussion. While I may be relatively well read on the excavated archaeology of crannogs and early medieval Ireland generally, I am expert in neither wetland nor environmental archaeology. At that time it was those voices that needed to be heard, not mine. After consultation with a number of members of the advocacy group, I outlined my reasons to John O’Keeffe in an email on July 25th 2012:
‘I fear that my presence on the site may be distracting to the important discussion that must happen now. Having been instrumental in bringing this issue to wider public attention, I do not wish the debate to get derailed in that direction. I merely hold a number of opinions on the site, and I believe that I should withdraw to allow acknowledged experts on wetland excavation to be heard.’
Obviously, Dr O’Keeffe passed on, at least, knowledge of the existence of my disinclination to attend, if not the actual context for that refusal. In the light of this broader context, I would call on the DRD to either retract or rephrase their statement as to my physical presence on the site, my degree of knowledge of the mismanagement of the excavation, and my reasons for refusal of the invitation to attend. I would also appreciate an official acceptance and acknowledgment that the phrasing of the original answer was – either through design or genuine error – misleading and disingenuous.

The final question I’d have for DRD is who exactly crafted their response to the original set of questions? There are several instances in their answers where there is what may be interpreted as a studied reluctance to be completely honest and transparent. I would inquire whether the Department would consider reviewing this individual’s work with greater care in future to ensure that such traits are eliminated and eradicated?

Based on the analysis of their responses to DRD/2013-0038 and the findings of Cooney’s report, I have prepared a list of questions for the Minister responsible for DRD, Danny Kennedy MLA. Should I receive any useful responses, I’ll be sure to post them here!

Note
The title of this post is two fold ... essentially, I couldn't make up my mind between the two choices ... so I just used both. The first part is, of course, derived from Robert Frost's much over used 'The Road Not Taken', and I can only offer my most sincere apologies to the poet and his estate. The second portion is a lyric from the song 'Lord, I'm discouraged' by the rather wonderful The Hold Steady. To them I offer no apology, merely acknowledgement of their general awesomeness.