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A Man of a Few More Words - by Swan Morrison

Guerrilla Archaeology

I looked down from the police helicopter at the gridlocked streets. We landed near the cause of the chaos, and I walked to the hole in the road.

I knew we were on the site of a first century Roman villa. The neatly excavated trench that spanned the full width of the main road confirmed my suspicions - this had been another ALA action.

As a detective, I had encountered many individuals and groups who held beliefs with intense, ideological passion - beliefs that they thought justified disregard of the law. Sometimes their actions would cause inconvenience, sometimes criminal damage and sometimes would pose a risk to life. The ALA, or Antiquities Liberation Army, was the latest such movement.

Children had watched the Channel Four archaeology series, Time Team. They had developed a passion for the subject together with a realisation that it was possible, with good planning, to undertake digs quickly. When older, some had become radicalised by exposure to the dangerous and irresponsible archaeological example of Indiana Jones. ‘Why,’ they had demanded, ‘should vital excavations be prevented simply because sites lay in traditional ‘no go’ areas?’

It was true that many potentially important discoveries lay beneath roads, railways, houses and other structures. The ALA asserted that freedom for archaeologists to excavate was a basic human right. They claimed that oppressive laws to the contrary compelled them to engage in guerrilla archaeology.

The movement burst into public awareness due an Iron Age settlement buried beneath a major runway at Heathrow. The hijackers forced the pilot to taxi to the site and then demanded drilling equipment, shovels and trowels. They managed to confirm post holes consistent with a large ceremonial roundhouse before the SAS ended the excavation.

Residents of properties in archaeologically rich locations, such as Winchester or York, became frightened to leave their homes. Others had returned to find their houses demolished to facilitate digs in the ground beneath. The guerrillas then often posted comprehensive records on the Internet, including site diagrams and find photographs, to the horror and disgust of the homeless ex-householders.

Motorways frequently follow the lines of Roman roads and thus became particular targets. Motorists had wondered why large stretches of motorways were frequently coned-off and why there were always so many roadworks. Bowing to public pressure, the Department of Transport undertook a count of the number of motorway renovation or enhancement projects. They were horrified to discover that, although there were only two hundred officially sanctioned schemes, there were over one thousand roadworks.

Operation ‘Motorway Digbust’ led to the arrests of several hundred ALA activists. Those digs, however, led to an invaluable understanding of Roman paving, and although archaeologists publicly condemned the ALA, many privately supported them.

I believe such establishment sympathy has lead to the unchecked escalation of guerrilla archaeology. My team have certainly been mysteriously reassigned from cases when close to unmasking ALA cells.

No finds or clues remained in the road trench and backfilling began. As I returned to the helicopter, my mobile rang with news of another outrage: The London Underground system had been disabled as ALA teams had begun a series of lightning excavations from the tunnels beneath major London monuments.

For those of us in the Anti-guerrilla Archaeology Unit it would be another long day.