What Conservative Government? – Part 5, Conservatives Who Fail To Conserve

Tisbury Roman Villa

This supposedly conservative government is no longer in the business of conserving things – even ancient Roman ruins of great historical and national significance

What kind of a country is modern Britain? And what kind of a people are we?

Sadly, if the behaviour of our own government is any guide we are now such a has-been, good for nothing failure of a once proud country that when we stumble upon one of the largest and most significant domestic archaeological discoveries in a century, we simply shrug our shoulders and cover it back up with dirt because the cost and inconvenience of fully excavating and restoring it would be too great.

And “too great” doesn’t mean Olympic Gamess or Crossrail type money. It means a few hundred thousand pounds, less than pocket change in terms of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport annual budget.

Apparently, discovering the immaculately preserved remains of a great Roman villa – with all of the potential it offers to better understand our past – simply isn’t possible when every last penny of government money has to be diverted to ensure that we continue blindly throwing 0.7% of our GDP into the furnace so that we can be “world leaders” in international aid.

The Telegraph reports:

While laying an electricity cable beneath the grounds of his home, near the village of Tisbury, in Wiltshire, Luke Irwin found the remains of what appeared to be an ornate Roman Mosaic.

But what emerged when archaeologists from Historic England and Salisbury Museum began excavating the site was even more of a surprise.

They found the mosaic was part of the floor of a much larger Roman property, similar in size and structure to the great Roman villa at Chedworth.

But in a move that will surprise many, the remains – some of the most important to be found in decades – have now been re-buried, as Historic England cannot afford to fully excavate and preserve such an extensive site.

Dr David Roberts, archaeologist for Historic England, said:  “This site has not been touched since its collapse 1400 years ago and, as such, is of enormous importance. Without question, this is a hugely valuable site in terms of research, with incredible potential.

“The discovery of such an elaborate and extraordinarily well-preserved villa, undamaged by agriculture for over 1500 years, is unparalleled in recent years. Overall, the excellent preservation, large scale and complexity of this site present a unique opportunity to understand Roman and post-Roman Britain.”

He added: “Unfortunately, it would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to fully excavate and the preserve the site, which cannot be done with the current pressures.

“We would very much like to go back and carry out more digs to further our understanding of the site. But it’s a question of raising the money and taking our time, because as with all archaeological work there is the risk of destroying the very thing you seek to uncover.”

I genuinely don’t know what is worse here – the fact that the government (for Historic England is a subsidiary of DCMS) has become so distracted by trying to trick and scaremonger its way to victory the EU referendum and so untuned from the daily life of this country that nobody within DCMS thought to intervene when they found out that we just weren’t going to bother with this particular ruin, or the fact that one of the archaeologists (Dr. Roberts) himself seems serenely resigned to the fact that he will probably be an ancient relic himself by the time the UK government scrounges the spare change to properly excavate, understand and display this piece our history for the education of all.

This is the country which coughed up over £3 million (mostly voluntary donations) in order to exhume the long-lost body of King Richard III from beneath a car park in the city of Leicester only to rebury him with pomp, swagger and a televised pseudo-state funeral months later. Do we really think that a similar effort could not have been made for the excavation of the Tisbury Villa? Are we not even going to try? And is the government willing to let the ages reclaim this historic site without so much as lifting a finger to help out?

This blog constantly drones on about the virtues of small government and a leaner, more agile state. There are many ways in which the state spends time and resources doing badly things which could and should be done in the non-profit, charitable and private sectors, and this blog will continue to advocate for these libertarian and conservatarian ideals. But surely if we are to have a national government at all, one of the things it absolutely should do is to take some measure of stewardship over our natural and historical built environment.

This blog would be the first to admit that in many areas, excessive government involvement in the arts (as well as a lack of personal tax incentives) crowds out the private sponsorship and philanthropy which so distinguishes the fine arts and cultural in America. But while a plausible case can be made that the state should not be operating its own massive media organisation in the form of the BBC, the historical nature of archaeological discoveries (as well as thorny issues of property rights springing from  such discoveries) mean that this is an area where the state can and should get involved.

It seems self-evident to me that the UK government, through Historic England, should step up and help to preserve this site for the benefit of the nation. But what do we hear from John Whittingdale and David Cameron’s coke zero conservative government? Nothing. Tumbleweeds. This is a government more interested in burying embarrassing stories about the Culture Secretary’s personal life than digging up an archaeological discovery of real importance.

So here we are, a country so lacking in motivation and curiosity that we are willing to re-bury one of the most exciting domestic archaeological discoveries in recent history because it would simply cost too much money and take too much effort to properly excavate the site, study and catalogue it, and maybe throw up a visitors centre at some point so that the thing can begin to pay for itself.

A country where we have much to say about our public services and everything we believe we are owed by the state, but far less to say about what we might do for our country, our society, our community and those who will live here after we are gone.

A country where the ruling Conservative Party has forgotten even how to conserve.

Welcome to David Cameron’s dreary, unaspirational Britain.


Tisbury Roman Villa - artist reconstruction

Top and Bottom Image: Telegraph

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