Communicating Above Water

This week I have been reflecting on language, not least because I’m writing this on a train travelling through the vowel laden Danish landscape, but also because it has been a recurrent theme within my meetings.

I am on my way back from an interesting conference on ‘Offshore Industry and Archaeology’ held in Esbjerg and sponsored by the Offshore Centre, Denmark and Syddansk University.  It is unusual to get Industry and Archaeology to sit and talk, and the financial figures casually cited by the industry delegates were enough to make an archaeologist feel very small indeed. Our conference sponsors reported a 50+ billion DKK (more than £5 billion) turnover in oil and gas and a similar amount in offshore renewables in 2011. These figures may make us feel small, but as archaeologists we must not forget that these big companies still need us, we are important. The consideration of underwater cultural heritage (UCH) and environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are prerequisites in their work, so we must learn to communicate. UCH is clearly protected in international law for e.g. the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (Art. 149 & Art. 303) and the UNESCO Convention 2001, which whilst slow to be adopted, directly addresses activities that ‘incidentally affect’ UCH such as the offshore industry (Articles 5, 9 & 10). Within these conventions are multiple distinctions and a complex web of jurisdiction creating a fine balance between access to resources on the continental shelf and protection of them.  Whether the UNESCO Convention 2001 is adopted or not, will come down to the objections and concerns that can be made, or dispelled, by different readings of the articles – a semantic problem.  But, these questions as to connotation were not the only linguistic barrier in the room last week, it was the communication between the archaeologists and the industry delegates that called for a translator. Not, of course because we emanated from far and wide geographically, but because we do so culturally, and if we are to build our relationships and work as partners in the offshore environment we need to learn to speak the same language.  The offshore industry wants to minimize ‘risk’. For them this signifies unexpected (read expensive) delays to their projects caused by the sudden discovery of archaeology on the seabed. For us, ‘risk’ focuses upon potential damage to the UCH and the ensuing loss of knowledge about our past. As such, for industry, involving archaeologists in the very earliest planning stages of their projects, working closely with us and collecting data at a high enough resolution for archaeological interpretation can mean that they have no ‘nasty’ surprises and expensive delays when they start building. Equally this means that as archaeologists we can protect the UCH and develop a good relationship with industry that enables us to share data for research purposes. It is a symbiotic relationship. Just clarifying meaning and initiating these discussions is a good start towards building good relations, but only the start.  In Esbjerg this week, many of these Industry representatives flew in and out to deliver their company’s public relations presentation. It is a great start that they came, but a shame that they could not stay for the discussion. We can make inroads into speaking the same language, but listening is still key.

And finally, remaining on this theme of language and listening, I am back in the (soon to be ex) heartland of the BBC in White City tomorrow learning how to interview and be interviewed. I will take note from this week’s meetings and make sure that I am not one of those interviewers who are so stuck on their agenda that they do not listen to the answers (not mentioning names, Radio 4). This is to be followed by vocal coaching, so if you hear me speaking differently this week it may be Received Pronunciation or may just be that the vocal coach is preparing us for a move to Salford.