Interlude 2: Archaeology – a thing of the past?

Tonight I went to a talk by archaeologist and TV presenter Neil Oliver – of prehistoric archaeology and Viking fame – at the Waterstones store in Oxford. This wonderful event did, I’m afraid, let loose in me my long bottled up feelings about the fate of archaeology in Britain, not only on television but also for the archaeologists who dig day in, day out across the land. Or at least did.

I am an archaeologist by trade. I spent years learning my craft – trowelling, mattocking and pick-axing my way through layers of compacted, resisting clay, collapsing sand or brittle stone, searching for clues to the past and little glimpses of history that I could touch with my fingers. Long days I spent, sometimes the hottest of the year, often the coldest, almost never losing my enthusiasm for the history around me. Those fifteen years left their mark on me – arthritic knees and hips, an unhappy back and an intense lack of appreciation for frostbitten ground. I’ve been ordered to sweep clean a desert site in a sandstorm; I’ve fought to save the remains of a Saxon hall from a flooded river; I’ve been blown off a prehistoric mound and I’ve been bored to near death by Roman quarries that stretched the entire width of Gloucestershire. All part of the job.

Or so it used to be. British Archaeology has taken some severe knocks over the last few years. I’m mainly talking about contract archaeology, which is what I’m used to. The work carried out by consultancies across the country in advance of road and rail schemes, housing projects, town developments, flood works – even Olympic stadium works. So many times an archaeologist is asked ‘what’s the best thing you’ve found?’ when, in reality, on many digs, the hope is that you will find nothing. These are the evaluations that have to be out of the way before the real work on the site can begin. Archaeology at its best holds the developers up, at its worst there will be long trenches of nothing. Imagine a year of such projects – two week evaluations, up to sixty trenches or more, and no time at all to excavate any of it. Pray for nothing, that’s what you have to do. But is that why you dream of becoming an archaeologist?

Many of Britain’s largest contract archaeological units now operate with a skeleton crew, their archaeologists (including my other half and many of our friends) redundant. Planning laws are relaxed, the legal requirements for archaeological investigation reduced – harming our historical heritage just as much as the industry. For many years, Units across the land have relied upon highly qualified graduate archaeologists working for little more than the minimum wage in difficult conditions to recover our past. So many of these people have now been cast off.

Look at archaeology on the TV. Time Team has now been axed. How sad this is. Whatever its faults, Time Team has blazed a trail of archaeology for the public to follow from the comfort of their homes, encouraging them to research the history of their families, their towns and their country. It has always been a comfort to me that archaeology has such a profile on TV. No matter how bad it gets for those working in the trade, it will survive because so many people are being given a glimpse of how utterly fascinating and compelling our history is. Personally, I love spotting good friends on Time Team. I’ve been involved with the Trench One magazine for its club members. Its loss is not easy for me.

Often the archaeologists you see on TV are students and volunteers working for units associated with academic bodies. How often do we contract diggers envy academic archaeologists for the time allowed for their excavations, for the quality of what they’re unearthing? But even these bodies are under threat. The University of Birmingham’s Archaeology Institute has been closed much less than a year after the University’s appointment of public archaeological figure Alice Roberts as Professor of Public Engagement in Science. Other University Units have also closed after many years of great work, including the University of Manchester’s Unit. My own training was gratefully received from the University of Leicester Archaeological Unit, now uncovering the remains of Richard III. They taught me how to mattock 23 years ago – I still remember the lesson. I was terrible at it. I’m much better now.

I found a Roman coin my very first morning on an archaeological site in Leicester. I never found one again. This is a common irony in British archaeology. When I dug in Israel not long afterwards I received a can of beer for every small find (brooch, figurine, coin) I found. No wonder that archaeologists are such appreciators of the grain and grape (speaking personally, of course).

With Time Team now dealt its death blow and Units decimated or worse by redundancies, it’s difficult to envision a future for British Archaeology whether on screen or off it. Programmes such as Neil Oliver’s Vikings are now more essential than ever for making audiences appreciate their heritage and wonder at its discovery. When they see archaeologists on television, is the public aware of how few are now left, trowel in hand, to uncover their past?

I asked Neil Oliver this evening how archaeology on British TV is representative of the state of the industry. Quite rightly, Neil said that contract archaeology has little to offer TV makers. So, if you remove academic archaeology or Time Team archaeology from our screens, what is left?

Long may British archaeologists – not least the charismatic Neil Oliver – appear on our TV screens, reminding us all of that we have to lose.

11 thoughts on “Interlude 2: Archaeology – a thing of the past?

  1. Robin's Books

    This is probably isn’t what I was meant to take from this piece, but hey, you went Leicester Uni! I was there 91-97. Coincidentally, the building in which I did my PhD (Chemistry) is now the archaeology department.

    1. Kate (For Winter Nights) Post author

      Connections! I worked for Leicester Uni about 1991-1993 – working on what is now the tax office centre in town; Loved it! I didn’t go to Leicester Uni though. I studied English and Classics at London, I just worked for Leicester as a contracted archaeologist. This is part of the problem. People assume that contract and academic archaeology are the same – they’re not. Love Leicester 🙂

  2. Robin's Books

    I wasnt even really aware that such a thing as contract archaeology, as you describe it existed. Leicester is a great city, we looked at moving back, but couldn’t quite make it fit. The centre has changed a lot since we left.

  3. Kate (For Winter Nights) Post author

    This is something that’s important to me – I was a contract archaeologist, as is my hubby (before he was made redundant). It’s entirely driven (or not driven) by development. The majority of archaeologists in this country work for companies based all round the UK. Many of these diggers though – probably 95% of my friends – are now unemployed. Archaeology is dead in the UK.

  4. Laura

    I was there last night as well. In fact, I was the student who asked the question after yours. This aspect of British archaeology is troubling to me. There’s nothing else I find so fascinating, but I’m constantly worried that I’m leading myself down a blind alley with my degree and I’ll end up having to retrain to do something else, because there just isn’t enough work to go around.

    1. Kate (For Winter Nights) Post author

      Hi Laura – thanks for commenting. It was a good night! Archaeology is a great love of mine too; I’ve invested years of my life doing it and I don’t have a single regret. It’s taken me around the world, introduced me to my partner of 20 years and has given me so much fun! I would never want to put anyone off studying archaeology or wanting to get into it as a career. Contract archaeology as I knew it is going through such a difficult time and it is true that most of my friends (and hubby) are now redundant. But there are many different areas to it – for instance, archaeology was my entry into publishing and writing. An archaeology degree is no handicap for entry into almost any profession, on the contrary. It will stand you in good stead as well as being such a fascinating subject to study.

      There are plenty of downsides to field archaeology as a career – bad backs, winters, lousy pay and job insecurity and that has always been the case – and most people won’t do it for too many years. But I am so glad I did it. If you love it, give it a go. I got my experience working abroad and that definitely helped. It isn’t the end of the world if you do have to retrain later on for something else. It’s so difficult to forecast what will happen in 10 or 20 years and retraining is something that happens to most of us.

      I am very concerned though that tv archaeology doesn’t reflect what is going on out there amongst the field units. It’s a big bugbear of mine.

      Best of luck with your studies 🙂

  5. Min

    Well said, Kate: it must be very distressing for you and your partner to watch this decline.
    I had no idea things were quite so bad (they weren’t – or didn’t seem to be at this pitch – when I, ahem, elected to decline offer from Bristol Univ for p/g study in this field). Dispiriting …

  6. dandare

    Thanks for writing about this….. i left the diggers life around 9 years ago, so am not totally aware of all that goes on now. When i left, i still believe tendering was at this stage putting pressure on Arch units too undercut each other, to gain the excavation/projects. Often Developers would take the cheaper option.
    I suppose i was lucky, as i came into archaeology at the right time,as i was constantly employed for 14 years working for various Units, and even working abroad in Italy for a time.
    I do not regret any of the my life as a digger/finds supervisor, apart from arthritic wrists, feet (my back somehow has stayed intact). What i did regret was the way some developers treated us, but we took it on the chin and laughed it off.
    It was a good life, but am totally gutted by what is happening now-i know quite a few who along with me decided with heavy hearts, that we had to leave the profession.
    I am very saddened to see BUFAU disappear, as i worked for them in the 90’s before moving onto the Bedford archaeological unit (now called Cambrian Archaeology).
    The future looks bleak, and i wish there was something that could be done to reverse the situation.

    1. Kate (For Winter Nights) Post author

      Thanks so much for commenting, Dan. I’m sorry for the delay in replying. I was stricken by flu for a week.

      It sounds like we were digging at the same time. Circuit digging certainly had good things going for it. I enjoyed the short contracts. It gave me time to go off back packing round Africa. It also means I could disappear off to Germany and Israel on some great digs. A hard life in many ways but I loved it. My partner has had to endure the decline and so is still out of work with a very bad back.

      I agree about some of the developers. We were such a nuisance to them. It was kind hard being a young woman on some of these industrial digs too.

      I don’t regret any of it. Thank you so much for commenting 🙂

  7. Pingback: Archeologia – un relitto del passato? (da For winter nights – A bookish blog) | Professione Archeologo

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