I recently started my PhD at the University of Nottingham in the archaeology of Early Modern apothecaries and I will have more posts about that across the next three years. First however, I have several posts that I wanted to write over the last nine months but did not have time to get to. The first of these is on my recent seven months stint in UK Commercial Archaeology.
I spent January to August this year (2017) working as an Archaeological Technician for Albion Archaeology in Bedford. I should start by saying that I had an amazing time in spite of the rain, snow, frozen ground, and slight sunburn that only seven months in Britain entails, weather-wise. It was an invaluable opportunity to see what pre-development archaeology is like in rural areas which are commutable to London. This is an area where there are a lot of housing and other developments occurring but is also an archaeologically rich area with prehistoric, Roman, Saxon, and medieval remains often uncovered during commercial work.
The first thing that I noticed was the distinct differences in practice between research archaeology (my only previous other excavation experience, although extensive). There are the obvious differences; speed stands out, as does the single context recording. Speed because there is significantly more pressure to get work completed within a specified time - this is usually related to budgetary concerns but in the case of at least one site I worked on it was because a school had to be built before the start of the next academic year which obviously had a minimum duration of construction. The recording was different because there was very little planning, only a pre- and post-excavation plan which was mostly completed by GPS. The context sheets and other recording was more or less the same but I was used to planning a small trench or unit layer by layer as each context was excavated. In commercial the focus was more on just finishing features.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches and I do not intend to make a value judgement on process, however I will emphasise one point that I think needs to be valued more; and that is the results, data, and other outputs of commercial archaeology. This is in someways the coalface of archaeological research; there is no way that researchers could generate the quantities of data that the commercial sector does, not with all the research grants in the world. The great shame of the whole situation is that the data from most commercial units is either never published or is not made use of by those who are trying to do synthetic research with disparate data and generating new knowledge. Additionally there is the value of working in commercial archaeology for anyone hoping to work within any of the disparate fields with which archaeology is associated. I personally think that doing a 3-6 month stint in commercial archaeology should either be a required component of an archaeology degree, or at least be required for a lot of archaeological work, most especially anything which has to do with excavation or dealing with site archives in museums.
The one negative that I took away from this period of work is that archaeologists in commercial field work are still working in the an arena where pay and conditions are not commensurate with the skill, importance, and value of what is usually a graduate profession. Things are generally getting better and I do think the CIfA is helping, albeit slowly and guided by people who perhaps are less concerned with diggers than the status of more senior archaeologists. In one way the number of large infrastructure projects which are upcoming (HS2 for example) will make the current shortage of field staff even more acute which will improve wages but likely not conditions. I do hope things improve soon because as things stand it is very hard to see many people being able to make a successful career in the sector.
This period was one filled with good friends, archaeology which I had not had the chance to dig before mainly prehistoric things, and I have to conclude that despite the shortcomings of the profession and the slow improvements, the sorts of people attracted to archaeology, either academic or commercial, are my kinds of people. Most likely you can find them in the nearest ale pub.