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Future Funding: A Blow For UK Students? Maintenance Grants Converted to Loans from the 16/17 Academic Year

14 Jul

The British government have recently released the first financial budget since the conservative party majority win in the general election in May 2015.  There is currently much debate on the nature of the reforms that George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has proposed (including the Living Wage replacing the Minimum Wage for people over 25), and whether the budget dis-proportionally targets the middle and lower-income earners (via scrapping working tax credits, removing housing benefit for under 21’s, etc.).  Regardless of the merits and negatives of the budget as a whole, there was one piece of information that is pertinent to the readers of this blog.

That is the proposal to turn maintenance grants (which currently do not have to be paid back unlike the maintenance loans, of up to £3,387 per academic year for lower-income students whose family household income is below £25,000 per annum) into loans from September 2016 (or the 16/17 academic year) for English and Welsh students.  These loans would have to be paid back by the student after they have started earning above a certain income (£21,000 per annum).  Osborne has also stated that the available loaned finance available for students in total will thus be increased up to a total £8,200 per academic year (there is a higher allowance in place for London), dependent on the financial status and background of the student.  This is an overall general increase of £766 per year, the highest that it has been.  Further to this is the possibility and suggestion of the uncapping of the £9000-a-year maximum of student tuition fees that universities in England and Wales can currently charge from the 17/18 academic year for the institutions which offer high-quality teaching, linking it instead with inflation.  There is currently no definition of high-quality teaching institutions and the rise in fees will likely be mentioned in further budgets in the remaining terms of this government.

It should be mentioned here that, for English and Welsh students, university is still free at the point of entry (Scotland has a different system due to greater independence).  Still, I cannot help but think that the loans may discourage students from poorer economic backgrounds in pursuing a degree. I also worry that this could affect different non-finally related sectors of the population more disparately than others in the access to education, when it is well-known that access to education offers the means to improve the circumstances of your life.

Last year I highlighted the changing nature of Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) from the 15/16 academic year for new students starting from that year.  DSA helps to level the playing field for students with disabilities in accessing tertiary education by equipping the students with non-medical help, transport costs, technological equipment and IT training, once they have been assessed on how their disability, or disabilities, affect them in an academic environment to the detriment of their studies.

It is well acknowledged that adult disabled individuals in the United Kingdom tend to be financially poorer than the norm.  The Papworth Trust, a charity focused on providing help for the disabled and elderly, cited the fact that, in a wide-ranging study of disability in the United Kingdom reported in 2014, the employment rate among disabled adults in March 2013 was 49% (4.1 million) compared to the national average of 81.8% of non-disabled people (source).  The two main barriers to work were seen as access to job opportunities (43%) and difficultly with transport (29%), whilst disabled adults are three times likely to have no formal qualifications as non-disabled individuals at 30% and 11% respectively in the reports study cohort.  In an Office for National Statistics report on adult health in Great Britain in 2013, more than 1 in 3 individuals responded positively to having a long-term disability or illness which affected their life (source).

Of course, this all may appear a minor financial quibble in the United Kingdom compared to the ongoing massive financial and business crisis in Greece (with the ‘troika’ of the EU, ECB and the IMF imposing strict financial settlements and austerity measures) and the possible first signs of trouble, or at least signs of slowing down, in the Chinese economy.

However, I’d argue that, as a potential barrier in accessing higher education, and hence skills, this poses a problem in the ability for students from low-income backgrounds and students with disabilities having to justify their course choices and, more generally, the financial ability to pay the loan back once the course has been completed.  Furthermore, there is the potential for the cost to fall back on the UK taxpayers if these loans are not repaid by the student.  There are no easy answers to the funding of higher education, especially as more students gain entry than ever before.  Universities are dynamic places though, both in as centers of employment and of research and teaching – to undervalue them would be to do great discredit to their economic and educational value.  There is a crushing amount of debt to face already as a new university student in the UK, however it is realised that the student loans system is quite unlike high street bank loans, in the fact that the interest rate is much lower and the individual is given a much longer time back in which to pay back the loan, and only after a certain amount of annual income has been reached.  Still, I would, as a new student today, think twice regarding whether a course was necessarily worth the debt (though I have no doubts the value and real wealth of the British university system, in both the quality of the research and the experience itself of being a student).

It is this last point that makes me think of archaeology in all of this.  Most practicing archaeologists in the UK today are highly educated, often needing or pursuing post-graduate courses to specialise within the sector.  It is well recognised that, at the moment and historically, archaeology is a poorly paid employment sector and, especially if you are primarily a field archaeologist, that this employment can be precarious in nature.  With recent changes in planning and construction law, the ability of archaeological companies to safeguard both the work and the quality of the archaeology uncovered is also in real danger.  We gain must ask ourselves who is archaeology for and who is involved?  What are the barriers to everyone accessing archaeology and how can we overcome these barriers as a sector?

I’ve got confidence that the archaeological market will adapt to the challenges posed, that students will still attend university, and that loans will, in one form or another be paid back as possible.  It is clear though that barriers to accessing education at a higher level in the UK are rising.  We should be wary of this, and we should be wary of the longer term implications of it, especially when we come to view our past.

Further Information

  • A full breakdown of the financial entitlements available to students who study in the United Kingdom is available here via the government website.  The page includes all the information available for the pricing of the maintenance loans, maintenance grants and the terms and conditions of the financial agreements themselves.  The website for the Office for National Statistics, which houses many open access reports, documents various national statistics, including the health and disability status of the population of the United Kingdom and the individual countries within it.
  • The previous post detailing the available human osteology taught masters courses in the United Kingdom (or courses where modules in human osteology and anatomy are included), along with the guidelines on course prices for domestic and international students, can be found here.  A supplementary post on the questions to remember to ask when thinking about studying human osteology, or bioarchaeology, at the masters level can be found here.
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Guest Post: The Rise of BAJR Part III by David Connolly

15 Oct

David Connolly is the founder of the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources (BAJR) website and runs, along with archaeologist Maggie Struckmeier, the Past Horizons website, a web portal specializing in the reporting of archaeological news and projects from around the globe.  Formerly a guitarist and key member of punk band Oi Polloi, David left to pursue a career in archaeology and subsequently worked the British field circuit for a number of years.  He has also excavated and surveyed sites in far-flung places such as Croatia, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Jordan.  His experiences at York helped him form a keystone in his belief of the use of methodologies in archaeological practice.  Currently residing in Scotland, David specializes in archaeological surveys and regularly partakes in community archaeology projects.

Part 1 in this series, detailing David’s background and the inception of BAJR, can be found here.  Part 2 in this series, detailing the rise of BAJR and it became what it is today, can be found here.  This is the third and final part in this series.

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BAJR III

As previously reported, BAJR was founded in 1999 on the same campaigning principles as the radical Digger newsletter, and BAJR has grown into one of the most recognizable and trusted sources of archaeological employment opportunities and advice in the United Kingdom.

However, to remain fixed in the past is to ignore the ever-changing environment that surrounds us all, and so BAJR is evolving in 2015 in an effort to embrace this.

Employment at the heart of BAJR

One aspect that remains core to the website is the provision of advertising.  BAJR will continue to protect the lowest grades of workers within the industry, while providing a new platform to encourage trainees and internships, within a strictly formalised system to prevent misuse of less skilled staff as a means to cut costs.  Discussions are now being held to consider the implementation of a single minima system, which relates to (mainly) the G2 fieldworker or PIfA.  Here the only minima that a contractor must abide by will be this figure – currently £17,094.  Any payment over £250 more than this rate would be presented with a More than Minima badge.

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Jump on board and help the archaeology sector gain the credit it deserves!

The grading system will still remain in order to provide a background to the level of responsibility expected, but no minima will be attached.  This at first sounds like an invitation to pay less, but tied to the following innovation on the BAJR website – the regional pay map – it is designed to have exactly the opposite effect, by providing a constantly updated average pay rate for various ‘standard’ grades such as supervisor, project officer and managerial posts, matched to geographic areas of the UK.  Knowing the base rate, both the prospective employee can see who is paying the best rate, and employers can judge if they will be able to attract staff based on their current wage level.  It is hoped that securing the basic minima, and allowing the market to dictate the levels beyond this, it will effectively cause rates to rise in order to gain the best staff.

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Copies of the Archaeology Skills Passports ready to be sent out. It is all about the record keeping of your achievements and hard work in the archaeology sector so that it is recognised professionally.

Beyond this it is imperative that the companies are allowed the opportunity to display the range of benefits that they provide, over and above the blunt instrument of the weekly pay packet.  The new BANR (British Archaeological News Resource) and the original BAJR website will include a section that allows ‘like for like’ contractor comparison.  This page will include a range of benefits from overnight subsistence payment to travel time remuneration; research opportunities available from the company and even a list of recent flagship projects to show the potential a new employee can expect.

Archaeology Skills Passport

Currently, there are also a number of companies who are considering the Archaeology Skills Passport as a means to broach the issue of standardized and transferable skill/training documentation.  They have advised they could all save time/money by pooling resources by mapping their own individual needs (on introductory training in particular) across to the passport.

Utilization of the Archaeology Skills Passport and it’s adoption as a basic training record across the profession that allows for progression – fits well with recognising the requirements for the lowest level pay rate.  If you have completed the Primary Skills section in the passport, you have shown yourself worth the G2/PIfA minima rate.  Otherwise you are still in training.

This creates a singular goal for people because it is made clear what is required.  Better than a CV and also fairer than the start at the bottom every time situation that has been so prevalent for fieldwork jobs, and we all know so well.

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The Archaeology Skills Passport is a handy book designed to help build up your skill base by getting a supervisor, site director or lecturer to sign off on the skills that you have completed on-site. Designated into Core Skills (Section drawing, troweling etc.), Secondary Skills (finds processing, geophysics etc.), and Tertiary skills (report writing, outreach etc.) sections this booklet acts as a record to your achievement. Get yours here.

BAJR will always be there for anyone who needs advice on any level along with access to good quality information.  The forum has been strengthened with a Facebook and Twitter presence, so discussion has become even more interesting and far-reaching.

What is still black and white and read all over?  Why BAJR of course… and one thing is for sure, it is you who make it so.

Further Information

  • You can read more about the project concept of the Archaeology Skills Passport here.
  • Hang out with some diggers at the BAJR Federation Forum.
  • Want a job in British archaeology?  Start here!
  • The new and revamped Past Horizons website has been launched for all of your archaeological news needs.

Revisiting ‘Nazi War Diggers’: Editorial in the Journal of Conflict Archaeology

30 Sep

In the latest edition of the Journal of Conflict Archaeology there is an editorial that briefly discusses the professional response of archaeologists (via social media) to the proposed (and now cancelled) National Geographic Channel show Nazi War Diggers (Pollard & Banks 2014).  As readers of this blog, and other archaeological blogs, may be aware that a whole can of worms was opened when the National Geographic Channel started to advertise their Nazi War Diggers program online.  The clips that the station put up online showed almost zero respect to the uncovering and exhuming of the dead of WWII on the Eastern Front (the clips shown seemed to focus primarily on a battleground site in Latvia), and little (if any) attention paid to the archaeological context of the remains themselves.

Field archaeology is a largely destructive method of uncovering and documenting a unique and non-replenishing resource, hence why great care is taken in the contextual recording and analysis of archaeological sites in various mediums (in the use and application of excavation methodology, on-site recording, recording of site formation, specialist reports, conservation of artefacts, film photography, digital media, etc.).  So it was no surprise that, when the footage of Nazi War Diggers was promoted, archaeologists and other heritage specialists were horrified at the unprofessional and unethical treatment of both the human material recovered and of the associated artefacts, such as the Nazi memorabilia uncovered.  Perhaps what was/is even more worrying is the long-term deposition and custody (i.e whereabouts) of the remains and artefacts that were excavated, alongside the actual legality surrounding the actions of venture itself.  As osteoarchaeologist Alison Atkin succinctly highlighted at the time – ‘it  is every kind of wrong’.

As Pollard & Banks (2014: 51) remark it was not just social media that picked up on the outrage of the show but also mainstream media, such as newspapers, that highlighted the professional and personal distaste with the Nazi War Diggers program.  A very important point here is highlighted in the editorial, which bloggers such as Sam Hardy at Conflict Antiquities also noticed, was how the National Geographic Channel replied.  The company removed the questioned video from their site, edited the text and removed damaging quotes from the lead presenter (‘by selling things that are Nazi related and for lots of money, I’m preserving a part of history that museums don’t want to bother with‘, as quoted in Pollard & Banks 2014: 51).  As readers will no doubt be aware individuals who fell in the Second World War can still be identified, can still be returned to their families for burial, can still have living relatives who may have known them.  With these points in mind, even barring the unethical exhumation and nonsense comments, it becomes clear that the treatment of the remains on Nazi War Diggers was, at the least, potentially offensive.

Still the debacle helped to unite a range of heritage professionals in condemnation and, to their good and commendable credit, the National Geographic Channel have pulled the show and have started an inquiry.  This very fact highlights that the company have at least heard the views of the many professional individuals and members of the public that have contacted them (tough though that may have been).  As Sam Hardy further highlights the narrative isn’t that clear-cut either as there were a number of different organisations involved during the making and producing of Nazi War Diggers, including Legenda, the company used in the Latvian sequence of the show.  It is pertinent here to include a quote from hardy’s blog entry regarding the Legenda organisation, and those like it, who work in tough environments:

Since there are still war survivors and missing persons as well as mass graves and battlefields in Latvia, Latvians are still living in the aftermath of the conflict. Dealing with survivors’ and relatives’ loved ones as past, as archaeology, is a delicate, painful process.

Being respectfully scientific with fallen soldiers can be experienced by soldiers’ relatives as being disrespectfully clinical. And that pressure is felt by the volunteers who do the work as well as by the archaeologists who cannot secure professional standards of work.” (Hardy 2014, but see here also).

Yet there are still serious questions that remain in the commission of Nazi War Diggers and of the relationship between the television and archaeology in general.  Battles, and battlefields, have long been a staple for re-enactments on historical documentaries on television, yet not many have actively highlighted the excavation of human remains with such abandon as Nazi War Diggers.  Furthermore, there is the very real danger that this show has undermined the credibility of conflict archaeology as an emerging, but important, field in itself.  With the centenary of the First World War upon us, and important archaeological investigations into the sites where the horrors of the holocaust were carried out in the World War Two (see Sturdy Colls 2012 for non-invasive techniques used at the Treblinka camp), this can be seen as particularly insensitive and crass.  Archaeology is not the handmaiden of history, but walks alongside it hand in hand, helping to provide vital physical evidence to the documentary evidence.  A particular problem is further highlighted by Pollard & Banks, which is this:

How did we get to a situation where something like Nazi War Diggers is regarded as a desirable product by a major broadcaster such as National Geographic Television? This is not the place to attempt an answer to this question but we have clearly reached a point where some self-reflection is called for, especially by those of us who have benefitted from our involvement in television.

We can only hope that National Geographic Television’s decision to pull the series means that a change of commissioning policy will be considered, with a return to more responsible programming, which does both television and the practice of archaeology credit.” (Pollard & Banks 2014: 52).

The editorial is an interesting piece and I’d recommend taking the time to read it.  In the meantime myself and other archaeology bloggers will be keen to see what the National Geographic Channel get up to with the footage already shot for the Nazi War Diggers program and whether it comes back, or not, in any shape or form.  The response of many of the bloggers to the show (including myself) has been a reactive reaction to it, decrying it for the lack of care and thought put into the show’s presentation and approach.  However it has undoubtedly raised knowledge of what is a very tangible and emotional remainder of the actual human cost of conflict and war – the survival, exhumation and recovery of the remains of individuals killed in action, whether participating as active soldiers or as civilians.

As Pollard & Banks (2014: 52) highlight we, as active bloggers and specialists in this area, must also engage, educate and help inform both the general public and organisations (including National Geographic Channel) as to what is the appropriate approach when it comes to excavating, analysing, and presenting the remains of humans excavated from both archaeological and historic contexts.  If we don’t more programs, such as Nazi War Diggers, will be produced, which will lead to the decay of contextual information and, ultimately, the loss of knowledge.

Learn More:

Bibliography

Hardy, S. 2014. A Note on the Volunteer Human Rights Exhumers Legenda. Conflict Antiquities. Accessed 30th September 2014.

Pollard, T. & Banks, I. 2014. Editorial. Journal of Conflict Archaeology9 (2): 49-52. (Open Access).

Sturdy Colls, C. 2012. Holocaust Archaeology: Archaeological Approaches to Landscapes of Nazi Genocide and Persecution. Journal of Conflict Archaeology.  7 (2): 70-104.

Institute for Archaeologists on Track for Chartership

12 Feb

The Institute for Archaeologists (IFA) has announced that chartered archaeologists are to be a reality in the UK after receiving news on the advancement of the recent chartership bid.

IFA

The banner for the IFA, an organistion that covers a broad swath of the historic environment in the UK, including the full involvement of archaeological work and research. (Image credit: IFA).

This is a fantastic move for helping to recognise the value and importance of archaeologists across the land in the heritage and cultural sectors.  The IFA represent the interests of archaeology and archaeologists to the government, policy makers and industry, as well as helping to set down guidelines and standards.  Furthermore the IFA also provide training opportunities and promote the wealth and value of archaeology to the country as a whole.

As well as raising the profile of archaeology generally (and in turn the accredited members of the IFA), the chartership status will also bring archaeologists up to step with surveyors, planners, architects and engineers in recognising the value in and of the sector.

The fact that the IFA are now to be a chartered institute indicates that they work that they have done, and continue to do, has proven to be of real value to both the industry and to the general public.  In this time of fairly deep cuts to the cultural and heritage sector, this is something to get behind and support if you support heritage and archaeology as a whole.  Archaeology is a finite resource – it is not renewable, thus it needs our support now.

Further Information

Guest Post: The Rise of BAJR Part I by David Connolly

12 Dec

David Connolly is the founder of the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources (BAJR) website and runs, along with archaeologist Maggie Struckmeier, the Past Horizons website, a web portal specialising in the reporting of archaeological news and projects from around the globe.  Formerly a guitarist and key member of punk band Oi Polloi, David left to pursue a career in archaeology and subsequently worked the British field circuit for a number of years.  He has also excavated and surveyed sites in far flung places such as Croatia, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Jordan.  His experiences at York helped him form a keystone in his belief of the use of methodologies in archaeological practice.  Currently residing in Scotland, David specialises in archaeological surveys and regularly partakes in community archaeology projects.

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Once there was a time without BAJR (pronounced badger) – however, very little is understood about how it became a part of British archaeology and how it has evolved into its present day form.

The Man Behind BAJR

BAJR was a creation of myself, David Connolly and was born out of a realization that although the world of archaeology can be a wonderful place to be, it can equally create very real problems for those who wish to pursue it as a career.

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A long haired David Connolly and a trusted total station taking recordings and measurements during archaeological survey work.  Survey work is a key part of archaeological field research and plays a major role in the evaluation of archaeological sites and during excavations themselves.

At the end of the 1990s I was experiencing this very problem and was not in the best of places, both mentally and physically. Once in the not too distant past, the world was my oyster; I worked my way around the Middle East and Central Asia in winter and the UK circuit during the summer. But these halcyon days were not to last and I became trapped in an ever decreasing spiral of work dependence, an all too common malaise of the peripatetic jobbing archaeologist.

Around 1997 my life started to change for the better when I met Maggie my wife. She seemed to see saw some sort of potential in this washed up train wreck of a man.

I tried to ‘man up’ and made an effort to create a website to promote my own work, but it all felt a bit pointless.

At around the same time, I became aware of a newsletter called the Digger which was a ‘tell it like it is, no holds barred’ publication, doing the rounds of the site hut. Reading this suddenly made me very aware that I wasn’t the only one out there experiencing difficulties. This led to many discussions about all the associated employment problems such as poor wages and unregulated conditions that archaeologists were trying to cope with. Maggie then suggested that I do something positive with this knowledge and take a stand.

At last, I felt I had a real purpose and my sad little website got a makeover in August 1998 and became a platform to announce employment opportunities within the profession.

BAJR Beginnings

With this new belief that we can all do something positive to change our lives and not just sit and grumble about it became the foundation stone of BAJR. It was envisaged as a resource for collecting any archaeological jobs that were on the grapevine and also to act as a means to stay in touch and communicate.

Early BAJR existed in a time before social media and mobile internet. Connection was via dialup modems and field archaeologists would normally use the computer at their local library to check BAJR for jobs and then print any out to share around. Seeing the valuable role that BAJR was now playing in the employment process, archaeology companies were increasingly emailing job adverts for inclusion onto the website. BAJR was fast becoming a popular method of finding staff, not just for digging teams, but for other roles as well.

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An early version of the BAJR website.

This central portal ensured that postal lists were now becoming obsolete and the expense to a company of taking out a Guardian advert or similar was no longer required. Every BAJR job advert could be printed out and posted up on the walls of site huts in a matter of minutes after they were uploaded.

Each advert that came in was hand transcribed from email or letter over to an html page – but this scrutiny led to interesting consequences. Examining each and every job posting provided the opportunity to question and even to refuse those that seemed to pay less than the ‘standard’ wages. Of course, this meant that criteria needed to be made clearer so that companies and applicants knew what was acceptable and what was not.

A system needed to be formalised, something that provided markers for progression and pay minima grades based on responsibility. This was worked upon and then introduced, over two years and several discussions with contractors later, the nuances and present structure finally evolved.

Formalising

Simple to understand, it was generally accepted by most of the UK archaeological contractors as a basis for pay and conditions. It has to be stressed though that these grades have never sought to replace Institute for Archaeologists levels (PIfA, IAfA and MIfA) or even attempt to subvert them; it is merely a way for all contractors and all archaeologists who use BAJR to know what is expected and what the bottom line is.

It is true to say that some people feel that the BAJR pay minima represent de facto levels, but this is not the intent. Although, every company is consulted annually on the following 12 monthly grade pay scale, the choice to advertise or not, is always in the hands of the contractor. They are free to pay less than the quoted grade if they wish, but if they do they know that their jobs will not be advertised on BAJR.

Thus the modern day BAJR is a beast of three parts:

  1. Jobs portal – It is accepted by archaeologists working in the United Kingdom that BAJR (British Archaeological Jobs and Resources) is a trusted portal for archaeology job adverts and has a strong pay and conditions ethic.
  2. Forum – BAJR also provides a platform to encourage open debate on all that is right, wrong and humorous about the archaeological profession.
  3. Information provider – A comprehensive searchable directories ranging from curatorial services to heritage courses within the UK.

It is now fifteen years since the first BAJR website was uploaded but the brand and the ethos behind it has stood the test of time.

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The modern interactive face of the BAJR site today with each component playing a special part within British archaeology.

The Future?

Defining and distracting views of BAJR include misconceptions, expectations and beliefs that merged into a monolithic vision of an organisation that must be up to something, but what was that something?

Find out now as Part II and Part III of the Rise of BAJR can be found here and here

Interview with Stuart Rathbone: A View from the Trenches

8 Nov

Stuart Rathbone is a field archaeologist with considerable experience in the UK, Ireland and the United States of America in excavation and project supervising a number of important prehistoric and historic archaeology sites.  In conjunction with field work, Stuart has also held academic positions and writes regularly on a broad range of topics in archaeology for varied audiences.  Stuart has recently left the role of an archaeological project officer, based in the Orkney islands in northern Scotland with ORCA, to persue an archaeology career in the United States.  Stuart’s Academia profile, with links to his papers, can be found here.

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These Bones Of Mine:  Hello Stuart, welcome to These Bones of Mine!  For those who do not know could you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do please?

Stuart Rathbone:  Well I’m really what you might call a jobbing archaeologist. I graduated from Bournemouth University about 13 years ago and since the week I left I’ve been earning my living doing whatever jobs people were willing to pay me to do. I left England in 2001 to do a 6 month contract on one of the Irish motorway jobs and without ever intending to I guess I ended up emigrating. I worked my way up the career ladder within one of the bigger contracting firms ACS. By 2006 I was licensed to direct my own excavations and I spent a couple of years on the M3 Motorway project running some fairly tasty sites. Unfortunately in 2008 the Irish economy tanked and I found myself unexpectedly unemployed. I was fortunate to land on my feet and spent the next four years running a field school on Achill Island in County Mayo training archaeology and anthropology students from all over the world. That job was great fun, a real change from the commercial world. I also managed to pick up a little contract with University College Dublin helping to write up the overdue reports for the Céide Fields Neolithic Landscape Project. That all came to an end in 2011 and I moved home to England and spent some time out in East Anglia doing more contract work. At the start of this year I moved up to the Northern Isles where I’ve been doing more pre development stuff but also a little bit of time over the summer spent at the Neolithic Ness of Brodgar site. Basically that’s me, some commercial work, some research work, lurking around the university departments without ever becoming a faculty member and really just doing whatever anyone with a cheque book asks me to!

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Somewhere in Wicklow in 2001. Every one who works in Ireland will remember their first Burnt Stone Mound.

I guess part of the reason you’ve asked me to do this interview is because other than digging holes I write quite a bit of archaeology. I have quite a few specific areas of interest that I plug away at. I enjoy looking at the way the profession works across different sectors and also how we communicate archaeology in different media and to different audiences. In terms of more traditional topics I’ve written a lot about prehistoric settlement, and a few bits and pieces about post Medieval vernacular buildings. Finally I do some more wayward and experimental stuff which provides an antidote to all the serious pieces I write. It would be unfortunately rare for me to actually get paid for any of this writing, so it’s definitely a sort of a hobby. The nice thing about this though is that because I’m not being paid or funded I’m not really beholden to anyone either. Not only am I very free to choose what I’ll work on, I’m also very free to express myself in the which ever way my mood takes me.

TBOM: I think anyone who has read your William Burroughs influenced ‘cut up’ archaeology article probably wouldn’t forget it in a hurry!  Having been a field archaeologist since 2001 and writing widely on the subject, how well do you think the world of archaeology is presented or made accessible to the public?  Do you think a dichotomy exists between the public’s perception of archaeology and its value compared to what the researchers and diggers actually do?

Stuart: Well there’s certainly problems. I think we don’t communicate with the public directly enough, or certainly not at a serious academic level. Everything is mediated through a series of interchangeable TV presenters, who may have backgrounds and expertise in totally different areas. Time Team was fabulous and irritating in equal amounts, and that’s not just from a professional point of view. A lot of the time they thought they were being clever but they weren’t fooling anybody. We certainly need more archaeology on TV, and there’s so many ways that it could be worked out. The old documentary formats are far from irrelevant, they just need people to figure out new ways of getting decent archaeological content into them. But somehow some shows really need to exploit the potential for following longer and more complicated excavations. I’m sure it could be done, but it needs to be a really fabulous set of sites, really competently run and with beautiful project design, and it needs to be cinematic. A damp field in rural Leicestershire just isn’t going to cut it.

The main problem with TV isn’t even the shows, it’s what the effect has been on popular publishing. Almost all the popular archaeology books are now written by, or ghost written for, the people from TV and linked in to the sales generated during the airing of a particular show. It’s all incredibly basic, watered down and insipid. Mostly it’s the same generic information endlessly recycled. If you are lucky enough to still have a bookshop, go and have a look at  the history shelves. You’ll find they are teaming with books on a huge range of historical subjects, and only a small percent are tied into TV shows. If you find the little corner of the shelf where the archaeology books gather it’s a very different, and very sad, story. So it seems there is still an audience for proper books about history, but we’ve just not got that for archaeology. Maybe it’s a fundamental problem with the subject matter, that it just doesn’t lend itself to interesting tales, but I’m sure it’s also because we just don’t have the skills that historians do in finding exciting ways to share our information.  That’s where all the ancient aliens and mother goddess stuff comes in. Because people are interested in the archaeological landscapes they see around them and they want to know about them, but they sure don’t want to be bored. And the way that stuff works is that firstly it’s exciting and secondly it makes the reader feel special, like they are being initiated into this realm of secret knowledge. For all the horrendous liberties taken with the archaeological content, those books are successful because they utilise a good dynamic. So we need to be braver, we need to start writing more interesting books, more amusing books. And I don’t believe for one minute that we have to water down our concepts. Seriously, thinking we’re so clever that ordinary folk wouldn’t understand us is ridiculously arrogant. We just need to have a bit of faith that an audience we have been failing to reach is out there waiting for us to come to them.

On a more positive note we do lots of things right, but mostly when we communicate directly. I don’t really like the term Community Archaeology, it seems so… medical. What was wrong with having societies? But anyway those groups provide fantastic interaction between the public and the archaeologists, and they are thriving. Unfortunately they are only involving a small number of people, there just isn’t the capacity to reach everyone that might be interested. And they tend to be a little bit elusive, they don’t reach out to new potential members so much. I think there will always be a natural group size for things like that, somewhere between 10 and 30 people, probably better near the lower end. It’s a club structure, operating at a very local scale, it just doesn’t work with big numbers. So all the archaeology days and all of those things are great, but they don’t solve the issue of the missing popular archaeology. Same sort of thing with the public lectures. You know when archaeologists go out and give their lectures at little groups and societies? Well that’s fantastic, and I love doing that sort of thing myself, but at 30 people a time it’s not like the message of archaeology is getting spread far and wide. That’s probably where the internet can step in. I love the way archaeologists have all these new ways of communicating with the public and, just as importantly, with each other. It’s totally changed things in an awful lot of ways, in particular because the academic structure really isn’t carried over to the digital realm where people use all these weird nicknames and avatars and identity is hidden, or even on Facebook where identities are normally genuine, people don’t advertise their job title so much. So you’ll see a question go up on a board from a member of the public or another archaeologist looking for information and advice, and they’ll get all these useful answers, really helpful stuff. But if you know who the people are who are giving the information away it can be these really important archaeologists, contractors with decades of experience, state sector archaeologists, University lecturers, or just random gobshites like myself. People are getting access to some really highly qualified people and they may not even realise it. That just makes me very happy every time I see it.

TBOM: It seems that reality has read your reply and answered in the form of making the TV presenter Dan Snow the new president for the Council of British Archaeology!  Stuart, you have written movingly of the issues facing that much-maligned face of archaeology, the field archaeologist, over at Robert M. Chappel’s blog.  Having been a field archaeology for some 13 years now what, in your view, has improved and what conditions remain to be improved for field archaeologists in the UK and Ireland?  More importantly, what can people who run archaeological units or are field archaeologists themselves do to the improve conditions?

Stuart: Yeah that thing on Bob’s Blog is probably the most successful thing I’ve ever written, it got a ridiculous number of views. I’d like to think that’s because it really hit the spot for a lot of people but of course, you can never be sure. I think the main point by the end of that piece is that the conditions in field archaeology could be having  a much worse affect on peoples over all well being than has ever been acknowledged. There’s certainly every possible combination of circumstance that would promote ill health, in particular poor mental health, but we just don’t know if it is a problem or not. There is no data. We have all these surveys of the profession but they are so limited in terms of what they’ve examined. We really need a sociological study of Field Archaeology, that’s kind of what the paper is about. That someone needs to really go out and conduct some very in depth interviews with a great big pile of archaeologists and see what the situation is. I suspect it would be bad, but I wouldn’t be that surprised if people are coping better than they might. Archaeologists are fairly rugged individuals and tend to have a bitter sense of humour that can see them through. I’d love to do it myself but it’s such a huge project and I have no funding. I’m up to my eyes in unfunded hobby projects so I just can’t take it on. What I am doing at the moment is asking for people who have read the article to contribute their own experiences either as a comment at the bottom of the blog page or if they want to stay anonymous just to email it to me, or send it to me on Facebook or whatever. That came about because quite a senior Northern Irish archaeologist wrote a lengthy and really emotional account of why she left the profession as a comment after the piece. I was just blown away so I’ve asked for more and any that come in will be included as an appendix in a physical version of the article that should be coming out next year. I’ll probably take the chance to make my own testimony, and that would  explain a lot about how I got interested in working on that topic in the first place.

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The top of Slievemore in County Mayo, during the summer of 2010. One of those moments when the great out doors really just takes the piss.

As for the problems facing field archaeologists in Britain and Ireland, well the situations are quite different, and that’s going back for ten or fifteen years at least, but in many ways it’s equally bad. It’s no secret that there is a major problem with careers in field archaeology, in terms of payment, job security and career progression. I don’t really have any answers I’m afraid. The current mechanisms of competitive tendering in a deregulated market just don’t allow for much progress to be made. The Institute for Field Archaeology and the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland are both in the same boat. Whilst they perform some important functions they just won’t get involved in the issues which most field staff want them to. Archaeologists look for them to replicate some of the functions of Unions, but they can’t or won’t do it. It doesn’t help of course that many of the people running the companies that treat archaeological staff so poorly are heavily involved in these professional bodies. The people directly responsible for the situation are members of these organisations and if there was a will to change it’s always been in their power to make it happen. It often seems like they are only involved in order to protect their own interests, but that’s probably an unfair and over simplistic view. The involvement of the company owners provides a fantastic resource and they have such a wealth of knowledge about things the rest of us only ever get small glimpses of, but at the same time it causes a lot of bitterness and distrust. Perhaps the company owners need to be separated off from the main body of the groups in some way, like having them form an advisory panel that places their skills at the disposal of the rest of the membership but doesn’t let them influence or even partake in voting.

I’m sure both organisations would see membership rocket if there was a genuinely feeling that they were going to sort out these problems. I know the Diggers Forum are trying to orchestrate a takeover of the IFA, building a new world inside the shell of the old and all that. And I wish them the best of luck, it’s the way the syndicalists in France managed it so it’s a tactic that does have history. Personally though I think the only way it will change is through direct action. David Connolly at BAJR has a mild version of this, he’s always saying that when archaeologists see poorly paid jobs they simply mustn’t apply for them. And he’s right, we can’t fight against each other like that, if no one takes the jobs at rock bottom prices they will have to offer more money. So not taking work at lower than BAJR rates is kind of a minimum requirement. But I think it needs to go a little bit further than that. I was disappointed that the Representation for Irish Archaeologists group got diverted into a sort of sub committee within the IAI, I feel they would have been more effective as a separate organisation. Unfortunately at the moment the sub committee convened  what had been a very lively and public discussion between lots of different people with lots of different views just ended. And the handful of people that got onto the sub committee went off and that was that really, the discussion group died and all of that energy and vitality evaporated.

I think history shows that with these struggles you need big popular movements, an empowered collective of the staff. Secretive closed meetings between a handful of people on behalf of the rest… well I wish them luck, I really do, but I do think it was a tactical error, and made no secret of that at the time. More interesting perhaps is what’s going on with the Unite Union in Ireland at the moment, as they are making a big push to get archaeologists on board. I guess there’s  a lot of scepticism about Unions, the profession isn’t really their working class semi skilled natural environment, but I’m waiting to see how that goes, in terms both of the level of engagement and to see if there’s much in the way of a specific plan put forward. Jean O’Dowd is involved in that, and she’s bang on so I have some hope, but whether that sinks or swims will really be down to Unite producing a convincing document detailing the specifics of what they can do for archaeologists if enough of us join. The sad thing is of course that the interests of the owners needn’t be different from those of the staff. If wages were higher contracts would be more expensive and the company owners could make more profit. It’s just something has to be done to take wage costs out of the equation when it comes to competitive tendering, and no one is ever willing to make that first move. The profession exists in an eternal Mexican standoff.

The other really big thing we have to tackle, once we have basic rates of pay sorted out is going to have to be pensions. We need to find a way of getting a pension scheme for archaeologists, something that can work for a career based on continually shifting between companies and regular bouts of unemployment. This is were the IAI and the IFA could really do something positive, find a pension provider that can design a product with our needs, find a way of companies being able to include a standard set of pension contributions along side wages. Because at the moment the reality for any archaeologist in my position is extremely grim. I don’t own a house and probably never will, I’ve never earned enough to buy one. On occasion I have savings, but every time I have a period of unemployment they get burnt up covering the bills and paying child maintenance. At the moment if I were to retire I would be essentially destitute and the state would look after me. But in 30 odd years time once the demographic crisis has kicked in? Forget about it! When I think about my retirement I just see a cardboard home under a bridge in London and meals from a soup kitchen. When my alcoholic compadres finally beat me to death for my spare change the local newspaper might run a small article about how I had once been an archaeologist and was known on the streets as ‘the professor’…

I know a lot of archaeologists in their mid to late thirties who have really been screwed over. They went to college to get degrees, fought like ninjas to get established, worked in some pretty awful conditions because they were so committed to the work. And basically they got nothing out of it at the end of the day. They don’t own houses, they don’t have good cars, they don’t have pension funds or savings. It’s like there’s some hidden law that says archaeologists can’t have nice things. But we deserve better than that, we really do. And the thing is… would you recommend your own kids followed you into archaeology? I know I certainly don’t.

TBOM:  Would you say specialising in archaeology could provide a way for field archaeologists to branch out?

Stuart: Yeah… why not. There’s certainly something a bit more like a normal career if you can get established as a pottery expert or an animal bones expert or that sort of thing. You have to be very careful though if you’re going to pay for training in some areas, like surveying for example, firms may be quite happy to use self taught bodgers rather than to pay for properly trained staff. And of course if they can just get any old person to do it you can be damn sure they won’t be paying very much money for a trained person. I think it’s a terrible shame people are expected to pay for their own training these days, but that’s across every industry. Companies are just no longer willing to commit to a person and fork out some cash to increase their skills. As they have made no financial investment in their staff they are always dispensable. Horrible really. But as it’s going to be a personal investment you really need to do your research before handing over your money to a University or whoever is going to train you. That stuff can get expensive really fast and you need to be completely sure that you will be getting high quality training that will actually be recognised and  that there are genuinely improved career prospects for you at the end of it. If you think about it in a particularly harsh way someone making these choices will have already wasted a lot of time and money doing an archaeology degree that hasn’t provided them what they wanted, so they mustn’t make the same mistake again. It’s really at this point when you have to make the choice about whether to stay in archaeology and improve your skills, or leave archaeology and get some entirely new ones instead.

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Wandering into the massive souterrain at Carn Euny in Cornwall. This was during the brief but glorious heat wave of 2013. It was nice to be cold and damp for a change!

But this sort of thing is sad in another way. It always seems that specialists tend to be treated better than field staff, especially if they are taken on to work in the company offices. It all gets very cosy inside. They get paid more, get treated with more respect by the management, they aren’t putting up with all the constant relocation, long commutes and shitty weather. I suspect there is often cake. And when you compare that to how field staff are treated it just doesn’t make sense. It’s field staff that are out there doing the hard work, having to deal with the developers face to face, doing the graft that generates the companies profits and where’s their cake? Honestly, when does the boss ever turn up at break time on site and drop off a nice cake? Cake withholding bastards the lot of them!

More seriously though, one of the old IFA guides made the point that on site specialists should be used to do certain tasks, precisely because they are specialists and have the training, but at the same time it should be acknowledged that the experienced site staff are specialists in the process of excavation, and they have expertise and skills that are just as highly developed in their respective field and those skills should be fully utilised. That always struck me as a very telling remark. Experienced site staff may have ridiculous amounts of experience, literally decades of the stuff. They can excavate any site you throw at them, project mange the heck out of it, know the legislations and regulations inside and out, identify and process finds, design and run sampling strategies, undertake all manner of surveying tasks, write reports, provide training, lecture, tour guide, pass peer reviews… and certainly in the UK there isn’t much in the way of financial recognition of the body of skills they are able to bring to bear. When they made the excavation License interview in Ireland much harder about 10 years back at least there was a clear understanding of the range of skills and depth of knowledge site directors needed. It isn’t a perfect system by any means but because it is a hard qualification to acquire and every site has to be run by a License eligible archaeologist located pretty permanently on the site it provided a great mechanism to raise wages.

All screwed now of course but that’s a different story. In the UK there’s really no requirement to hire anyone with any serious level of experience to run sites so a company has some choices. They can hire someone really capable that deserves and expects a decent wage, they can offer an experienced archaeologist a job at an insultingly low rate or they can take some kid just a few years out of college, pay them peanuts and give them sites to run they may or may not be able to handle. Using inexperienced staff to save money is a practice that goes wrong. It goes wrong a lot, and we all damn well know it does. I don’t mean to do younger staff down at all. There’s just so much to learn and it takes a long time to build up the skills. It doesn’t do a promising young archaeologist any good to be put in a situation they aren’t ready for and just expect them to handle it with minimal support. And it’s certainly no good for the archaeology.

The other issue here is that there have been lots of scientific advances in the last while. Now there are specialists doing stuff that is frankly ridiculous. The stuff that can be done with soil chemistry these days is insane. They can pull viable and useful DNA samples out of soil samples for crying out loud! But that’s confined to the university excavations. That stuff hasn’t really filtered down to the commercial world. Again we’re back to the competitive tendering system, it just doesn’t allow for these new techniques to be used. And the typical commercial dig is starting to look archaic, when it should be the state of the art. We really shouldn’t be doing commercial work as second rate excavations, but soon it will be clear to everyone that we’ll be doing them as third rate excavations. We need a fresh generation of specialists bringing these new methods out into the commercial environment. That’s only going to happen if there are requirements to do these new analysis imposed upon the commercial sector from outside of it, from the regulatory bodies. But whenever the archaeological community has looked to the various organisations for leadership, the state archaeologists, the Institutes, the associations, the government… there’s never been anyone there.

TBOM: A very interesting point made on the commercial excavations.  Noted also are the higher university fees for courses in the UK, perhaps hindering specialism’s in archaeology.  You have also started a ‘Campaign for Sensible Archaeology‘ group on Facebook, could explain why you felt that this was necessary?  I have noted with amusement a few of the articles you have posted about the often obtuse and confusing use of the English language.

Stuart: Well that’s been running quite a few years now, there’s  a decent little introduction to the group over on Past Horizons here.  I think the first thing to point out is that there really isn’t any such thing as ‘Sensible Archaeology’. It was just a joke, just me getting annoyed at some of the way archaeology is written and some of the projects that are undertaken. When I put it together I defined a ‘sensible archaeology’ as one in which the style of writing is only as complicated as is needed to explain and explore the points you want to discuss; as one where some of the arguments being made are supported by actual archaeological evidence; and one where the topic chosen for study is appropriate for analysis using archaeological methods. Now think about that for a minute. There really isn’t a single archaeological project that should be unable to meet those criteria. If someone is using excessively complicated language, beyond that which is merited by their research, why? What’s wrong with them? If an argument isn’t based on any archaeological evidence, it’s just historical fiction, which is really a different genre all together. If a topic isn’t suited for exploration through archaeological methods, which are powerful but horribly flawed and limited, use one of the more appropriate methods that are available.

So that’s it really, it’s just a simple little thing that at its heart is about promoting better project design. The thing is people read the name of the group, or see any of the little bits I’ve written about it, and some of them just flip out. It’s actually been really odd at times. I’ve been called a good few names, “the intellectual equivalent of a hairy arse” was an early favourite, and “not just annoying, politically annoying” was a more recent one that, to be honest, still confuses me. Why am I politically annoying? One prominent academic, who I won’t name here, came to the site to insult us during the early days, and instead I really tried to engage with him about his work and at first it was cool because I had been reading his work and really thinking about what he was trying to say, but the more I pushed him for straight answers the more evasive he got until he just started lying about things. That was just so peculiar it got kind of embarrassing really.

Anyway the group is basically just some people having a bit of a laugh, kicking a few ideas around, sharing interesting or irritating archaeological news stories. A lot of members are in the same sort of position as me, that sort of independent academic position, or to use the more technical term, deluded. So we spend a lot of time sharing any freely accessible resources we find, because lots of us find it hard to operate when we’re locked out of the university library system. It’s been very useful for me really. A lot of ideas I’ve kicked around on there have subsequently been included in my work, and it’s certainly helped me engage a bit more with the theoretical side of archaeology, which as a field worker it’s kind of easy to just end up detached from. I think it’s a nice group, a bit of communal therapy or something, and normally good for the odd giggle.

I was discussing the point about complex language with Joanne Bourne, a freelance writer I made friends with this summer on the Ness of Brodgar excavation in Orkney. Well Jo said she used to think the same thing, that the function of writing is to communicate ideas neatly and efficiently. But then she decided that’s a bit like saying a coat is used to keep the rain off. That’s a pretty good way of seeing things, but I’m still not convinced for the need to smother things in dense impenetrable language. Obviously we don’t all walk around in exact replicas of the same colourless ‘rain deflective garment’ like in some 70’s parody of communism. So we’re also using our coats to express all these other things about ourselves, about the way we perceive ourselves, the way we wish to be perceived, our  cultural allegiances, all sorts of other stuff.  I guess Jo was saying writing is a bit like that. So there is the actual archaeological content that needs to be explained and anything beyond the functional needs of the research is expressing other things. In the case of too many archaeologists it seems to be a compulsion to really impress upon the reader how marvellously clever the author is. I just can’t be arsed with that. That was one of the points of my article on William Burroughs’ cut up technique that you mentioned before, that you can just line up these strings of long complex words and it will sound kind of deep and meaningful even though it’s nothing of the sort.

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Excavation of one of the Late Neolithic buildings at the Ness of Brodgar during the summer of 2013. Simply sensational digging.

TBOM: And finally, what, so far, has been your most treasured memory of an field excavation or moment in archaeology?

Stuart: Ah well thanks for asking about that. I know in some of the things I write I can come across as utterly negative and really that’s a bit unfair. The critical pieces seem to generate much more interest than the other stuff I do, the stuff on prehistoric settlements or transhumance or whatever. If anyone has ever seen me lecturing they’ll know how much I enjoy myself, sometimes that humour comes through in the written stuff but writing funny archaeology is a hard trick to pull off. Although there are all these really serious topics, and clearly I’m none too happy about where archaeologists are financially or in terms of job security and career progression, I’ve had a really great time being an archaeologist. Really my whole adult life has revolved around it, and it’s pretty much a 24/7 thing for me. So rather than just pick one moment, here’s a quick run through of some of the highs, by way of redressing the balance a little.

Getting an email from some guy in Ireland offering me my first paid job; doing that first contract in Ireland and discovering that something as ludicrous as the digging scene existed in  the real world not just in the pages of an old beat novel; getting my first promotion; excavating the Bronze Age village at Corrstown, Portrush; having my kid, Adam; seeing my first article being run in Current Archaeology; meeting Steve Linnane; giving my first lecture at IPMAG 4 in Derry; meeting the whole Clerks Bar crew in Drogheda;  passing my License Interview and getting to run my own excavations; finally seeing the Corrstown volume published after all the hard work Vicky Ginn and I put in to get that done; working on the M3 Motorway where we really pushed the limits of what can be done in a commercial setting, something I was incredibly proud to see Martin Carver acknowledge in his recent book on pre-development archaeology;  getting the job running the field school on Achill Island, excavating the Slievemore Roundhouses and having such a laugh with the students;   meeting my wife Christina; moving to Belderrig and getting to work on the Céide Fields material with Seamus Caulfield; the whole Facebook archaeology scene kicking off and out of the blue becoming involved with so many interesting and amusing archaeologists; meeting Bob Chapple and then finding he would run with pretty much anything I sent to him no matter how off kilter; having a paper run in my favourite super serious journal PPS; seeing the sites on Shetland and Orkney and getting to work on the Ness of Brodgar excavation.

And the adventures continue. This summer I was invited to write a book for a new publisher, and given a very open remit. So I’m working on that almost round the clock and I’m loving where that’s heading. It’s called Archaeological Detritus: Experiments, Discussions and Unprovoked Attacks and is definitely a bit different so who knows how it will be received. Just the other night I was driving back to where I’m staying on Shetland through this horrible storm and all of a sudden the rain stopped, the clouds parted and there were the Northern lights in all their glory. Simply magnificent. How many other jobs would provide such a roller coaster through all of these highs and lows?

TBOM:  Indeed, thank you very much Stuart for taking part!

Select Bibliography:

Ginn, V. & Rathbone, S. (eds.). 2012. Corrstown: A Coastal Community.  Excavations of a Bronze Age Village in Northern Ireland. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Rathbone, S. 2010. Sensible Archaeology. Past Horizons website. 23/10/10.

Rathbone, S. 2010. Booley Houses, Hafods and Sheilings: A Comparative Study of Transhumant Settlesments in and around the Northern Basin of the Irish Sea. In: Horning, A. & Brannon N. (eds.) 2010. Ireland and Britain in the Atlantic World: Irish Post-Medieval Archaeology Group Proceedings 2.  Dublin: Wordwell.

Rathbone, S. 2011. Dig, Draw and Digitise: Guard Houses of County Mayo. Past Horizons. 23/04/11.

Rathbone, S. 2011. The Slievemore RoundhousesArchaeology Ireland25 (1): 31-35.

Rathbone, S. 2012. Deer’s Meadow, Hut Group CUlster Journal of Archaeology69: 150-154.

Rathbone, S. 2013. A Considerations of Villages in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain and Ireland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. 79: 1-22.

Rathbone, S. 2013. Optical Stimulated Luminescence Dating of ‘Problem’  Sites on the M3 Motorway. In: Kelly, B., Roycroft, N. & Stanley, M. (eds.). 2013. Futures & Pasts: NRA Monograph 10. Dublin: Wordwell.

Rathbone, S. 2013. The Village People? An Early History of Neighbourly Disputes. Past Horizons. 01/08/13.

‘Free Archaeology’ Series at Conflict Antiquities

20 Aug

Over at the Conflict Antiquities site, a blog ran by Dr Samuel Hardy who is a researcher at UCL, there are a series of entries on the subject of ‘Free Archaeology‘ which help to highlight the current plight of the archaeological and heritage sector in the UK and beyond.  The series is a great introduction for current cultural, political and employment issues and trends in the sector, whilst also highlighting the dire effects that austerity is having on the archaeological and heritage trades in the UK and further afield.

Free Archaeology

Free archaeology across the globe in languages (Source: myself, TBOM).

So without further ado here are a few of my favourite and informative posts by Dr Samuel Hardy*…

1.  Free Archaeology: Volunteering, Training and Crowdfunding

From the post: “One of the most striking elements of the current system is the (sometimes accidental, sometimes deliberate) confusion between archaeological volunteering and archaeological training. And (to my mind) absolutely the most troubling aspect is the shift, not merely from being-paid-to-work to not-being-paid-to-work, but actually from being-paid-to-work to paying-to-work.

A point many volunteers on archaeological excavations in the UK will recognise- am I paying just to provide labour for the company? (It is reminiscent of the ‘pay to play’ policy that some music venues used to employ for upcoming bands to perform).  Am I being trained in the best archaeological technique or am I just providing a helping hand?  It is rare that volunteering is free on UK excavations, and in some popular and well regarded excavations it can cost hundreds of pounds a week just to partake, let alone factoring in the the accommodation or living costs for the duration of the participation.

2. Free Archaeology: Precarious Excavators and Unpaid Heritage Workers

From the post: “Every tier – unemployed, unpaid, underemployed, underpaid – needs to recognise that the majority of the people in the levels above them are exploited allies trying to establish their own basic security (which is not a betrayal).”

It is important to recognise that your manager is also a person undergoing the same stress of every day living as well.  Archaeology, as a sector, has been hit hard by the recession and lack of building projects in the past few years.  Smaller units are continually feeling the pinch and costs of projects each and every week, whilst larger ‘safer’ units are themselves having to downsize and cut costs.

3. Free Archaeology: Austerity Britain- Museum Workers and Entire Workforces are Replaced with Volunteers

From the post: “They completely exclude other real-terms or effective cuts to the cultural heritage sector, such as frozen funding and frozenpositions (and consequently stretched staff); sometimes drastically reduced opening hours (and consequently reduced wages or lost jobs, or staff consequently reduced to precarious, seasonal workers).

They also completely exclude allegedly temporary, years-long closure or mothballing of sites and projectsdefinite but unspecified redundancies and funding cuts with proposed job losses and other as-yet-unstated consequences; and other threats of redundancy and precarisation, for instance through the outsourcing of (decades-long) museum contracts.

They don’t begin to address the targeting of archaeology departments to compensate for university funding cuts, such as the shutting down of Birmingham University’s Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity and the redundancy of the majority (19) of its staff.”

I have wrote before on this blog regarding Birmingham University’s decision to shut down it’s Archaeology and Antiquity department, and the impact that this has had on other university departments who are eagerly watching as to how this impacts the development of other archaeology departments across the university sector.  What we are seeing with the effects of austerity is the loss of highly capable individuals across council units, academic departments and commercial units.  The issue of funding PhD’s has also come to the fore as a price hikes in undergraduate degrees for students at UK universities also impacts Post-graduate study intake numbers.  It is my belief that changes to the intake numbers of archaeological departments will result in some form of academic change regarding archaeology departments, I will follow this up if it takes place with another entry.

4. Free Archaeology: Simply Illegal Unpaid Internships

A quote from the post: “When I raised the issue of unpaid internships, an employee of the Department for Work and Pensions observed, ‘it’s almost a two-tier system now.’ (I did raise my eyebrows at almost.) ‘If you can afford to work for free, you can get lots of experience and you can get a great position; if you can’t, you have to swim with the rest of us.’

Perhaps, and it reminds me of the mantra of archaeology is ‘that you do not go into it for the money but for the passion’.  Personally I have been able to volunteer extensively because I have had the time and have had the money to provide for transport and food whilst volunteering.  I have mentioned this before, but if you are a UK or an EU student, try and get onto a European Union funded Leonardo Da Vinci archaeology placement– all fees, accommodation and travel is provided for and you get spending money and a fantastic archaeological experience.**

5. Free Archaeology: Drawing the Line Between Work Experience and Work; Identifying Structural Disadvantage and Exclusion

From the post: “but are not recognised as workers and paid as such. And those who cannot afford to volunteer, those who cannot afford to pay for the opportunity to work, cannot gain skills that are ‘essential’ to their entry to the cultural heritage profession.”

There are further posts in the series but I shall leave you to discover them.  You may not agree with every point that Dr Hardy makes, but they do help to highlight the changing face of the archaeology and heritage sectors over the past few years.  It is something I would heavily advise students or individual’s who are considering working in these sectors to consider and to research.  As an archaeologist without a job in the sector, and as a volunteer for numerous years with numerous units, it is fantastic to see a series of posts discussing the current employment, political and cultural situation within the archaeological and heritage sector.  And it is rather refreshingly frank!

* Who I hope will forgive me for advertising the excellent posts.

** Full disclosure, I attended the 2011 Magdeburg placement and gained invaluable new skills, friends and experience.

Grave Matters: Archaeology & Politics

2 Aug

Archaeology and politics are often uncomfortable bedfellows, perhaps more so than many archaeologists like to admit.  This, it is fair to say, is especially the case when dealing with the issue of human remains in either prehistoric or historical instances.  However archaeological sites are never ‘static’ shots of one particular time, but rather often act as an accumulation of an extended period of time, compacted into the earth for the archaeologist to decipher.  They neither belong fully to the past, nor fully to the present.  Further to this we (the archaeologists) don’t just view and interpret an archaeological site from a historical (or prehistorical) vantage point, we necessarily (and often subconsciously) filter the evidence present through our own life experiences, professional knowledge and socio-cultural factors.  Whilst this post could go off on a theoretical tangent here, I will keep it cogent to this point alone: human bodily and skeletal remains are an emotive subject, especially when archaeology and politics mix.  So bearing this in mind, here are several examples where politics meets the trowels edge, often resulting in friction between the two.

The Spitalfields cemetery (possible one of the largest excavated in the world with just under 11,000 burials excavated) will long be remembered in the human osteological circles of Britain as an exceptional excavation.  It is site of such osteoarchaeological and social historical wealth that it has to be one of the most documented cemetery excavations carried out in Britain, if not the world for its richness of remains and evidence for the social context that the individuals inhabited (Pethen 2010).  A report on the archaeological and historical background of the area can be read here, detailing the wealth of Roman, Medieval and Early Modern archaeological finds and cemetery sites (Elders et al. 2010).  The Spitalfields area itself is a site of beauty, a breath of fresh air in a crowded city, with the beautiful baroque Christ Church dominating the area near its centre.

In a letter in the recent edition of Private Eye (Issue 1345)  a reader has wrote of the proposed school extension of the Christ Church primary school onto the Spitalfields graveyard.  This is due to a severe over-crowding of the school in an area where local council authorities have been banned from opening new state schools, unless they are to be built as an academy.  Academies are another feature of the unpopular UK Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove’s educational reforms, which operate from central government funds and dictate their own curriculum, although they (and Gove’s other reform ideas) have come under sustained attack from numerous teaching unions and local authorities for distorting choice, spoiling funds and promoting the teaching of creationism.  A campaign to stop the school development can be found here, but I would caution that the school may have little choice in the matter.

Spitalfields

A section of the Medieval cemetery excavated at St Mary Spital burial ground highlighting the closeness of the buried individuals. In particular note the overlaying of the bodies, highlighting the fact that they had not been buried in coffins. This is not the Spitalfields site but reminiscent of similar burial traditions within medieval London (Source: Current Archaeology 2012).

Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, the ruling party Zanu-PF have likely won again following recent 2013 elections (1).  The incumbent president, Robert Mugabe, has remained in power following 30 years of rule despite continued disputed election results in recent years and statistically dubious polls, with a large number of deceased individuals being named as voters on the recent polling lists.  Zanu-PF have often used underhand methods to maintain power before in the country, which is still currently edging out of a deep recession which had seen currency hyperinflation, including voter intimidation, forced removal and sustained campaigns of violence.  Yet in 2008 a power brokerage deal was agreed with the opposition party, the MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, who has joined the government as Zimbabwe’s prime minister.

Grisly news articles broke in early 2011 when it was reported that over 600 human bodies (possibly thousands) in various states of decay had been found in various mine shafts at Chimbondo, near Mount Darwin, in northern Zimbabwe.  A large portion of the bodies found have been removed from context and buried elsewhere, but others remain in-situ.  Claims abound from sources inside Zimbabwe that they represent victims of the colonial period (from Zimbabwe’s War of Independence), whilst other governments and opposition parties have questioned whether they are instead the victims of Zanu-PF’s sustained campaigns of intimidation and violence.  Various news reports have suggested that the bodies have been known about for a number of years, and that individuals still had bodily fluids or soft flesh attached, or leaking from, their bodies.  Amnesty International have called for forensic experts to have access to the mass graves to carry out detailed forensic investigative tests to assess the demography of the mass graves, age and sex the bodies and positively ID individuals, by carrying out DNA studies, if possible (Jurmain et al. 2011: 22).

Yet despite repeated calls for access from Amnesty International and other organisations and governments from around the world, none is forthcoming or has been granted from the Zanu-PF led government of Zimbabwe (Amnesty International 2011).  The victims remain potent symbols of political propaganda, whilst their individual identities themselves are being disregarded.  By refusing to identify individuals and profile the dead, the authorities in Zimbabwe are helping to undermine the individuals themselves and the families who have lost loved ones, regardless of whether they died in the independence war or as a result of the discord and violence post-independence.  This makes the political parties implicit with guilt.

zimbabwe 2011massgrave

Unidentified individuals found in the 2011 mass graves in northern Zimbabwe. The conditions of the clothes and of the bodies, from this site and others, indicate the possibility that the victims were killed post-War of Independence. (Source: Daily Mail 2011).

In Florida, in the USA, there has been recent upset and outrage over the refusal (still as of early August 2013) for permission to be granted to a team of forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida to excavate and help identify suspected abuse victims from a 1930’s onwards reform school in Mariana, northern Florida.  This is despite the results of ground penetrating radar surveys conducted on a suspected cemetery site at the Mariana campus of the Dozier School For Boys, which reportedly found evidence for 50 suspected graves, a far larger percentage then previously thought or suspected (Hennig 2012).  Rick Scott, the current Florida Governor, has disagreed with the forensic anthropologists over the exhumation of the graves, citing that the University team do not have the legal requirements to excavate the remains.  This has been met with outrage from families and survivors of the reform school, with one predominant group nicknamed the White House Boys who urgently want answers on how many people died at the school through abuse.  Outrage has also been picked up on a larger scale across the US, with Senator Bill Nelson decrying the ridiculous stance the state of Florida has taken on the issue.

The US has fairly tough laws on the excavation of human remains, be they historical or prehistoric, with tough guidelines and stringent checks enforced through the NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) laws.  However, even allowing for the complexities of US legal requirements for the exhumation of human remains, the reform school investigation and associated problems in excavating possible abuse victims seems especially convoluted, with state departments blaming each other for the confusion.  Rick Scott does has form for his distaste for all things anthropological, stating that anthropology is not needed in Florida.  Somewhat of an oversight when the state is home to many important archaeological sites and osteological collections (Windover, for instance).  News is to follow as to whether Rick Scott will give in to the families and researchers demands to let the forensic anthropologists to exhume the remains, with a vote set for Tuesday (13th August 2013) (2) (3) (4) (5).  Since the original writing of this post the decision was taken for anthropologists to investigate and exhume the bodies.  This continues currently, and has fruitfully positively identified a number of the young individuals who were tortured and buried at the location of the reform school.  Graves have also been found outside of the regular cemetery, suggesting that ad-hoc burials took place.

braziers school

The Doziers school for Boys were the abuse was alleged to have taken place. (Source: Daily Mail 2012).

Upon reading this entry you may think that politics and archaeology are at best awkward partners paired up only when necessary, but the great thing about archaeology and anthropology is that they implicitly depend on inter-disciplinary research projects across national borders, continents and cultures.  There are success stories of how well archaeology has been implemented in national and political guidelines (the UK for instance has a strict and often well observed set of heritage and archaeological guidelines for developers) but, for this post at least, it is necessary to highlight how government obstructions and human remains are often used as political weapons in modern contexts.

(1) 04/08/13 update: Latest news reveal Mugabe and Zanu-PF have indeed won the election.

(2) 07/08/13 update: According to the Tampa Bay Times, the Florida Cabinet has agreed to let USF researchers exhume the individuals at the Dozier reform school.  This will mean that living families and relatives of individuals who died at the school could finally get some answers and evidence on individuals who were buried at the school.  Excavations will start later this month.

(3) 01/09/13 update: The Guardian and other news sources have reported the first details of the excavation at the Dozier reform school, with finds already including funerary artefacts such as coffin fittings and human skeletal material.

(4) 07/08/14 update: Positive identification of some of the victims of the Dozier reform school in Florida has now been announced.  Strange Remains has an update detailing the use of DNA from victims families in the positive identification of skeletons that have been excavated from clandestine burials dating to the 1940’s.  Distressingly there may be further burials located within the Dozier reform school grounds.

(5) 04/10/14 update: The positive identification of two further victims of the Dozier reform school, in the panhandle of Florida, have been announced.  Strange Remains has an update on the identification of two of the boys found in graves at school by anthropologists at the University of South Florida, highlighting the abuse and neglect that was unchecked at the reform school.

(6) 01/012/15 updated: I have mistakenly referred to the incorrect burial ground for Spitalfields, please see the informed comments from CH below.  The post will be updated shortly to reflect the correct London post-medieval burial ground discussed.

Bibliography:

Amnesty International. 2011. Zimbabwe: Mass Graves Must Be Exhumed by Forensic Experts. Amnesty International Press Release.

Elders, J. et al. 2010. Archaeology and Burial Vaults: Guidance Notes for Churches. Council for British Archaeology: York.

Hennig, K. 2012. Searching For Answers. University of Southern Florida: Tampa.

Jurmain, R. Kilgore, L. & Trevathan, W.  2011. Essentials of Physical Anthropology International Edition. London: Wadworth.

Pethen, H. 2010. Christchurch Spitalfields CE Primary School, Commercial Street, London E1: Historic Environment Assessment. Museum of London Archaeology: London.

CSCS Card for the Archaeologist

6 Dec

The Construction Skills Certification Scheme was set up in the mid to late 1990’s to help raise the level of health and safety awareness and demonstrate occupational competency in the construction industry.  Primarily aimed at workers in the construction industry at all levels, there has also been a recognised need for archaeologists who work on, or near, construction sites to possess a CSCS card.  It is now often a condition for employment by archaeological companies in the UK to include CSCS card accreditation in the ‘desired’ or ‘essential’ criteria for prospective field archaeological job applicants, although companies will often sponsor a candidate through the process if they already work for the unit.

Individuals who take the test must undergo a Health, Safety and Environmental exam to demonstrate their competency, and depending on the type of card applied for, may also undergo other exams.  The 2009 online BAJR Guide 28 deals with the ‘CSCS Card for Archaeologists’, helping to highlight the relevant information needed to take the test.  A change in the testing of CSCS applicants from April 2012 means that there are added elements to the exam.  This includes a behavioural module, where the candidate will be tested on a lifelike situation in which candidates will be tested on their reaction to an unfolding case study.

Although there are a range of CSCS cards aimed at the general workman to the specialist and managers (such as the Black and Red cards), the field archaeologist will only need the White/Grey Card, which is a general construction relation occupation card.  The CSCS card is valid for 5 years, and after that period a re-test is needed.  In the UK the test and the certification to gain the CSCS card currently costs £30, although archaeological units are often willing to pay this administration fee, and, if you are jobseekers allowance, the job centre can in some circumstances help to fund the cost for the test.

An example of the White CSCS card.

An example of the White CSCS card.

The CSCS test can be organised via your local council, and whilst revision materials can be found online (although they are quite limited) it is best to either loan or to buy a specific manual to revise from.  To strengthen your application for archaeological jobs in this competitive market, it is highly recommended that you gain this certification, as a well as a full clean driving licence.  Although a part of the industry will see the the rise of the CSCS as an encroachment of health and safety legislature, it has helped to raise the standards of health and safety across the board- undoubtedly helping to prevent accidents and save lives.

Closures and Petitions: University of Birmingham & Wincobank Hill in Sheffield

2 Jul

There have been a few outrages recently in the heritage world in the United Kingdom.  Firstly I want to draw your attention to the threatened closure of the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity (IAA) at the University of Birmingham.    The institute has been threatened with closure as a result of University cutbacks.  It is proposed that a total of 19 staff would be left without a job, whilst only 4 out of the 18 employed archaeologists would retain their job.  The remaining IAA staff would then be spread around the Universities various departments.  Just how will the University provide valued and respected teaching in the subjects of archaeology,  ancient history, and classics, has been the subject of heated debate and speculation by all those involved.

The University has provided a statement saying that the closure of the IAA would be mitigated by the setting up of a Centre for Archaeology Research in its place.  A claim which the UCU University of Birmingham website state that it would just be an online website, and not a true centre for research of academic excellence.  The UCU website has a detailed entry setting out how this whole debacle has been ‘disastrously mishandled‘ from the outset.  The ‘Archaeology’ facebook group has been active in calling out for signatures to help show public support for the subjects involved at the University, as it is a scenario that is likely being watched very closely by other universities that house archaeology, ancient history and classical departments.  Archaeologists remain upbeat however- an unknown person has made a humorous youtube Downfall parody, showing an angry Hitler threatening to take archaeology back to the dark ages (sadly copyright has been slapped rather fast on this video!).

Meanwhile in my section of the woods, there has been much speculation and dismay at the plans to build a new housing estate on the Iron Age site of Wincobank Hill, located just inside the city of Sheffield. Information on the site of Wincobank Hill can be found here, and there is an English Heritage page about it here.  A petition has been set up for signatures to be gathered showing support for new housing not to be built on the protected land.  There are already worries that sections of the Iron Age enclosure are being damaged through neglect, and it would be unfortunate if more of this interesting site was lost to professionals and enthusiasts alike.  The planning meeting was held recently, and it was with great pleasure that the application to build 24 new houses on the site was turned down.  However, there will be further developments, and it is vital that this campaign is sustained.

It is hoped that there will be another guest entry on this blog in the near future, but for the moment I have to focus on my dissertation research and write up.  I’ll be around though…

The View From Wincobank Hill (Change Petition 2012).

Update 07/09/12:

The fight still goes on for both of these causes.  Regarding Wincobank Hill near the city of Sheffield, the City Council have decided to refuse planning permission on the site.  However the battle continues as the decision now goes to the Planning Inspectorate to uphold the decision of Sheffield City Council in the preservation of this little understood Iron Age/Romano-British site.  You can do your part now in protecting Britain’s heritage by signing this petition here.

Update 29/09/12:

A fairly depressing update regarding the position and tactics used by Birmingham University regarding the department of archaeology.  The article can be read here, and the headline says it all, ‘The University of Birmingham throws in the trowel- as College buries Archaeology! ‘.  The tactics also seems to be promoting past projects to entice new students, whilst ignoring the on-going destruction of a valued department.

Update 14/01/13:

Fantastic news regarding the Scheduled Ancient Monument of the Iron Age site of Wincobank Hill in Sheffield- the Planning Inspector has dismissed Investates appeal to build houses on the site, and the site will remain green and building free.  It is an excellent result, and an impressive show of the interest of both professionals and of the interested public.