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Guest Post: ‘Welcome to Commercial Archaeology: A Biased Introduction’ by Charles Hay

14 Oct

Charles A. Hay is currently aiming towards his next big adventure.  Prior to this he has worked as a field archaeologist throughout England for units such as Wessex Archaeology, Cambridge Archaeological Unit and the University of Sheffield.  He also holds an MA in Archaeology from the latter.  His writings, including investigations of philosophy and original short stories, can be found at his Human Friendly site alongside his numerous drawings, musings and photographs.  If you find him in a pub, he will be having a pint of Pendle or a good scotch.  If it is a working day, then a black coffee will do instead!  Charles has previously written for These Bones of Mine with a guest post titled Glass & Metal.


A few weeks ago (sorry for the delay Dave), I was asked to write about commercial archaeology, the ups and downs, what it involves, how it is as a living, how to get in et cetera. The past fortnight (in fact, I suspect significantly longer, sorry again Dave) I’ve been attempting to come up with something both encouraging and suitably warning, equally weighted, inspirational; a one-stop advice sheet.

So, interestingly enough, that version ended up reading like bullshitty gumph.

Instead, I’ve decided to take a much more straightforward approach. Instead of advertising, I’m going for the storytelling approach.


I’m not really, really sure how I managed to gain (relatively) stable employment in commercial archaeology. I am prone to telling the same stories repeatedly so anyone who knows me knows the story. I graduated back in 2007 with an English & History degree and the dawning realisation that English & History aren’t quite the career kickstarter subjects I imagined them to be as an eighteen year old. I therefore did what any self-respecting English & History graduate does: I worked in NHS administration for two years.

After several moments of epiphany along the lines of you should become a cartoonist and you should start wearing checked shirts, I finally had one that actually coalesced into something tangible. It was preceded by that most dangerous of decisions, to consult one’s inner child. Now this inner child had been yelling at me for a while for various reasons. I didn’t draw as many trains as was my habit as a five year old. I seldom watched marathons of Thunderbirds and Stingray anymore. I never got around to being a guy who dug old shit up.

The University of Sheffield let me onto their Archaeology MA course and the rest, as they say, is history.  Actually I’m guessing you probably want a little more than that.

Ok so after spending a semester feeling like a certifiable moron, I finally started to gain traction in the subject. Having zero idea what I would write for a PhD (or more accurately, several ideas too vague, wishy-washy and error fuelled to acknowledge in public), I started to lean toward the idea of commercial. I decided to go for the fieldwork based final project instead of a dissertation.

If you are currently thinking, “Charlie, most of your life decisions seem to be completely ad hoc and impulsive with no thought to real consequence”, yeah, I really can’t disagree.

Anyway, my plan for the fieldwork assignment was to use it to mine for references, tip-offs, advice, and alliances. I genuinely suspect it was, with regards to commercial archaeology, the best decision I made. It may well have been the most well thought through too. More or less everyone who supervised me on that first dig have turned out not only to be good, persisting (and persistent, helpfully in my times of grumpitude) friends, they turned out to be wonderfully, mind-bogglingly useful too. The Laurens, Lettys and Chrisses of this world are exactly the sort you need to be meeting to get positive and get a grip with a new career and I had the good luck to meet them all at once.

Due to a tip-off and a good word from Letty and a timely email, more or less immediately after my fieldwork assignment finished, I sadly left Sheffield behind with no idea when, or if, I would be back (as it happened, I was back the following March; not quite the epic absence I had envisaged). I left for my new job, a two month contract with Cambridge Archaeological Unit. The first day I turned up, I was so unbelievably nervous. My only experience so far had been volunteer digs over the summer so I felt as though I knew absolutely nothing. I wasn’t entirely incorrect. Looking back, if I’d known quite how much I was yet to learn at the point, I suspect I’d have been an order of magnitude more nervous.

The other point of aarrgh!! was meeting a whole bunch of new people. As is always the case when approaching a new group, they all seemed to know each other so well and so confidently that it seemed impossible for me to fit in. In this situation I tend to adopt the Cold Swimming Pool approach.

Dive in, make a splash, try not to look like too much of a twat.

Luckily, and I repeat this a lot, archaeologists are, on average (and also, in general; the majority are awesome, but there are some total chumps messing up the numbers) a friendly and inclusive bunch. It is true that I have never worked with any bunch of archaeologists with whom I felt lost or unwelcome. Within a couple of weeks I had been made to feel part of the pack and, by the time my contract was through, I was as sad to leave as I had been upon leaving paces I had lived for years.

It is interesting to ponder on exactly what about certain environments attract certain types of people. Archaeology certainly attracts the kind of philosophical, gregarious, intellectual, adventurous and pleasantly weird and nerdy people I have always gravitated to.

Perhaps it has to do with the human nature of archaeology. It is, after all, an attempt by us to contact, in the only way we have, those who ran before us. It is the inquisitive questioning of the long dead. This seems a little wishy-washy however, and would constitute a complete argument perhaps if you were drunk or if I were spectacularly attractive.

Let’s try another tac.

If I am being entirely honest, there is a great deal of lovable-misfittery in this business. Archaeology is not a vocational science. It is very much an interest settled upon as a result of a questing and wide-ranging personal curiosity about the universe and how what came to be came to be and why. It is for minds who ask, “how do things work, and why?” Curiosity and passion, perfectly suited for a subject which seems a hybrid offspring of science and art. As a result, you will rarely find an archaeologist completely focused on one subject of interest. Many are polymaths, and many harbour a huge array of hobbies and talents. I have learnt and worked with ex-teachers, ex-astrophysicists, people who understand the inside of cars (apparently not magic, who knew?) and people who, like myself, dream of careers in writing, directly passing excitement about the universe on to others, whilst perhaps becoming spectacularly rich and marrying some kind of unbelievably attractive actress maybe.

Hmm, that was quite a tangent. Let’s talk about lessons learnt.

Here’s something for you. Something I cannot overstate. Commercial archaeology is absolutely, completely and utterly balls knackering at points. Be prepared to spend your evenings, especially in the first months, absolutely dog-tired. Hoofing out enormous lumps of dirt is, to the surprise of precisely no-one, exhausting. Doubly so, as not only do these holes have to be dug comprehensively and quickly, they also have to be neat. You’ll get used to it. Or your arms will fall off. Either way, you’ll adjust.

This will, in time, come naturally, and some actually come to love it, but be prepared. On the plus side, it keeps you pretty trim and, with practice, you’ll get better and end up less destroyed without you really noticing the chance.

Another shock to the system: the weather. Earth’s atmosphere is a highly volatile jerk playing entirely by it’s own capricious rules. Own protective gear. I learned this the hard way at my job in Cambridge during the winter of 2010-2011. The local fire services were chiseling cats out of trees, we were all blinking in triple time to avoid eyeball freeze-over and I was out digging sans thermals. The back of my left leg split in the cold. Believe me when I tell you, that hurt. Own protective gear. Many units will give you waterproofs and boots and whatnot, but they most probably won’t give you thermals, knee-pads et cetera.

The biggest warning I can give here though, and one I would be irresponsible is this: If you are not ok with genuinely struggling for work in the first few years, forget it. I’m a happy archaeologist now, but holy hell I would not want to relive my first year attempting to get my foot in the door. There’s not a particularly chirpy or amusing way to put this: intermittent unemployment sucks on a profound and affecting way. Getting one or two month contracts after being on the dole for months is actually financially worse than being on the dole. That first month with no financial support makes you feel scuzzy and poor, on account of the poverty and general scuzzoscity that will bring to your life.

I searched far and wide for jobs during my wilderness months. I rang commercial companies over and over, generally making a nuisance of myself (incidentally, this strategy did work; ring up, be friendly, be enthusiastic, and make them remember your name, for god’s sake – a life lesson not constrained to archaeology). I also looked at office jobs, factory jobs, pizza guy jobs… The day I got an email from the university last summer asking me to assist in supervising one of their summer fieldschools (actually the same one which I had taken the previous year), I had been on a trial-run day working in a kitchen. I had spent the morning “bearding” mussels. I am deeply afraid of mussels. I still considered that job, due to needing to continue existence.

Now this period did end. I did manage to climb back on board and I suspect the waters in which I felt I had been drowning were not nearly so deep and tempestuous as I felt at the time, but I can unreservedly tell you this: If you are not willing to deal with that, find something more sensible to do. I battled through because I have an unusually loud and pushy inner child and because the archaeological community was one I simply was not willing to leave behind. The job’s a fun ride too.

So there you have it. I hope that steps a reasonably useful line between positivity and adequate warning. It is a fun job. The people are very awesome. Sometimes you’ll get very wet and muddy and grumpy and once my beard got full of snow but that’s not all of the time.

With regards to actually getting a job, I’ll summarise with these top tips which I also regard as being useful for life in general.

1. Get experience. Especially over summers, there are volunteer digs going on all over the place. If you’ve got money to burn (or use constructively, some might say), you can go and volunteer abroad, find awesome things and get a sweet tan to boot.

2. Make friends. With everyone. In the world. Or alternatively and more practically, work on your communication. Be outgoing or at least polite and friendly. Never be afraid to ask questions, especially questions you think are stupid. If you think they’re stupid now, the outcome of not knowing the answer will look a whole heap more stupid.

3. Connected to the previous point, make contacts. A lot of the time this will occur naturally through making friends with everyone in the world, but sometimes it takes further effort. Steel up and ring companies directly. Send them an email. Send them a cv. Smoke signal them. Everything. If you send an email into the ether and don’t get a reply, it’s because someone louder, more enthusiastic, possibly more obnoxious (eg. me) is holding their attention.

4. Grow an enormous pair of testicles or ovaries, because the path in is winding and treacherous; more than once you will have to consider hunting local cats to survive.

I hope this has been of some use to some people somewhere. I may have just been gassing on for several thousand words (it’s been known). Any further advice required can be acquired at the Red Deer pub on Friday evenings. My standard rate is a pint per aphorism, with a decline in quality directly proportional to amount of advice given.


These Bones of Mine Note:

If you are an archaeologist and ever find yourself lost in South Yorkshire, I highly recommend the Red Deer pub, located in the delightful city of Sheffield, as a place to recuperate and recover.  You are bound to bump into a few archaeologists there…