[**If you like this post, please make a donation to the IR&DD project using the button at the end. If you think the post is useful, please re-share via Facebook, Google+, Twitter etc.**]
On the 17th of August 2011 Fin Dwyer published a blog post on his Irish History Podcast site detailing “8 Reasons why the Building Boom was Bad for Irish Archaeology”. I only saw it a little while later, when a link was posted on the Irish Diggers Forum Facebook page. The original post is, obviously, a heartfelt and deeply personal assessment of the Irish archaeological profession’s recent past.
This is my response.
In the spirit of engaging in debate on the topic, I wanted to make a more formal and considered reply, that exceeded pressing the ‘like’ button on a Facebook page, or writing a brief comment on the blog page. Indeed, the comments on the original piece quickly became fractious and one response from the blogger to a critic was failure to engage with the original points raised. I feel that full ‘engagement’ is impossible in a ‘comment box’ format, so I have chosen to write a point-by-point rebuttal. But first, I’ve got to put some cards on the table – I don’t know Fin Dwyer or the individual(s) behind the Irish DiggersForum page – I do not even know if they are run by the same people or not. Thus, I have neither personal animosity nor considerations of friendship in any of my statements, either agreeing or disagreeing with the points raised. I do not claim to have done any intensive background research, nor am I presenting this as anything other than my personal views on the original post. Like the original post, this too is a highly personal piece and comes from the heart as much as from the head. Inevitably, readers may feel that it does not cover all the issues in the ways they would like to see. It’s not meant to … If you disagree, post something in the comments or write your own piece!
More cards on the table – I’m not hiding my identity behind a single name – I’m sorry, Fin, it took me half an hour to find your surname and, I still have no real idea who you are. I’m Robert M Chapple … Google my name and you’ll find out all you could ever want to know about me … and plenty you’d probably be happy living without! I’ve got a personal website that lists my entire CV and a whole host of publications. I’ve been involved in various aspects of archaeology since 1989. In that time I’ve seen it go from something akin to a Feudal system of strategic friendships and alliances to secure one of the few jobs going, through the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years and out the far side into the current recession. I’ve worked at nearly every level in field archaeology from entry level digger, through site supervisor onto site director and in senior archaeologist/project manager roles too. Along the way I’ve worked for some of the biggest consultancies and for some ‘one man and his dog’ operations as well. I think that the only position I’ve not held is actually running my own archaeological company. While my career has been split between the jurisdictions of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, my comments here are confined to my experiences in the latter, though some of the examples I draw on are from Ulster.
The Irish History Podcast lists eight points, so I’ll examine each in turn.
1) Unenforced and unenforceable legislation
I partially agree with this point … the legislation was designed for another age … one which never foresaw the huge expansion in excavation that happened during the first decade of this century. I’m no student of legal history, but I’ve long imagined that the original legislation (section 26 of the 1930 act) was intended to provide oversight to a number of relatively small-scale excavations carried out as research endeavours by university professors and their students, or by the National Museum, in response to reports of materials found during farming work etc. Even when the legislation was updated in the 1990s (section 21 of the 1994 act) it did not envision (nor could it ever have) the development boom and the strains that it placed on the legal framework.
One aspect of the legislation I strongly disagree with is that of the licence being a contract between the ‘Licensed Archaeologist’ and the state. In my experience, this has led to a number of serious issues where the state can threaten to end an archaeologist’s career by refusing to issue any further excavation licenses, regardless of the circumstances. By this I mean, whether or not the original archaeological company and/or developer has refused to/cannot pay for post-ex or even if the archaeologist still works for the company. Under the current legislation sole responsibility lies with the Licensee. Mandal & O’Carroll (2008, 38) noted that one of the conditions of the License Application is that the archaeologist can confirm that adequate funds are in place to ensure the works can be completed to the level of publication. They note that the financial arrangements are between the company and the developer … the licensed archaeologist generally has no knowledge of the arrangements, much less a say in the matter. Mandal & O’Carroll suggest that the license method statement should state the type of contract (i.e. fixed price etc.) with a ‘bill of quantities’ detaining the financial resources agreed. Such changes in the licensing structure alone would add greatly to the legislation’s value and workability.
While Dwyer sees the legislation as unenforced, I would argue that it was being applied on the ground in the best way it could have been – with the emphasis being on the spirit of the law, rather than its’ letter. By this I mean that great effort was made by Dúchas (later DoEHLG) to ensure that the legislation was used effectively and sensibly by an over worked and under resourced department to ensure that the system kept functioning. Yes, there were (and, I believe, remain) flaws in the system, but my experience of working with the licensing bodies has always been largely positive.
The point of lack of independence of the site director is raised here. The argument – and I’ve heard it on sites across the island – is that when ultimate financial control lies with the employers and the developers, pressure will be exerted on the ‘good’ director to rush the job. The problem I have with this is that so many archaeologists, from diggers to directors, have an often vastly inflated view of the position of the site director. I’m sorry to break it to you folks, but site directors are just another level of management. The job is to get the archaeology dug, recorded well, and get the project wrapped up on time and on budget. Of course there is pressure – that’s the nature of the position. I realise that many people (myself included) entered the profession with pure and unsullied thoughts of the importance of archaeology. But here’s the thing – no matter how lofty your aims are, you still have to operate in a business setting … I’ve had to learn some harsh lessons along the way about how business operates. I would dearly love if all developers would stop all they’re doing and give me all the time I’d like to excavate everything to its’ fullest extent … I’d also like it if they didn’t question my obvious need for all those radiocarbon dates (what do you mean, I can’t have two per feature?) and that lipid analysis of the interesting looking Beaker Vessel. Unfortunately, life and business is just not like that. And that’s the point here – archaeology (no matter how important and lovely and precious WE think it is) is a business, and exists in a business world. I know that I can become badly stressed on site, trying to juggle the various responsibilities of keeping to the agreed timescales when the archaeology appears to be going on forever and you said you’d be out of there in a week! But let me say it again – I’d like it to be different, but that’s how it is – that is the job I signed up for – and I’m not looking for anyone’s praise or sympathy for it.
Other than the illogic in the way excavation licenses are framed (as discussed above), I would have one gripe with the position of site director. It’s simply how you get there … in a perfect world you start off digging and, once you’ve put in your time and shown some aptitude, you graduate to site supervisor. Again you put in your time, show that you’re good at archaeology and next thing you know you’re thinking about going forward for the Licence Interview. I don’t know if it has changed much from when I sat for it, but back then I was asked about my knowledge of the heritage legislation and the remainder of the time was spent identifying and discussing artefacts. I remember some discussion of excavation methodologies and the offer of a pint afterwards by one of the interview panel (the late, and much lamented, Prof. Simpson). What there was no question about … nor was there ever any appropriate training along the way… was in the part of the job that mattered most on a day to day basis – people management. I have since received some training in this field, but not as much as I would like – or probably need.
I hate to seem as though I’m being deliberately incredulous for dramatic purposes, but I truly am taken aback by the phrase: “The archaeology companies primary function was to make money”. If you for one moment remove the word ‘archaeology’ and replace it with, say, ‘oil drilling’ or ‘haberdashery’ the true ridiculousness of the line becomes even more apparent. I do not want to sound pedantic about it, but the archaeology companies may indeed have been set up by archaeologists who wanted to do beautiful and wonderful archaeology … but they are still companies and they are designed to (hopefully) make profits. Again we come back to the idea of there being a dichotomy between profits and best practice … yes the life of a site director is not always a happy one, yes there are huge pressures involved … and yes, it’s up to you to make sure the site is excavated to the best standards you can attain. As site director it’s also up to you to make the hard choices when money, timescales and archaeology meet … they’re not always easy choices and they’re not often pleasant … but they have to be made: how you examine the site; what do you sample; what do you sacrifice? These are all legitimate questions that the site director has to face – often alone. Just because they are difficult does not lessen their importance. Just because you cannot run a commercial excavation like you would run a ‘wish-list’ research dig doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing and compromises the spirit of ‘best practice’.
2) Construction companies and developers held all the cards
Again, I partially agree with this point. The way the legislation is framed, the burden is on the developer to pay for the excavation of the archaeology that they destroy to undertake their development. It is my opinion that this is as it should be. Yes, they frequently use their financial leverage or sheer bloody-mindedness to attempt not to pay for reports once the physical excavation was complete. I agree that changes are needed in the speed and severity of enforcement for those companies who refuse to honour their obligations. I think that the statutory powers available are neither being as swiftly, nor as harshly threatened or applied to those companies as is appropriate or necessary. I also believe that the legislation should be reviewed to consider ways in which these sanctions can be intensified and strengthened. While I would love to advocate a system where the developer could not sell the houses he builds until the final excavation was complete – it’s simply not practical and you don’t need me to spell out the difficulties. An alternative approach – used by Roads Service NI, but I’m not sure if it’s in operation in the Republic – is to require a substantial amount of bond money lodged with the department. Once the final excavation report has been submitted and approved, the bond money can be released back to the developer. Obviously there would be resistance to such an idea from the developers (more costs) and from the government (requires more resources in already lean times). On the positive side – it at least is a proven method, already used by other branches of government. A different approach may be to examine a more carrot-based method of enforcement. Could we foresee a time when developers are given tax incentives to ensure the completion of excavation reports? Before anyone reminds me that it is already their obligation and that they should do it, let me remind you: the system is patently not working and needs to be re-examined with the greatest urgency.
Dwyer at least realises that construction companies are not interested in archaeology for the sake of archaeology, but are interested in the projects that make them money. He says: “They were only interested in financing excavations in order to destroy the archaeological sites as quickly as possible”. But before we accept this at face value, let us put it into a little bit of context. Most developers had nothing personal against archaeology – merely that they were being forced to pay for it. The fact that many individual archaeologists experienced personal abuse from developers and construction workers, while not excusable, was – in part – an expression of their financial frustration. To add further context to this, let me be clear that developers do not like paying for anything. I have a sneaking suspicion that if developers could sell you a house and then tell you that the doors, windows, roof, plumbing, and wiring were all extras that you had to pay for on top of the purchase price, they would. This is not a particular criticism of developers, merely an articulation of the fact that they are in business to make money for themselves – the largest amount of money for the least outlay. If, as archaeologists, we fail to understand this, then we have no place in a business environment.
As an aside, I would point out that that some of the friction on the ground between developers and construction workers on one side, and archaeologists on the other is caused by mutually exclusive stereotypes. We are often viewed as representatives of either a middle-class, university-educated, liberal elite or as a bunch of filthy tree-hugging hippies and (in either case) opposed to development of any kind. There is much to reject in this simple stereotype, but we would do well to realise that it exists. For our part, we often characterise ‘the other side’ as unwashed, ill-educated, rural, anti-intellectual savages who want nothing more than to destroy all that is beautiful and truly important in the world for a quick profit. There may be some truth in this description, as unflattering as it is, but it is not the whole story. My purpose in identifying these stereotypes is to allow us to move beyond them. We archaeologists need to become more business-like in our approach – not just those who run the companies, but the excavators on the site. Too often excavators treat their jobs as some form if extension to university life, where it’s ok not to turn up because you’ve got a hangover, or because it’s Thursday. The company management may try as hard as they like to have a decent business profile and foster mature relationships with the wider business community – but it is all for nothing if the site foreman repeatedly sees us arriving on to site like a rag-tag bunch of war refugees, with some missing and some late. Even our behaviour on site is not always beyond reproach – too often we are found taking little smoke breaks, ‘stretching our legs’, ‘just having a chat about this … erm … tricky natural’. As field workers we must be aware that we are under constant (and justifiable) observation by the development companies who ultimately pay our wages. I realise that I’m probably going to take some criticism for these remarks, but – answer honestly – am I actually wrong?
Anyway, back to Fin … He raises the complaint that the archaeology industry was profit driven (I’m not going to argue this one again) and that report writing was seen as a drain on resources and relegated to a secondary position. I agree, Fin, I really do. We should have been coming off site on a Friday evening and expecting to start post-ex on Monday morning. In 20 years, I think it’s happened like that for me once. As I’ve said above, there does need to be stricter controls over developers and how the completion of archaeological reports is enforced. However, the argument presented here appears to paint the archaeological companies as the ones mostly at fault. This is simply contradictory – on one side we have the developers holding all the financial cards and now we have the archaeologist not insisting we write up sites. I may not have run an archaeological company, but I have been around enough of them to know that no one ever deliberately refuses to pursue a developer for funding for post-ex. Yes, we have jumped from one excavation to the next – to the detriment of reporting on our discoveries – but for sound economic reasons. Simply put, during the boom times, if company X could not put archaeologists on the ground on the day the developer wanted, then company Y certainly would. In the current climate, those of us left in the profession need to be as flexible and business-friendly as possible. Just so we are clear, I mean ‘business-friendly’ in the sense of accommodating the needs of developers, while maintaining a high standard of archaeological professionalism. This is not a ‘zero-sum game’ where the advancement of one inextricably leads to the diminution of the other.
3) A cut-throat free market operated between the archaeological companies
My problem with the argument presented here is that it appears to, once again, differentiate archaeology (and how much we all love and adore it, and how valuable it is) from the rest of the economy. I really cannot say this enough: we may love and cherish what we do, but we cannot believe that everyone else does too. In the final analysis, not one of us (excavator, site director, company owner, or university Prof.) would keep doing archaeology if it did not pay us to do so. We must learn that ‘business’ is not a dirty word (or two four-letter words jammed together, as I once had it described to me). The rest of the western world operates on a system of competitive tendering, and whether we like it or not we must too. Realistically, what are our alternatives? Bringing our entire society back to some Soviet-era communist utopia? Or would China be a better role model? Seriously though, what is this point proposing? The way I interpret the rationale behind it, it appears to be yet another form of ‘special pleading’ for archaeology. Archaeology is such a ‘non-renewable resource’ that its investigation should not be left to forces as tawdry and base as Capitalism. You have to ask yourself if the way ahead is for all archaeological excavations to be conducted by the state sector? While there’s much wrong with the Capitalist/free market economy system, destroying commercial archaeology to create an NHS for excavations is not the answer. Personally, I’d love to live in that world – where all archaeologists are well-paid civil servants with the power and the status we simply know we deserve: after all, we are archaeologists! I am aware that, having never worked as a civil servant, I may have an unrealistic view of what this utopia might be like. That aside, such a scheme would neither be practical, nor popular – even in times of strong economic health, much less now with all European governments attempting to divest themselves of employees. If I have misrepresented the original point, I do apologise, but there is only one other option I can think of that the original article could be proposing – the archaeological companies agreeing the going rate for labour between themselves, and sticking to it. I am sure that all readers will be well aware that this arrangement is termed a ‘cartel’ and is universally considered to be an illegal business practice.
The one area of this argument where I feel that I am unable to answer adequately is the question of ‘functioning oversight’. While I realise that it has not been a fixture of commercial archaeology, I am unaware as to whether it is a commonly used procedure in other aspects of the building industry, etc. If it is, then by all means, I agree it should be introduced into our working practices. If it is not, then this is simply another case of special pleading for archaeology to be put into a protective bubble, external to the concerns and actualities of the ever so mundane, but real, world.
4) Contracts and timetables were drawn up and agreed before excavations began
The original post appears to argue that as developers controlled the finances of excavations, they also imposed their timescales in advance of the excavations. Dwyer goes on to state that despite the best levels of testing and research; archaeology is not so simply quantified. He cites the hoary old chestnuts of the impossibility of knowing how long any individual feature will take to resolve, and the frequency of archaeological remains ‘unexpectedly’ turning up. On one side the argument is that no extra time or resources could be given when projects are costed in advance, then it changes to decry the extensions granted as ‘tokenistic’.
I own colanders with fewer holes than this argument! I disagree with every sentence and syllable of this argument. In the first instance, in all my years in archaeology, I’ve yet to go onto a site having been told how long I’ve got to excavate it. Admittedly, there is frequent ‘horse-trading’ in terms of line managers attempting to ‘bargain’ me down to something that will freak-out the developers slightly less (please let us not be so naïve as to pretend that this doesn’t happen). But these are minor adjustments to timescales – in the region of 10% of total time on site – and certainly not anything like having an imposed deadline without consultation. It may be that I have led a charmed life and am unbelievably lucky in this regard – it’s a possibility – but I would contend that any company or fieldwork manager that agrees a timescale for an excavation without having any knowledge of the archaeology uncovered is an idiot and has no place either in archaeology or in any form of business.
The point about not being able to fully quantify the archaeology prior to excavation beginning is frequently trotted out, and while there is some truth in it, it is frequently much less that some of us would like to believe. A dark spread on the surface might be a 2m deep pit, but if it is only 0.5m in diameter, that’s pretty unlikely. It is very difficult to know how deep that curvilinear ditch is going to be, but experience should be your guide – if it’s 1m across, it’s not likely to be more than 1m deep … but if it’s 5m across, that’s a different story. A good site director has got to rely on experience and a bit of advance testing (the 5m wide ditch may actually only be 0.5m deep, but it could be packed with artefacts). Similarly, the ‘unexpected’ archaeology does happen, but not as frequently as we would like to think. Relatively small increases in the number of visible features (such as after rain) is relatively common and should be allowed for as a contingency in the timescale. On the other hand, not all of the features identified during topsoil stripping will turn out to be of archaeological interest. Overall, it has been my experience that these things tend to balance themselves out. Lest I be accused of painting too rosy a picture of this process, I admit that things can go spectacularly wrong. In my own experience I had just informed a site foreman that the hill we had just topsoil stripped was free of archaeology and that he could go ahead and remove it. It was at that point a colleague informed me that he’d found quite a lot of charcoal in a little pit, under a stone the mechanical digger had just moved. I was confident that there could not be any more archaeology about as the subsoil in the area was so clean and any archaeology would be immediately obvious. As he started to excavate that small pit, he found that it was actually a much larger pit … as more and more of the crew were deployed to excavate it, we eventually discovered that it was part of a large ditch encircling the entire hilltop. It had been totally obscured by a thick layer of the cleanest redeposited subsoil that I have ever seen. Yes, it was a horrible situation that caused tension between the archaeologists and the developers – after all, they had been told that they could remove the hill and were then forced to redesign their development. Not only is this my worst personal experience in this regard, it’s the worst that I’ve even heard of in my time in archaeology. So, while I am not ruling out the possibility that this does occur, I want to recalibrate the argument to accept that it a vast rarity and not the rule.
The other portion of the argument, implied, but not stated, is that fixed-price contracts are a detriment to archaeology. I’ll be honest and say that they’re not my favourite way to approach the excavation of a site. I believe that I have made it perfectly clear that my preferred type of archaeology is one where there is unlimited time and ample funds for all the dates and specialist analyses I’d like. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. Fixed price contracts are, however, a necessary evil and appear set to be the most common form of contract in the future. This is why fieldwork managers and site directors must work closely together, using a combination of experience, on-site testing and business acumen, to produce realistic timescales that are achievable. The time of bloated estimates and open-ended timescales is past and, whether we like it or not, we have to come to terms with it. The simple fact is that all the other sub-contractors on a development (and yes, we are just another bunch of subbies!) tender with fixed-price bids and while we may like to see ourselves differently from roofers and electricians, we still have to engage in this world if we wish to survive. Can you honestly see a firm of, say, plumbers telling a developer to let them at the job and see how they get on? I’m not a plumber, but I’m sure that there are imponderables to be taken account of in that profession too – to think that archaeology is alone in this is simply arrogance and foolishness.
5) Heavy machinery was used all too frequently
My initial feeling about this criticism is that the author would have preferred to title it ‘Heavy machinery was used’. Indeed, this is a legitimate position to take – some people would prefer to dig a site entirely by hand, eschewing any benefit offered by heavy machinery. However, if there is a misconception that we work with ‘a toothbrush and fine comb’ (or ‘digging with a spoon’ as it is characterised by some people I know), it is also a misrepresentation to claim that ‘mechanical excavators were often the tool of choice’. The line of text linking the needlessness of digging everything by hand to the alleged over use of machinery (‘there is not an archaeologist who has worked in Ireland who has not seen archaeological material needlessly and in some cases intentionally destroyed by mechanical excavators’) is a pure fallacy. It is also a serious allegation. If there is strong evidence of this, it should have been reported to the licensing authorities for formal investigation, and not vague allusions made in a blog post. I realise that the original post was a personal piece, but as such is not immune from the requirements of evidence. This post is also a personal piece, and as such I would like to give two cases where mechanical excavators were used to good effect. In the first case, on a recent excavation in Northern Ireland, we placed a number of hand-dug trenches across a rath ditch. Only once I was satisfied that the stratigraphic sequence was uniform across the feature was a mechanical digger called in. At all times the machine was under the supervision of an experienced archaeologist, with instructions to stop if something of potential importance was discovered. We even made a video of it. True, we were under pressure to conclude the excavation on time and on budget, but it did not prevent us from doing a professional job. On another site, on one of the motorway schemes in the Republic, we dug the majority of an Early Christian ditch by hand, but the large baulks were removed by machine. As the machine progressed through the ditch the supervising archaeologist noticed something important. She stopped the machine and investigated the feature. She had discovered a perfectly-preserved, stone-lined Early Christian hearth. The feature was hand excavated and fully recorded before the mechanical process resumed. In short, I have never seen a mechanical excavator used to ‘needlessly [or] intentionally destroy’ archaeology. In my opinion, the original post attempts to create a false dichotomy between the use of machinery and a shorter excavation schedule on one side and the carrying out of good quality excavation on the other. Lest we forget, every tool in the archaeologist’s repertoire, from spades and shovels to trowels and toothpicks was invented by someone else for some other purpose – it behoves us to examine all the tools available to us and use the most appropriate ones with due care and diligence.
On a related point, I think it is important to remember that the complete excavation of large features such as ditches is a relatively new phenomenon. If we examine some of the older excavations of ditched sites, such as raths, we will not (to my memory) find a single example of 100% excavation. Admittedly, the majority of these were research excavations, where the site was not due to be destroyed at the completion of the excavation. Nonetheless, I have yet to hear anyone contesting the interpretations and wishing for enough grant money to go back and resolve these questions by full excavation.
As a coda to this point, I would like to directly address an allegation raised by someone signing themselves ‘Anon’. The comment on the original post states: “I saw the skeletons of babies excavated by shovels and graves trowelled for by digger bucket … using this rather curious technique you find the grave by the crushed cranium’. I cannot pretend to be anything other than shocked by this. If it happened as it is described, I can only ask why this was not raised with the licensing authorities – even anonymously? Let me be clear – a situation that bad, or a site director that incompetent, is in clear breach of the legislation and should have been removed. Such an allegation of destruction, if proved to be correct, is utterly reprehensible and the person/people responsible have no place in our profession.
6) Straight up corruption
For me, this is the single most invidious piece of the whole post. If the author has no proof of corruption, then why mention it? There is a huge difference between anecdotal stories passed around in a tea-hut and repeating them in the much more formal (and permanent) arena of a blog post. Simply stating that is ‘naïve to think this was not happening’ constitutes neither evidence nor a coherent argument. In the words of Christopher Hitchens: ‘What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence’, or ‘Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur’ if you’re feeling more Latinate. For the record, only twice have I been in situations that would fall into this broad category. In both instances I was solemnly and sincerely told by construction workers than since I had found archaeology on the site, it was only a matter of time before the developer approached me with a bribe to help ‘forget the whole thing’. I was also told that this type of thing ‘happened all the time’. Needless to say, I met with the developers in question on many occasions and was never once offered cash to help ease my memory or speed the dig up. This is why I hold such anecdotal stories of bribes and corruption in such low regard. Again, if you have evidence of corruption – bring it to the relevant authorities or make it public, but please do not make unsubstantiated allegations – it devalues the entirety of your other arguments.
7) No one spoke up
I completely agree with the sentiment that the vast majority of field archaeologists were in a very precarious position throughout the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years. But this can hardly be placed solely at the door of the archaeological companies. My experience is that of ‘Mark’ who posted a comment saying that diggers couldn’t get themselves organised to join a union and that most meetings about unionisation descended into drinking sessions. It is sad, but true, and there is no one to blame but the archaeologists themselves (and I include myself in that category, too). Commentator ‘Mark’ raises an important point that many of the archaeologists were ‘only ever passing through’ and saw no value in it. I also believe that as a group, we were less than knowledgeable about employment legislation and failed to avail of the legal protections available to us. With a transient and uncommitted base it is impossible to mobilise a workforce into an effective social organisation – again this is our failure as employees, not the companies for which we toiled. Ask yourself: would you join a union that was run by your employers? … No, me neither! So, I fail to see how this is their problem.
The ‘troublemaker’ question is also raised in the original post … the problem that anyone who raised questions over the quality of the work would not be rehired for the next job. All I can offer here is my own experience, and I do not pretend that it is any more than anecdotal. In general, my experience has been that many, but not all, of those most vocal about issues of ‘quality’ or methodology were those least equipped to make a balanced statement on such issues – individuals with inflated visions of self worth and archaeological knowledge, un-sustained by actual field experience. There is a great freedom to perch your tent on the moral high ground and question the intentions and abilities of those above you, without ever having taken on those roles and responsibilities yourself. I am fortunate in that I have managed to remain in friendly contact with many archaeologists who worked under my direction over the years. Many of these have gone on to excavate sites of their own and show themselves to be skilled and resourceful site directors. Some have even felt able to come back to me years later and admit that directing an excavation is not as easy as you might think from the position of a digger. It is certainly true for me – as an excavator I have worked for a wide variety of site directors – some good, some bad, some brilliant – but it was not until I started directing my own sites did I have any inkling as to how damn difficult it is to do it at all, don’t mind do it well. While I would not seek to defend every action of every site director, I do suggest that anyone wishing to castigate us (either singly or as a group) look at the broader picture of how a site director must operate and the stresses and obligations of the position. Without wishing to engage in the argument ad hominem, a brief check of the excavations.ie site does not produce any excavation directed by Dwyer. I must thus conclude that Fin has not worked in this capacity. I do not suggest that Dwyer does not have the right to offer an opinion – whatever his level of experience. I am merely pointing out the fact that there is a limit to his experience in these matters. Obviously, there is a limit to my experience too, but I believe that I have clearly stated my background, position and experience at the beginning of this piece.
Getting back to the topic of ‘troublemakers’ it has been my experience that a small number of these, failing some gross dereliction of duty, were the hardest to remove. Bizarrely, the prime reason for this fear was that their dismissal would be interpreted as the removal of a troublemaker, rather than an incompetent, unable to carry out their job. I realise that many reading this will object to such sentiments – and I support your right to do so – but this is an account of my personal experience and I offer it as just that, not an incontrovertible and everlasting truth. Instead, I ask that you cast your mind back to those ‘troublemakers’ … were they really as knowledgeable and able as they proclaimed? Or, even in just a few instances, were they using their indignation as a means of self promotion or as a shield to their own incompetence? To be fair, this is not intended to characterise all who rose up their voices as villains. I merely wish to recalibrate the tacit assumption made by Dwyer that all these people were the unblemished heroes of archaeology, standing up like White Knights against the polycephalic Dragons of profit-oriented consultancies and developers. This characterisation is not the full picture and neither is the other extreme I have presented here as a foil.
In my own experience, I have worked on a number of excavations (both as excavator and director) where such ‘troublemakers’ were invaluable in helping me change my thinking or in suggesting an alternative methodology. To those in this category, I remain grateful for their input and I am glad they spoke up and offered alternate views and advice. However, there is another reason that the idea that those who spoke up got a raw deal is wrong to me. In my time working in the Republic during the ‘boom years’, we simply couldn’t get enough archaeologists. As I discuss below, I saw a situation arise where anyone willing to work was instantly given a job, whether or not they had any experience or training. In this situation it didn’t matter how much trouble anyone caused so long as you had your numbers on site and were resolving the archaeology.
I find the assertion that university lecturers were in a position to speak out, but did not to be, at the very least, disingenuous. Why should anyone expect the majority of this group to have any knowledge of current field practices; good, bad, or indifferent? To say that they had very little knowledge of the alleged facts and then blame them for not speaking out about it is utterly contradictory. Again there is an unsubstantiated allegation that some did know, but chose not to ‘rock the boat’. This is utterly in conflict with my knowledge of the Irish academic community. If we take, for example, the public protests regarding sites like Lismullin and the M3/Tara controversy there is ample evidence of academics making their views known through television and radio interviews and letters to the editors of varying outlets, from The Irish Times to Archaeology Ireland. There is no way that one can correlate these clear and uncontested means of making their objections known with this alleged culture of ‘not rocking the boat’.
8) If you pay peanuts you get monkeys
This is one area where I speak with very little knowledge or authority, as I have never run an archaeological company. Thus, I have no actual knowledge of these ‘massive amounts of money’ being made by the consultancies. I might point out that what appear as vast quantities of money to people like me, are rather trifling to businesses. I am not saying that they were making so much money that it no longer had the same meaning. Not at all. I remember speaking to a company owner during the height of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ period and being shocked to learn that they needed to be taking in almost a quarter of a million Euros each month (€250,000) … just to break even. No profit there – just paying the bills: heat, light, power, cabin rental, staff wages … but no profit … each and every month! True, put that kind of money beside an individual excavator’s wages and it looks like something from an Asian sweatshop, but it’s far from an accurate and fair assessment of the situation.
Would I like to be paid a vast amount of money to do archaeology? Yes, of course I would. Do I think I deserve it? Damn right I do! And while that fantasy is cute and lovely, it’s time to enter the real world, folks. Again and again we come back to the point that while an awful lot of us do archaeology because we love the subject and think it’s the most important thing in the world, that is not how we are perceived by society in general and the workplace in particular. Yes, it does (usually) take a university degree to be an archaeologist, but it (unfortunately) does not mean that we are automatically entitled to the same pay as others with comparable levels of qualifications, such as engineers etc. Yes, the consultancies undercut each other to get the jobs, but don’t you think that the engineering firms were doing the same? What makes us so special that we should be treated in a way at variance with market forces? Are we back to special pleading again?
I have had the pleasure of working with some of the best and most skilful archaeologists of the current generation, and not one of us was ever paid what we would like or what we deserved. I am not arguing for low pay in archaeology – far from it – but I am attempting to articulate the unpleasant truths that the value of our labour is set not by us and not by the consultancies, but by external market forces, largely beyond our control. It’s sad and it is pretty damn depressing, but it is not the sole fault of those who employed us! As I have said above, there are ways we can attempt to change the perception and the worth of archaeology – but these involve changing ourselves and our attitudes. We have to look like professionals and we have to act like professionals – unless more of us start treating field archaeology as a real job and not the ‘snooze’ button between university and post-grad life, we will never make any progress in being taken seriously – and consequently being better paid. If we don’t stop treating field excavation as that thing you do when you’re not too hung-over, or can be bothered to struggle out of bed, we have no chance for any improvement. Obviously, the vast majority of field archaeologists are hard-working and largely professional in their outlook, but we have a long way to go to counteract the poor impressions created by the few that damage us all. The consultancies themselves are not beyond reproach – it is my opinion that much of the damage to the current standing and perception of field archaeologists was done by the indiscriminate hiring of people with no training or background in the subject. At the height of the boom years it seemed like anyone who could hold a trowel and not poke their own eye out could get a job as an archaeologist. In defence of the companies, what else could they have done? There was so much work, but not nearly enough archaeologists to undertake it all. The only option was to find some kind of warm bodies to fill the roles. The end result was the driving down of wages for the majority and a drastic re-evaluation as to what was considered an acceptable level of archaeological training to do the job. I don’t like it any more than anyone else, but these are the facts as I see them.
I object to the argument that ‘the real money was made by company owners and managers who never worked on sites’. I doubt that anyone who ever worked in field archaeology has ever thought differently – as a group, we’re pretty much convinced that labouring in the field is infinitely nobler than sitting behind a desk. Guess what, sweeties? Nowhere in the world does a manual labourer make more than the folks behind the desk – it just doesn’t happen! We’re also back to the ideal that companies should not make any profits – without banging on about it too much; it’s not going to happen!
I’m sure that some companies had their own helicopters … it’s just that I never worked for them or heard of them. I did hear various stories about ‘another lot’ having outrageous perks for the management … but when I worked for them the stories were the same … just with a different company name inserted! Sure, the offices of some companies appeared to be staffed with cretins who couldn’t organise scratching their own behinds, much less organising ‘portaloos’ to be transported to the site and cleaned on a regular basis. Some of this was incompetence and some of it was pure and simple parsimoniousness. I remember all too well working on one site where the company owner not only refused to provide toilets, but when the supply of nails ran out I was forced (as the only one on site with a Swiss Army knife) to go along the adjacent hedge and collect suitably long thorns. No matter how you look at it, this was an unacceptable and shameful way to run a company. Why did we put up with it? Mostly because we felt that we had no choice and that we’d made a commitment to archaeology, rather than seeking material wealth. We didn’t stand up for ourselves. Until such time as we decide to do archaeology as a real profession and see its actual place in the economic and social structure, we will make no progress in getting better pay, conditions or even that most elusive of goals: ‘respect’. While I have an extreme dislike to the term ‘monkeys’ in this context, I would still rephrase the original point: act like monkeys and be prepared to be offered only peanuts.
Do I have any regrets about my time in archaeology? Yes, a few … but I’ve more to be proud of than to regret. It is for this reason, I cannot allow the Fin Dwyer’s post to stand unchallenged – I believe that it does not represent my experience in the profession. Yes there have been negatives in the impact of the building boom on Irish archaeology, but they are more than outweighed by the positive impacts for us all.
Fin Dwyer expressed his desire that we should have a public debate on the issues. As I said at the beginning, this is my reply. I do not claim universality and I do not claim to represent anyone’s experience other than my own. I invite anyone who wishes to comment on this post to add their thoughts in the box below or pen their own rebuttal post – if you don’t wish to start your own blog to do so, I offer anyone willing a ‘guest blog’ spot right here. However, please be prepared to be ignored or deleted if you feel unable to put your full name to any comments you wish to make!
[** If you like this post, please consider making a small donation. Each donation helps keep the Irish Radiocarbon & Dendrochronological Dates project going! **]