Empire of Dirt: time to call time on commercial archaeology in Northern Ireland?

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As a consequence of the Drumclay crannog fiasco, Minister Alex Attwood has proposed a wide-ranging review of archaeological practice in Northern Ireland. The scope of this review has yet to be made public, but I would hope that it will be broad enough to consider such matters as the planning process, along with the operation of both the private and state sectors – not just in this case, but in how the practice of archaeology is conducted generally. I have a sneaking suspicion that a path may not be beaten to my door to solicit my opinion – it certainly hasn’t been sought so far. As we all know, this has never stopped me! For this reason this blog post may be regarded as my – deliberately provocative, but no less serious – position paper on what should happen in commercial archaeology in this corner of the island.

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There are some questions that you should instinctively know the answer to. When the Mongol General asks Conan 'What is best in life?' He immediately answers: 'To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.' When the Bridgekeeper in Monty Python & The Holy Grail asks Sir Lancelot 'What ... Is your favourite colour?' you just know that this is not going to go well if for him if he hesitates in any way. When Howard Payne utters the immortal lines: 'Pop quiz, hotshot. There's a bomb on a bus ...' you'd better be prepared for action or there will be consequences!

So ... Now that everyone is sitting comfortably ... Here's my question: 'What is the point of archaeology?' ... How are you going to answer? ... There may be no formal, universally agreed, wording to a question of this nature, but I would contend that any reply that did not include the idea of increasing knowledge about the past would be insufficient. I think that if the practice of archaeology is to be judged, it must answer this criterion. It is simple: if the way that archaeology is being carried out is demonstrably increasing our knowledge of the past the test is passed. If it is not, the test is failed. And in the latter case, it is justifiable to ask further questions like - should it be allowed to continue? This post will confine itself to examining the current state of commercial archaeology in Northern Ireland, but you can (should you wish) adapt this argument and its criteria to any particular geographic region.

The first question that we would have to face is how we would define 'increasing knowledge about the past' - we must have some benchmark against which to judge the commercial sector. As I was ruminating on this problem, I was reminded of the old addage that archaeological excavation without publication is, in real terms, no different than simply bulldozing the site without any record.

That kind of sums it up, doesn't it? Archaeology is pointless without publication! True, there are other means of promoting the good of archaeology and disseminating knowledge about our past, including local outreach initiatives, and lecturing - be it to local history groups, learned societies, or at conferences. But the baseline of knowledge must be publication.

In Northern Ireland we are blessed with a large number of local historical and archaeological journals, but the main one is the Ulster Journal of Archaeology. It is internationally recognised, peer-reviewed, and is considered to be the journal of record for Northern Irish archaeology. For the purposes of this paper, I take the position that publication in UJA is (or should be) the eventual goal for every site that results in an archaeological excavation of any significance. That will be the measure of our output. A reader could contend that there are other forms of appropriate publication, not just UJA – such as books. True, but as far as I’m aware, they’re pretty few and far between. There’s Corrstown: A Coastal Community. Excavations of a Bronze Age village in Northern Ireland by Stuart Rathbone & Victoria Ginn. There’s a BAR (479) that my name appears on (even though I only contributed a few pages) dealing with the excavations undertaken as part of the A1 Dualling Scheme from Loughbrickland to Beech Hill. And there’s another (BAR 521) detailing my excavations Gransha, Co. Londonderry. If there are any other similar monographs produced from the commercial archaeological sector in Northern Ireland in the last two decades, they’re news to me. I may be unaware of one or two publications, but it is unlikely that, say, several dozen have escaped my attention. I’d also point out that ‘grey literature’ reports don’t count – they just don’t. They’re not formal publications, they’re not peer-reviewed, and they’re not intended for wide distribution. Usually copies are presented to NIEA, the developer, and a copy is retained by the archaeology consultancy. It would be unfair to suggest that there is anything approaching a large scale problem with reports being lost by NIEA – though it has happened in the past. In most cases construction companies aren’t interested in the actual archaeology, just the proof that their planning conditions have been met. I may be wrong, but I don’t imagine that archaeological reports are impressively well curated by development companies. That leaves the commercial archaeological consultancies themselves. To be honest, some are wonderful and make so much material quickly and easily available. For example, Eachtra Archaeological Projects in the Republic of Ireland produce their own on-line journal to disseminate their work, but they are a rare exception. In other cases, finding someone in an archaeological consultancy with the time and interest to help can be only the first hurdle. However you wish to slice it, this is not easily available information. So, no – this form of ‘grey literature’ does not count as publication.

The measure for input on the other hand, or the numbers of archaeological sites excavated, is easy – I will use the data from the Excavations Bulletin, edited for many years by the remarkably talented Isabel Bennett. As a case study, let's take the last 20 years of bulletins that are currently available: 1990-2009. This period is useful, as it effectively encompasses the rise of commercial archaeology in Northern Ireland. A quick trawl produces the following results:

Excavations in Northern Ireland 1990-2009

Excavations in Northern Ireland 1990-2009

Excavations in Northern Ireland 1990-2009, by county

Let's first address some caveats in this data - it is very much a quick investigation with no robust attempt at error checking. I've attempted to only catalogue 'commercial' excavations, leaving out anything sponsored by NIEA, the Ulster Museum, or the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork (CAF) unit at QUB, but there may be some accidental slips. I've noticed some entries that are repeats of previous years – i.e. where fieldwork was conducted over two or more years. I've attempted to remove as many of these as possible, leaving only the latest year of excavation in the data. I've removed all entries marked as 'no archaeological significance', 'monitoring', and 'testing' etc. For practical purposes, I have ignored the appendices at the end of the Excavations Bulletin volumes listing sites for which excavation licences were issued, but no report had been received. Again, this is a quick rush through the data and several errors may still exist. For all that, I would maintain that this is a reasonable approximation of the numbers of excavations carried out in Northern Ireland across the last two decades.

By my rough reckoning, there have been 658 archaeological excavations undertaken in Northern Ireland in this period. During that time there has been a generally upward growth in numbers, from only two commercial excavations in 1990, to 116 in 2008. This figure fell to 88 in 2009, and has probably fallen further since (see Mount 2012 for the situation in the Republic of Ireland). Analysing the data by county, shows that most excavations were concentrated in the more industrialised eastern counties of Antrim (243) and Down (140), with arguably the most rural of counties, Fermanagh, having only 42 commercial excavations in this period.

We all know that it's not just as simple as finishing an excavation and immediately writing it up for publication, so I'll not pretend that an excavation that finished in, say, 1997 should be written up and ready for publication in the same year. But how long should it take? I've just had a look through my CV, and by a quick estimation it took me between 5 months and just under 5.5 years to go from completion of the fieldwork to submitting the Final Report (average = 24.6 months). It should be noted that this is in stark contrast to the licensing agreement which states that a Preliminary Report must be complete within four weeks and a Final Report submitted within six months (Hull 2011, 14). Let's be generous and not even go with my personal average - let's even exceed my maximum - let's say that it takes everyone 6 years to go from field work to being ready to submit for publication. That way, sites excavated in 2000 should be complete to Final Report stage in 2006. Let’s say that it takes another year to get the site report ready for publication ... You'll be submitting your text to UJA in 2007. For my own part, I've had six papers published in three volumes of UJA. I can tell you that the current editor does an amazing job and has vastly improved my texts through his careful attention. All this sterling work takes time. Let's say that it takes another year to finally see it all published ... It's now 2008. I can't speak for other volumes, further back in time, but the three I was published in were two years behind ... The 2007 volume appeared in 2009 and the 2008 volume appeared in 2010, etc. Obviously, it has not always been thus, but let's just for now take it as a constant ... That brings your publication date for your 2000 site back to 2006. With me so far? That means that we should be looking for sites excavated in 1990 to appear in the 1996 UJA, and so on. As the most recently published volume of UJA is 2010 (published in early 2013), it means that we can only compare excavations up to 2004. This is unfortunate, as it only captures the very beginning of the boom that reached a crescendo in 2008. The other problem is that UJA 57 was published for 1994, but the next volume (UJA 58) was published for 1999, thus reducing our field of vision further. Despite these drawbacks, we can still graph 12 consecutive years of excavations to journal publication: UJA volumes 58 to 69, covering the years 1999 to 2010.

Approximate year of excavation : volume of UJA for year

Publications in UJA for years 1999-2010

Publications in UJA for years 1999-2010, by county

In that 12 year period we see that the output from commercial archaeological organisations has been between 0 in 2006, to 5 in 2009, the average being around 2 papers per year. Like the actual numbers of excavations, the published sites are concentrated in eastern Ulster, in Counties Antrim (14) and Down (5). Four papers relate to excavations in Londonderry and only one is from Armagh. Fermanagh and Tyrone are not represented at all. These figures are just shocking - there's no other word for it! 24 papers produced by commercial archaeological companies across 12 years - it is pathetic! Consider that in the same period (1999-2004) there were 239 excavations licensed by NIEA to commercial companies – that’s a mere 1 in 10 sites that ended up with a formal publication. It's even more pathetic when you consider that two of the papers in the 2009 volume relate to sites that were excavated by a former colleague of mine who left the profession. Only because I expressed an interest in moving them forward to publication - in the face of magnificent indifference from my employers - did they see the light of day. Within this data there is another anomaly that makes the situation seem better than it is. One archaeologist - well-known in the profession, but whom I will not name - has published a substantial number of papers in UJA detailing his commercial excavations. However, these were, for the most part, only produced after he left the commercial sphere and took up a position with a university department. This is no criticism of the individual, but of an environment that does not promote or value the publication of our findings - a business model that is not doing its job. When we graph these results in relation to the numbers of published entries in the Excavations Bulletin, they appear all the more stark and shocking. The numbers of published sites are so small that, when graphed by county, the single published excavation from Armagh appears as an all-but-invisible smudge.

Publications in UJA for years 1999-2010 vs. excavations carried out 1993-2004, by county

Publications in UJA for years 1999-2010 vs. excavations carried out 1993-2004, by county 
I realise that not every excavation will be considered suitable for publication. An isolated pit in a field somewhere that produced no datable artefacts, had no discernible function, and didn’t even contain enough charcoal for a radiocarbon date will hardly set the archaeological world alight should you commit it for publication. Can we quantify, even broadly, how may excavations we could or should expect to produce results not worthy of publication? I’ve had another look through my CV and find that – dismissing all those topsoil stripping jobs where nothing of archaeological significance was found (and which would, in any case, have been omitted from the original data set) – that almost 16% of the sites I’ve worked on throughout my career in commercial archaeology would not require publication. With this data in mind, let’s recalibrate those graphs. Again, I’m being generous – let’s not say that 16% don’t deserve to be published. Let’s not even say that 20% don’t deserve to grace the pages of UJA. Let’s make it a full quarter of sites: 25%. Hull (2011, 11 fn. 10) is less generous and assumes that only 10% of archaeological excavations in Northern Ireland will produce 'little or no physical objects', though he does expect that even these would produce some form of digital archive. Obviously, even with the best will in the world, some excavations will never see the light of day. One site I directed included an Early Christian plectrum-shaped enclosure that contained several wood-built souterrains, a figure-of-eight house, with a paved portion of a substantial road (possibly identifiable as the Slighe Miodhluachra, one of the ancient highways of Ireland) – and that’s leaving aside all the barrows, houses and enclosures of various dates, along with a remarkably rare recovery of a Beaker vessel from Northern Ireland – all from the same site. Unfortunately, the construction company involved in the housing development went bankrupt and no money is available for post-excavation analysis and publication. A large amount of time and money was spent excavating the site, but it is unlikely to ever add anything of value to the sum of archaeological knowledge as it will not be fully and formally published. I’m sure that many readers could add further caveats as to why perfectly good sites will never be published. The Department of the Environment's own figures indicate that, as of November 2011, there were 182 excavations for which no written report had been received (Hull 2011, 16). It is not stated explicitly, but I assume that this figure relates to the time period from the introduction of the new licencing system in 1999. By my count, there were 550 commercial excavations in the period from 1999 to 2009. There were a further 133 excavation licences issued (across all sectors) in 2010 and 2011 (pers comm. Isabel Bennett). While we're clearly not adding like to like, those 182 excavations account for almost 27% of the total. A more detailed breakdown of the figures may improve their complexion, but it remains a shocking indictment on the entire industry. But here’s the thing … even if I recalibrate the graphs until we now believe that three-quarters – 75% – of all excavated sites will never be published, it still looks like publications are struggling to keep up.

Publications in UJA for years 1999-2010 vs. excavations carried out 1993-2004 recalibrated to show 25% of excavations not suitable for publication
Publications in UJA for years 1999-2010 vs. excavations carried out 1993-2004 recalibrated to show 25% of excavations not suitable for publication, by county
Publications in UJA for years 1999-2010 vs. excavations carried out 1993-2004 recalibrated to show 75% of excavations not suitable for publication
Publications in UJA for years 1999-2010 vs. excavations carried out 1993-2004 recalibrated to show 75% of excavations not suitable for publication, by county
Who’s to blame for this situation? The way I see it, everyone involved in commercial archaeology in Northern Ireland has some burden of responsibility to bear. Individual licensed archaeologists (the Site Directors) are usually the ones first singled out for berating in this regard. It’s their names on the licences, on the reports, and on the publications should they ever materialise. As I’ve written before, they’re not usually the ones in charge of the finances for running an excavation or scheduling post-ex etc., so they can’t be held completely accountable. Here’s the dichotomy … we’re sold the fiction that publications will give us a ‘reputation’ – and to an extent that’s true – but it’s not a reputation that appears to matter for anything within commercial archaeology. Some people, like me, have spent a lot of our own time and expense getting papers ready for publication. I don’t regret it – I rather like writing – but purely within the terms of commercial archaeology it didn’t matter a damn. Some Site Directors have said to me that they don’t publish because they don’t get paid to write the papers. That’s a perfectly valid response. I think that archaeologists should be paid to write up their sites for formal publication. It is a condition of the licensing agreement that this should be so, but I have yet to even hear of it being enforced. The NIEA are the government body empowered to oversee the licensing of archaeological excavations in Northern Ireland. It has been my experience that they have no robust system in place to refuse an excavation licence, either to an individual or a commercial archaeological consultancy, for non submission of reports or non publication of those results. As an aside, I would note that I have known a number of archaelogists who refuse to publish their findings as they 'don't like' writing. For these people, I have nothing but contempt and the advice: go find another job - preferably one that does not involve the written word - you are certainly adding nothing to archaeology.

It has also been my experience that the threshold of competence required in some of these reports is shockingly low. The effect of this has been to drive down the overall standard of Final Reports within the entire profession – How can I justify all the time I require to adequately research and document an excavation to a proper, professional level when I’m told by an office manager that it’s not necessary and that the report will be accepted whatever we produce? Even the standards of what is required as a minimum level of post-excavation analysis have dropped to a shockingly-low level. Just one example: In the relatively recent excavation of a 19th century graveyard in Belfast, the NIEA chose not to require any form of skeletal analysis. I’m not talking about not requiring detailed investigative procedures, like oxygen-isotope analysis. No, I mean basic assessment of the skeletons – age, sex, dental, evidence for pathologies or physical trauma, etc. None of this was sanctioned. Instead, a vast number of hours were expended on cleaning bones that were never to be analysed. The rarity of such a site being available for archaeological excavation is such that the remains could – and should – have been viewed as having huge research potential. On top of all that, a small number of individual skeletons were individually identifiable, as their coffin plates had survived, giving names, ages, and dates of death. Instead of being justly regarded as an assemblage of huge worth, the bones were cremated without any form of osteological analysis. Even if published now, what good would it serve? What genuine addition to our knowledge would result from this list of undated, unsexed burials? Worse than that, what does it say of a commercial archaeological company that accepted these terms? If the answer is 'just for the money', then the entire model is broken beyond repair. 

While occasional construction companies cannot pay for post-excavation (as in the example I detailed above), it is much more often the case that they simply won’t pay for the work to be completed. Despite occasional, reassuring words emanating from individuals within NIEA, there has never been a concerted effort to ensure that these construction companies live up to their obligations. Why can’t the law be changed so planning permission for a new development is refused until such time as excavations already undertaken are fully written up and published? All I’ve seen is permission after permission being handed out to developers and no one ever doing the joined up thinking to ask if this is a good thing for our heritage?

The owners and management of the archaeological consultancies are as much to blame as anyone in this situation. They are supposedly professional archaeologists, devoted and dedicated to our archaeological heritage. Yet, these are the very people that have presided over the denigration of this cultural resource. There has been no effort that I have ever seen to push forward with post-excavation and publication, especially when there is a new site to start digging. Of course, that’s just another convenient fiction – few, if any, of these people are in archaeology purely for the ‘love’ of it – they’re business people trying to make as much money as they possibly can. Obviously, in the current economic climate, many of them are struggling to keep their businesses afloat. The fact remains that there is no profit in publication, so they don’t want to do it (or at least not pay for it) – despite the obligations they signed up to as part of the unenforced licensing agreement. There has been occasional hand-wringing over the ‘publication backlog’ and how something ‘must be done’. Well, folks, nothing has happened and it’s not looking likely that anything is going to happen in the foreseeable future. I reported previously on rumours that had reached me that one Belfast-based archaeological consultancy had actually gone so far as to inform past clients that they were about to implement a policy of charging for the retention of artefacts and archives. I am given to understand that large quantities of archaeological material had been ‘de-accessioned’ in this manner, passing out of any form of structured curation. As I said in my original comment on the practice – I wish I could believe that all of these collections were being adequately cared for, but I truly doubt it.

We could argue back and forth about the rights and wrongs of this situation – who’s to blame and who should have done what. That’s a lovely distraction, and it gets us away from the central question: is commercial archaeology in Northern Ireland working? Based on the data presented above, the answer is clearly no – the test has been failed. The commercial companies are digging all of this material up, but it is making almost no contribution to scholarship. As I’ve said above, excavation without publication is no different from just bulldozing it in the first place. How can we disagree with this sentiment when so few commercial excavations are making it into UJA – or any other publication, for that matter?

Construction companies have never wanted to pay for archaeological excavation, but in these financially difficult times, are we not all entitled to ask – what are we paying for? If this material is not being published; if the finds are being dispersed/destroyed and cannot be studied; if the core reason for doing archaeology is not being fulfilled … then what’s the point? The entire commercial sector can’t be just there to keep a few people off the dole – that’s not a good enough reason! But where does that leave us? I’m afraid that commercial archaeology in Northern Ireland is facing one of two options. Either the condition of high-quality publication – either in UJA, or other appropriate media – is enforced for all appropriate sites or we cannot allow commercial archaeology to continue. What am I proposing? Nothing less than the wholesale disbanding of the licensing of commercial companies in Northern Ireland to carry out archaeological excavations.

Like Wally Weaver in Watchmen my first reaction to this idea was: “Now if you begin to feel an intense and crushing feeling of religious terror at the concept, don't be alarmed. That indicates only that you are still sane” … but no – it’s not like this! Commercial archaeology is not some sacred cow whose right to continued existence and veneration cannot be questioned. This would not be the destruction of an industry, nor any real loss of archaeological knowledge, seeing as so little is being produced as it is. Instead, I would urge you to think of it as the excision of a tumour, or the amputation of a diseased limb – without action now, the disease can only spread.

Let’s think this through – what would the actual loss to archaeology be from the disbandment of commercial archaeology in Northern Ireland? From the arguments and data I’ve put forward above, it would appear to amount to a few monographs, and about two scholarly articles a year. True, there would be lots of important archaeology being blindly bulldozed away without record – but in the current situation, where no definitive records are produced, this amounts to the same thing. I would have to ask myself: could I honestly propose this course of action, acknowledging that a site of international importance like the Drumclay crannog would have been destroyed without record? To be honest, it is a terrible loss to contemplate – such an incredible site that will, I believe, give the greatest of insights into rural Early Christian life on this island – bar none. But … and here’s the rub … without the outcry from some members of the excavation team and the campaign that followed, this site would have been stitched up and swept under the carpet in the original six week excavation schedule. If you don’t believe me, look at the initial reactions from Roads Service in July 2012, citing their commercial archaeologists saying that the timescale was enough to complete excavations. The case of Drumclay is an exception, where many professional archaeologists spoke out to say: this is wrong! It is true that together, we saved one important site – but it is just one. How many more potential ‘Drumclays’ are among those 658 archaeological excavations carried out in Northern Ireland in the last two decades? If they’re not published and making an active contribution to our collective knowledge, what was the point of excavating them? What was the point of expending time, effort, and large quantities of cash digging them up? As an aside, I would note that I have heard of a number of commercial archaeologists (in positions of seniority) who are arguing that the Drumclay excavation has now gone on 'too long' and that the issue is 'damaging commercial archaeology'. Let's just take a moment to let that one soak in, shall we? ... take your time! The excavation of one of the most important sites in Nortern Ireland in a century is damaging the business of archaeology? The retching sound you may hear is me - attempting not to drown in the irony. Should we not be asking the question: if commercial archaeology cannot deal with an excavation of this scale and importance, can it be trusted with any aspect of our heritage? Are we not looking at a broken and discredited paradigm? Is it not time to scrap commercial archaeology as we know it?

What is the alternative? One model that I would see as having much merit is that followed by the National Roads Authority (NRA) in the Republic of Ireland. Having read large swathes of the Final Reports produced by southern commercial companies as part of my own research for the Irish Radiocarbon & Dendrochronological Dates project [Website | Facebook], I can tell you that they are no better and no worse than anything produced on this side of the border. Some reports are well written, well researched, and (even in the form of ‘grey literature’) make a contribution to our collective knowledge. Some, however, are woefully inadequate and should only serve as a warning to others as to how not to write. What sets the NRA apart is their steadfast commitment to publication and dissemination of that excavated data – at all levels – and turning it into genuine knowledge. For example, their highly successful monograph series has created a new benchmark for professional publication in Irish archaeology. Similarly, the proceedings of their annual conferences have quickly earned their editors and publishers a reputation for well-produced archaeological works, arriving in a timely manner. Add to this the selection of posters and pamphlets that they have produced, along with the free Seanda magazine (in both print and digital formats), and their comprehensive website. This is an amazing achievement and it’s difficult to fault them for their genuine commitment to archaeology on this island. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe them to be an organisation beyond fault – there are none that are, but judged purely on their production of publications they are doing archaeology properly – they get the point of this endeavour! I see their success as one where the major descriptive and synthetic texts (chiefly the monograph series) are entrusted to the editorship a small number of highly skilled and proficient archaeologists, who may or may not have been involved in the original excavations. Could something similar be put in place in Northern Ireland to oversee the high-quality and timely publication of commercial archaeological excavations? Of course it could! It would, however, require a redefinition the ‘rights’ of the commercial consultancies and the ‘responsibilities’ of the NIEA. In the first instance, it would (in my view) involve NIEA actively reviewing and editing Final Reports produced by commercial consultancies for publication. Any consultancy unable or unwilling to comply could be swiftly de-accredited, and refused further excavation licences. Similarly, development companies unwilling to cooperate could be deprived of further planning permissions. I realise that the NRA way is not a universally-adored proposition – especially by many competent Site Directors who are willing and able to publish their own work, but it is producing results. So, how about we give the commercial companies and the Site Directors a set time limit – if it’s not published by, say, six years after the excavation ends, it gets taken off you? Of course, a situation such as this would require changes to legislation and more funding. One suggestion would be to secure the funding at the beginning of the licensing process in the form of a substantial bond from both the archaeological consultancy and the developer – any moneys not used in the production of the final publication would be returned or offset against the next development bond. As for changes in the law – we’re in a deep recession right now – if this isn’t the time to reflect on past failures and legislate for future success, then when is? As I say, such a plan would require both the commercial consultancies and NIEA to drastically change their game. But what’s the alternative? We can’t continue in our current state – there is simply no point.

Even if the commercial archaeological consultancies were swept away, it would not be the end of the world. True, there would be fewer excavations carried out, but the chances of those excavations actually being published and contributing to knowledge – i.e. doing what archaeology is actually about – would be much higher. I believe that there is still cause for hope. You see, there is a model out there in Northern Irish archaeology right now and it is working. The Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork (CAF) at QUB regularly take on a wide variety of excavations that cover a number of research and quasi-commercial projects. Their standing as part of the university means that their commitment to publishing results in UJA, Archaeology Ireland, etc. has been pretty phenomenal – not to mention that the majority of their reports are available for free download from their website. Since their formation in 2002 they have published 25 excavation papers in UJA alone (this number excludes various forms of survey, etc.). That’s 25 papers over nine volumes of UJA, as opposed to 24 papers over 12 years from the commercial sector. No matter how you slice it, they are a relatively small organisation – certainly when viewed against the combined numbers of the commercial sector – but they consistently produce high quality, accessible results. Again, it’s only my suggestion (and I have no connection with CAF), but I feel that it would be possible to expand their role into selectively taking on what are now regarded as ‘commercial’ excavations to the benefit of all – both in terms of development interests and the translation of excavated data into genuine knowledge. Obviously, for all this work to be devolved onto one organisation would require that some sites simply did not get excavated. They would be bulldozed as part of development. That would truly be a pity. But, again I ask, is it any worse than what is happening now, where large amounts of cash are being spent in excavating sites that will never profit anyone – developer, archaeologist, or scholar? In discussing the position and value of the CAF some time ago, with someone who must remain ‘a senior civil servant’, they argued that “The CAF is not a perfect model”. This is true – there’s no denying that it lacks perfection. However, I put it to that person – as I put it to you, the reader, now – it is still a better model than that which currently prevails. The ‘senior civil servant’ could only agree.

Papers in UJA by CAF 2002-2010

Publications in UJA volumes for 2002-2010 by CAF

Publications in UJA volumes for 2002-2010 by CAF, by county

For better or worse, the final decision on how commercial archaeology will or will not continue in Northern Ireland will not be left to me. I have merely attempted to lay bare some of the profession’s more egregious elements and suggest that only radical reform/abandonment of the business paradigm will suffice. I believe that the situation brought into acute focus by the Drumclay scandal goes beyond such important topics as the treatment of ‘whistleblowers’, to encompass how and why we investigate ancient sites, and if these cultural resources can be safely entrusted to the commercial sector. I say no, the interests of commercial archaeology cannot be entrusted with our heritage, and that the current situation must not be allowed to continue. I would go further, to argue that the interests of commercial archaeology - as it is curently configured - are diametrically opposed to the furthering of genuine knowledge of our past. Whatever happens in the future, I believe that right now we are standing at a cross-road. We have the opportunity – as much a once-in-a-generation event as the Drumclay excavation itself – to deeply examine where the profession is going in Northern Ireland. If we take bold action now, we just might be able to save the practice of archaeology as a viable and meaningful concern – might. But, whatever happens, we must not allow the current situation – wasteful, pointless, and unproductive – to continue.

Publications in UJA volumes for 2002-2010 by CAF vs Commercial companies

Publications in UJA volumes for 2002-2010 by CAF vs Commercial companies, by county
If you've read this far you may have come to the conclusion that I'm a bitter little man and that my opinion on the matter is of no consequence. You may even be correct. However, I'm not the only person interested in this topic. You may have noticed the paper I have repeatedly cited throughout this post (Hull 2011) - It's a Research and Information Service Research Paper commissioned for the use of The Northern Ireland Assembly. The topic was debated by the Assembly in July 2012. While the debate centred on the current location and standards of curation of the over 1.4 million archaeological artefacts held by commercial archaeological companies, Minister Attwood’s final statement goes beyond this, tacitly acknowledging failings in the DOE and explicitly identifying the activities of the commercial sector as a cause for concern (Northern Ireland Assembly 2012, 261-2). In relation to the latter he said:

"I will be calling in the archaeological companies, because they get money from developers to do archaeological work. It seems to me that some deploy better practice than others. ... They get money to do a dig, and although some store materials in proper accommodation, others may not be living up to that standard. If companies are involved in this business on behalf of developers, they have to deploy best practice. … if they are not deploying best practice, spending their money properly, or archiving and storing the materials they dig up, they will have to answer questions from me. There are four main companies in the North. ... When I call them in, I will say, “I give you the licence. This is how you are going to live up to it.” If the licence is not adequate for the purposes for which it is created in respect of what happens after a dig, I will look to guidance to beef up the licence." (Northern Ireland Assembly 2012, 262)
True, that debate was in July 2012 and little appears to have changed yet. To slightly rework Longfellow’s poem Retribution: ‘Though the mills of Government grind slowly; Yet they grind exceeding small.’ The questioning has begun. The revelations about the conduct of both public and private sectors in the Drumclay crannog affair can only give added impetus to this process. In commenting on Minister Attwood’s proposed review of archaeological practice in Northern Ireland, a recent editorial in The Newsletter of the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland (McQuade 2012, 1) states that: “Lessons in archaeological policy and practice will be learnt from a review of the circumstances surrounding this site.” My argument is that, when examining the full and shocking breadth of the evidence, the Minister may be well advised not to bother with 'beefing up the licence', but to scrap the whole enterprise. I can present you with no starker warning than lines from Bob Dylan’s apocalyptic (and vastly underrated) 1978 album Street Legal: “But Eden is burning. Either get ready for elimination. Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards”. From where I stand, right now, it appears that the possibility of positive change is a swiftly-receding opportunity, and that the only viable option is elimination. Just don’t say you weren’t warned.

Hull, D. 2011 Archaeological archives in Northern Ireland: Legislation, guidance and comparison with other jurisdiction. Research and Information Service Research Paper (NIAR 621-1). Northern Ireland Assembly, Belfast.

McQuade, M. 2012 ‘Editorial’ The Newsletter of the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland, Series 2, Issue 8, 1.
Mount, C. 2012. 'Excavation Licenses indicate continued reduction in archaeological and construction activity in 2012' The Charles Mount Blog, 21 December 2012. http://charles-mount.ie/wp/?p=974

Northern Ireland Assembly 2012 ‘Archaeological Artefacts’ in Official Report (Hansard) Monday 2 July 2012. Volume 76, No 3. 253-264.

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  1. I recently spent an afternoon at the NIEA HQ in Belfast looking through 'grey literature' reports from in and around the Lisburn area for my UG dissertation. I provided a list of the reports I wished to view and I could only access half of them, as the rest had not been finalised by the private consultancies (and the most recent of these excavations was in 2009!). Prior to approaching the NIEA I had emailed all of the consultancies directly and only one got back to me. I had actually emailed them all twice, once in August 2012 and them again in December, but still nothing. I fully agree with the principle that any excavation which produces something of "archaeological significance" should be published in UJA, perhaps this should be attached to the excavation license? Many of the reports I viewed mentioned their intention to publish their findings in UJA in their license applications but none of them came to fruition. Maybe this debate will see chances in archaeological practice? We can only hope!

  2. Excellent!
    You just put your finger onto the sore spot!


  3. We desperately need the equivalent of Isabel's reports books:it is literally the only answer to the problem of unpublished works.If UJA were to publish everything it would compromise their academic neutrality considerably, as financially there would never be enough members to pay for the publishing of a journal that size. UJA's great strength is its independence and accessibility.

  4. Really good stuff Bob, and you're right, with great big trenches comes great big responsibility... or something like that>
    I personally think all that needs to change is that the legislation that is in place is actually enforced. The License says you have to publish it, companies that fail to comply should not get any more licenses, until they have published. And if that doesn't get the stuff done then the NIEA could sue them for the archives and the money required for publication. Bloody simple, and the same principles would work down south too. Would only be fair going forward, but I'd love to see some retroactive enforcement myself ;)
    Remember a few years ago chatting with Cormac McSparron about this. He'd been trying to figure out how much it had cost for each published word produced by commercial archaeology in NI. Basically how much money had been spent by developers on all of those 5 or 600 excavations divided by the total word count of those 20 odd papers and handful of books. It was all very rough figures of course, but he made it something like 500 pound per word... makes you think doesn't it... especially if you've spent anytime writing up commercial excavations for publications when you weren't being paid for it...

  5. Oh, and just to add, although the License names the director as being responsible, it clearly is the commissioning company who has the obligation to fund the process. I would imagine a single court case would be enough to establish that as precedent, but I doubt any one would even attempt to fight a legal case on that matter, it's too damn obvious what the answer would be!

  6. How do they do it in Scotland? Do Historic Scotland fund journal publications ie. a separate fund to the developer? It seems a very attractive approach to me.
    And I would be happier publishing data - do good quality recording, process the data and publish it. (I have not read the full article yet but will do over the weekend).

  7. Just thought I should clarify some issues from my first comment. I'm not suggesting that UJA should publish full excavation reports, it simply wouldn't be capable of publishing in detail the about of information, photographs and illustrations generated from each excavation. However, the -findings- from excavations can, and have been published in the journal to great effect. Institutions etc., typical contribute to the cost of publishing their articles and this in turn supports the society's aim "to advance the education of the public in archaeology and history, particularly in regard to Ulster". There is potentially a new publication format in the pipeline which could help address the issue of non publication by archaeology consultancies, but it is still in the preliminary stages, so we shall see what comes of it...

  8. Aaron, the journal isnt a commercial publication. It shouldnt be UJS's responsiblity. It's the NIEA's. Their legislation to publish results - lets see them get some fangs and enforce their * own* laws. For UJA to accept the responsibility in any form could potentially destroy trust, goodwill, and integrity the magazine has. This is firmly the NIEA's problem and its at their door all issues need to be taken to.

  9. " any excavation which produces something of "archaeological significance" should be published in UJA, perhaps this should be attached to the excavation license? " Your words, Aaron... looks like you were indeed suggesting publishing.

  10. Just a quick note, if you are interested in observing how archaeology is undertaken without using the competitive commercial structure prevalent in Britain and Ireland, can I suggest Norway for an example. The Norwegian Riksantikvaren heritage authority oversees a nationwide system of archaeological and cultural protection. Each county council has an archaeological section which undertakes all the testing jobs across each municipality for a daily rate price, per archaeologist. Any profits are used for administrative costs within the archaeological section and council. Testing reports, if positive, are then used by the regional University archaeological museum department and Riksantikvaren to come up with a budget for full excavation and publication. Any profits from the excavation would come back into the University to cover equipment, administration and other costs. Another organisation deals with urban excavations, but there are no private archaeological companies tendering for work that I am aware of. Basically, all archaeological testing and excavations are divided up between the university, the county council and the regional urban unit. There are occasional problems, high labour costs and short term contracts being the most obvious, but having worked under both systems I would say it is a much better model than the current competitive commercial one in the British Isles. It can be quite a liberating feeling not to constantly view your archaeological colleague in another private company as a potential competitor. Whether or not it would be possible to implement in Britain or Ireland would be another matter entirely, where developers have become used to getting several quotes for each job

  11. Dear A.D. McIntyre, re your "I had emailed all of the consultancies directly and only one got back to me. I had actually emailed them all twice, once in August 2012 and them again in December, but still nothing" can you please give the total number involved. i.e. you got one reply from HOW MANY contacted.

    Does anyone know where the grey literature problem is worse, Ireland or in Australia, please?

    John (john.mail@ozemail.com.au)

  12. Dear Robert,

    I totally agree that the situation is far from perfect, but I will have to disagree with you on some important points.

    I'm doing PhD research into late medieval iron working and am attempting to process all the relevant literature, published and unpublished. There are exceptions, but in general the published accounts, including UJA, are of not much use to me. This could be the result of the topic under study, which has almost invariably been treated badly, incorrectly or not at all. The main problem I have is that it is very often impossible to reconstruct the site stratigraphy based on the published articles as not all context are described, location information of material is missing, the context in question is not on the drawings etc. In a lot of cases there is a lot of interpretation of a site, and not enough information.

    The best sources of information for my research are the excavation reports themselves, even when their quality is not the best, as they would contain feature/context lists, find/sample lists, multiple plans etc which allows me to at least reconstruct the relation between the available data. In some cases the raw site archive would be even more informative, especially for photographs, additional drawings, context sheets etc. In all cases a good interpretation (based on our current knowledge, and this is important) is only possible with a decent report and the material itself.

    The main argument I can see for publishing the information would be the editing. In theory the peer reviewing should also enhance the publication, but how can a large site, with (or without) numerous specialist reports be properly peer reviewed? Again I'm possibly biased because of the topic I'm studying, but there are very few published articles which get the iron metallurgy correct, peer reviewed or not. Obviously the editors are not to blame for this, the subject is complex and only very recently being unraveled. It would really require a specialist to be part of the peer reviewing, and even then... I would be surprised if this does not apply to other fields within archaeology as well.

    As a possible solution, I would like to suggest a drive towards making the so-called grey literature publicly and widely available, a process which is currently strongly underway in the Republic. Next, these reports could be made centrally available online and submitted to crowd-sourced editing (Wikipedia style). This means anybody can partake in (re)interpreted a site, an artifact or even a single feature. As is the case with Wikipedia, the entries would have to be accepted by some kind of review/editing board. Several layers of 'severity' of control can be built in (very low for a typo, very high for re-dating Leinster Cooking Ware). This could not only lead to a lively debate (and simultaneous peer-
    reviewing), but should also result in some of the lesser reports being corrected and updated. This would be especially the case if the site archive could be made available as well. We would then have the situation where both the current knowledge of our past is available together with the possibility to check this information, an option not always catered for in our publication-centered world, but essential if archaeology wants to claim to be scientific.

    Strongly applying the current rules, as Stuart says, i.e. getting the report written up, is a vital part of this solution and sticks should be consistently applied. Also curating the finds and samples (all of them!) for future generations needs a high and urgent priority (the National Museum Swords facility being a very important step).

    I strongly believe that future generations, and I'm thinking centuries, will be much more grateful to us for solid data than for our current ideas and interpretations, just as we are regarding the work of past generations.

    I would be very grateful for comments on the above either here or directly (prondelez@yahoo.com)

    All the best,


  13. After rereading my comment this morning, I realize I was unfairly harsh on the published material. The articles I was critical about mostly refer to older works as very little material recently published relates to my study area. The few that do, cannot be criticized for the reasons mentioned in the first posting, and one article even includes the findings of a specialist on the subject. Non-peer reviewed works, articles as well as monographs, even recent ones do still regularly sin against the above.

    I still feel that journals should publish only the most important excavation results, together with writings on the bigger stories. As Rena pointed out the sheer amount of excavation results exceeds what journals could feasibly publish. The solution, in my eyes, is widely available digital (text searchable!) excavation reports. It is inexpensive and the prospect of future scrutiny would also enhance their quality.

    With apologies,


  14. Hi Paul, interesting comments. Having had some involvement with Early Med Iron Production sites in Ireland, I would suggest that that is a highly specialized area and one that the majority of Directors (including myself) aren't really equipped to deal with.It might not be the reports then that are the source of the problem, but a lack of understanding during the excavation. On site advice by a specialist would probably be of great value or some Ireland specific advice notes (I find the IFA ones good but too UK focused much of the time)

    However I have to disagree about only the most important excavations making it into journals like UJA. I had a piece in the recent issue, detailing a little survey I did of some Boolies in the Mourne Mountains. Not a massively important piece of work, but it presenting some results I had hanging round for a decade so other researchers could see and use the results, and a little bit of a discussion that I hope moves that topic on a few little increments. It was a short piece which didn't take much space in the journal and was hopefully useful and interesting. Journals are not really restricted to the handful of major projects that take place, that's a very restrictive attitude.

  15. Time for a follow up?

    I am just going through the appendices for my PhD thesis and this blog post came to mind after thinking about some of the sites for which very, very little information has been made available.


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