Moving the Profession on?

As we move from one economic crisis through seemingly endless political nonsense in the UK it’s hard to find the motivation to take stock and think of the future. There are many important discussions going on within archaeology/heritage at the moment, ranging from destruction and looting of world heritage, a lack of diversity and equality, to improving archaeology/heritage/cultural heritage management towards something approaching a mature and dynamic Profession.

Here are a few thoughts as I grapple with the issues of the day..mainly on the latter but with implications for diversity and equality, but not so much to looting…

Archaeology open for all?

A central tenet of strategies and mission statements relating to heritage in the widest sense is accessibility, that archaeology is for all. From an outreach point of view I can see that only being really limited by imagination and opportunity… All good (maybe). Professionally I can see that is harder to achieve (this linking with equality and diversity). Due to myriad factors to do with how vague and hard it is to develop a successful career in archaeology in the first place, let alone if there are other hurdles or imbalances in your way (economic, cultural, a woman who happens to have had children, for starters) it seems to me that for the relatively straightforward things we all could do, to make the profession a more functioning and rewarding place to be, would at least give some room to deal with inherent structural problems.

Doing little things.

By this I mean little things like training, skills, professionalism, behaving in a collegiate fashion (I’m looking at you old academics that think their word is gospel and who have delivered little for a decade or more – respect is earned), critiquing the profession to identify low quality or poor practice and call it out. Then onto other little gems such as stamping out cronyism and nepotism. Habits of giving jobs to people without expertise or qualification but who are a “good sort” is undermining to enhancing the profession.

Comparing and contrasting.

Recent discussions on the perilous state of commercial archaeology linked to high demand for field staff and low numbers of qualified, experienced graduates sparked some interesting debate, but mixed in were disappointing attitudes from some academic quarters that ‘they were only there to train people in their specific topic not to produce a workforce’. And equally, that commercial archaeology is just somehow ‘digging’. True, I imagine few graduates in any degree course which is not vocational (i.e. medicine, vet, civil engineering?) get jobs in their exact degree course but archaeology is different to many degree courses in that graduates are expected to be the field technicians as well as the Consultants or Specialists. Therefore direct comparisons to other graduates aren’t particularly helpful. If we were comparing early grade Consultants then that might be closer to a good starting salary. Civil engineers don’t operate the plant as well as design the road. But few universities produce graduate Consultants for archaeological practice, and few field staff ‘dig’ longer than a couple of years.

This is where I think the universities should be aware that they have a role to play in enhancing the profession, and where employers should get involved and support them. Some do and produce crops of graduates that can easily be employed and developed for professional practice. Some depts produce almost no graduates, those that are have niche specialisms or no desire or aptitude to move into industry or commercial settings. I understand that other factors might be dominant in academia… Funding, REF, bums on seats to stave of closure etc. In those instances surely it would be a no-brainer to want to attract a wider, more diverse array of people. Linking us back into Diversity and Equality too.

Talking isn’t the same as doing, doing isn’t the same as delivering.

All this made me think harder about my role and responsibilities for passing on my hard won experience and skills. I’m lucky enough to be in a position now to make things happen, to create opportunities for those starting out. I was lucky to have had a few mentors in my early career, also unlucky in a few woeful bosses that galvanised my resolve to ‘not end up like that’. And it’s this point that I always come back to. As an individual I can’t fix everything but where I can I should encourage, support, enable. I’m a grumpy git and my poor colleagues endure me railing against the state of things, but hopefully in the end it’s possible to leave this profession in a better state than you found it. 

Outreach project on coastal change and prehistory

Building a body of research

Whose work do you admire? Chances are it’s someone who has worked for a number of years building up a body of work. In Archaeology there are a number of such people and our knowledge of key sites or entire themes of research are down to their core work. This takes years, if not decades to achieve. A look at a few online CVs and it’s clear many such senior academics have undertaken a lot of this kind of work at relatively few different institutions.

Now, in the current climate of post-docs and early career lectureships, I get the distinct impression from adverts and peers in that system, that you might get a temporary post for 1, 2 or maybe 3 years if you’re lucky and progression entirely dependent on bringing in substantial funding and “high impact” research. Permanent jobs are like hens teeth in this current economic climate. You may have to move around a lot; very little stability to build up a body of work.

If like me you work in industry-based archaeology you can build a specialism but you’ll likely do an awful lot else along the way… again, it takes years to build a research profile. But, critically your employment isn’t linked to impact factors so perhaps you have more flexibility, especially with where you output your work. A big plus is that you see and do huge amounts of archaeology, day in, day out. Not just in your holidays 😉

So what does this thinly cobbled together outlook mean for archaeology? Well, if you’re under the cosh for producing what will have to be, a guaranteed high profile result (or spend a hellish time trying to get mediocre results through peer review) within a year, then I would argue that this might stifle steps into the unknown. In my area this seems to mean a lack of prospecting for new sites in more challenging environments, going back to the known, high-profile sites with increasingly “innovative methods of analysis” or paradigm of philosophising. There are a number of big sites being investigated and reinvestigated currently, they have very rich archaeological resources and may be under some kind of threat…of course they should be looked at, but these kind of sites have a habit of characterising entire regions or periods of archaeology. Sometimes for generations. Which may be to the detriment of less well-preserved, smaller or more esoteric sites. Sites which may never be examined to contribute to a broader picture of the past.

Recently I grumped on Twitter,

Archaeologists…what do you think we could achieve if we all looked in less glamorous places that didn’t guarantee ‘high impact’ results?

Very sensibly someone replied, was that not the preserve of commercial archaeology? Thinking on this a bit more, I would say that for planning-based projects ‘sometimes’. However, we don’t get much choice where to look and analysis budgets are highly variable. We do do a lot of research though, our current crop of research projects are providing some pretty amazing results on frankly tiny budgets…and importantly the surveys and sites aren’t a guaranteed high-impact return. The main aim is usually data enhancement of the national and regional archives on a certain theme but we do have some great stuff coming out of them. More soon.

The upshot is that regardless how you develop a career in archaeology it takes a long time, and the good old days of ‘decades in the same job’ are gone, at least for now. I wonder if looking back in ten years time this is seen as a phase of ‘safe archaeology’? Or did crippling economics and huge cuts to the ranks of Archaeologists spark a wave of innovation and awesome archaeology which wasn’t driven by a few established people with safe jobs?