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?



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