Quality, working conditions, education and communication concerns in European contract archaeology

by Isto Huvila (Department of ALM, Uppsala University, isto.huvila@abm.uu.se)

A roundtable discussion organised as a part of an Industry Forum on Contract Archaeology under the auspices of the COST Action Archaeological Practices and Knowledge Work in the Digital Environment (ARKWORK) in January 2019 in Graz, Austria highlighted the large differences in contract-based archaeological work across Europe.

The participants of the discussion represented a broad number of European countries and different types of archaeological actors from contract archaeologists to educators and researchers. A common interest in the group was to learn more about local circumstances and practices relating to contractual work in archaeology. In some parts of Europe, contracted work has been an established part of archaeological practice since 1990s whereas in many countries, including Serbia, Israel and Greece, there is no or very little work that is contracted to private actors. In some countries, even if the work is not contracted as such, archaeology professionals engage in development-led fieldwork that is highly similar to what contract archaeologists are doing in other countries. In such cases, even if the archaeologist is employed by a public authority, the organisation of the work and the relations with the stakeholders remind of contracted work.

Quality is not (only) speed

The 'good' quality of archaeological work was agreed to be one of the key questions of successful contract archaeology. Quality is not (only) a question of being able to argue that the work can be conducted quicker. There has to be room for adjustments and compromises, and conducting archaeological work from the premises of that what is being investigated. As a key aspect of quality, the participants noted that it would be important to monitor and to a reasonable degree, ensure the quality of not only the material outputs of archaeological work in form of reports, data and deposited finds but the quality of archaeological explanation and interpretation as well.

Rather than conceiving data as an outcome of contract archaeological work, the group underlined that the ultimate goal of contract archaeology should be good research. Contract archaeologists should not be the ones to provide data for others to execute whatever research that can be done with the data but the ones to do the research as well. However, due to financing and a large number of small projects with funding available for only fairly superficial reporting, sometimes it is not possible. In this context, there is not enough time to put the individual observations in a wider context. But sometimes there should be room and financing to bring all these little pieces of the puzzle together to make a synthesis. In larger projects, there is more often room for actual research and publishing the findings, for instance, in a journal article.

Working conditions

The participants noted also that a major challenge for contract archaeology are the economic conditions of the sector, low salaries and the irregularity of income both on individual and organisational level. This leads to that contract archaeologists often need to focus on keeping “nose above the water and surviving economically”. A major repercussion of the emphasis of economic constraints is the inclination to narrow down the extents of the perceived role and responsibilities and the level of ambition of what contract archaeology should be all about. Instead of emphasizing that the aim should be good research, a financially difficult situation gives incentives to perceive that the role of a contract archaeology unit should be much more limited – which is, in the long run, detrimental to the whole sector.

Education for contract archaeology

From an educational point of view, the participants underlined the importance of contract archaeology specific skills. It would be important to help archaeology students to better understand the ramifications of working on contract and training in skills and a mind-set that is needed in contracted projects. An important part of this process is to understand contracting as a process, stakeholder value and how to reach an acceptable trade-off between scholarly, economic or practical requirements – including those of entering contracts that are acceptable for contractors themselves. These skills and knowledge are different from the often very academic framing of archaeological work in typical curricula.

At the same time, however, referring to the importance of conducting proper research rather than mere data collection, the participants noted also that a contract archaeology unit should employ individuals with postgraduate research education and experience to be able to deliver and sustain a high level of research output.

Communicating contract archaeology

The group noted also that contract archaeology can remain invisible in the context of development projects. An archaeologist stays easily as one of the companions of the construction machines rather than an expert with a very important role for the community and society at large. Contract archaeologists should not only conduct excavations, do research and publish it for the archaeological community only. It is important to direct communication also to the general public but also, to have a specific strategy for engaging with the public. In Sweden, a requirement of a public engagement programme is incorporated in national guidelines as a part of the contract archaeological work but many other countries lack similar incentives to involve the general public. In addition to a resulting lack of knowledge about on-going archaeological research, the participants noted that the lack of proactive communication has led to problems with archaeology related dis- and misinformation, and spreading of pseudo-scientific theories.

An important reason to engage the public with contract archaeology is to educate young people. It is possible to increase the perceived value of archaeology only by working on the next generation and by changing the mind-set of the public. By changing the public mind-set, it would also be possible to frame contract archaeology clearer as an opportunity for learning, culture and education but also for work and new business.

There was a broad consensus in the group that the public communication does not have to be especially time-consuming or require specialized technologies. Replying to audience questions, writing brief notes on major findings and framing contract archaeology work as a narrative worth telling to the public can be enough. The lack of interest from the side of the general public is seldom a problem nor making the practical aspects of fieldwork appealing enough.


The author would like to thank all participants, who remain anonymous in reporting, of the roundtable session. This report is based upon work from COST Action ARKWORK, supported by COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology).

Go back to top 

Where are you going? Reconsidering Migrations in the Metal Ages

by Rachel Cartwright (cartw054@umn.edu), Manuel Fernández-Götz (M.Fernandez-Gotz@ed.ac.uk), Courtney Nimura (courtney.nimura@arch.ox.ac.uk), and Philipp Stockhammer (philipp.stockhammer@lmu.de)

The Metal Ages in Europe Scientific Commission Conference, International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences (UISPP). Edinburgh, 9-10 November 2019

Taking place from the 9th–10th of November 2019 at the University of Edinburgh, this conference was focused on rethinking mobility, migration, and movement in later prehistory – from the Chalcolithic to the Iron Age, c. 3000–1 BC. This is topical for two main reasons. The first is that we are currently experiencing a ‘Third Science Revolution in Archaeology’, due to the development of new, and improvement of existing, biomolecular scientific methods, from ancient DNA to stable isotope analyses. These methods are revolutionising our knowledge about past mobility, but some of the interpretations are also highly controversial and need to be carefully examined. The second is the prominence that migrations have in our current world, being at the heart of some of the most important discussions in politics and the media. Archaeology can and should play a role in current societal debates on population mobility, contributing to the wider field of migration studies by providing a long-term perspective on the topic.

The conference brought together around 50 scholars coming from institutions in 13 countries worldwide. Twenty-one papers were presented with 6 academic posters being displayed throughout the conference. The event was supported by the Leverhulme Trust.

The first day began with a welcome address by the organisers (Manuel Fernández-Götz, Philipp Stockhammer, Courtney Nimura and Rachel Cartwright), followed by the UISPP Metal Ages Commission President, Dirk Brandherm. The academic programme opened with a keynote lecture by Carola Metzner-Nebelsick, who provided an overview of migration studies in archaeological discourse and outlined both the opportunities and challenges offered by the recently proposed ‘third science revolution' in archaeology. Two case studies were used in order to illustrate her points: the pre-Scythian population of the eastern Carpathian Basin and its contacts; and the interdisciplinary application of archaeological and scientific data within an ongoing project aimed at detecting mobility in the Alpine region via isotope analysis from cremated human remains.

The second paper, by Aydin Abar and Maja Gori, aimed to reconcile archaeological and anthropological approaches with the new scientific methods to studying migrations. Their presentation also highlighted the need to engage with contemporary processes of migration and use archaeology’s potential to counteract populist and racist views. The following papers proceeded in chronological and thematic groupings. Linda Melo and Ana Maria Silva presented on mobility based on human remains from southern Portugal dating to between the Chalcolithic and Iron Age. After this, Philipp Stockhammer outlined the main results of his collaborative research project in the micro-region of the Lech valley in southern Germany, which integrated large-scale archaeological and bioarchaeological research in order to analyse mobility during the Bronze Age. His ground-breaking results provided detailed insights into aspects of kinship, exogamy, and social inequality. Katharina Rebay-Salisbury and Michaela Fritzl presented on the ongoing ERC project on marriage, motherhood and female mobility in Bronze and Iron Age Central Europe. The next papers encompassed studies from the Bronze Age that linked metal production and metalwork to increased mobility, using case studies from the Andronovo communities in Central Asia (Thomas Stöllner, Anton Gontscharov and Hande Özyarkent) and the Balkans (Caroline Bruyere, Stephen Daly and Barry Molloy). Human mobility and social change in the Balkans and Greece were also approached in the next paper on the basis of human remains (Dimitra Michael, Linda Fibiger, Ioanna Moutafi, Maria Katisimcha and Barry Molloy).

Moving from the Bronze Age, Oleksandr Shelekhan discussed the so-called Scythian invasions by examining evidence of nomadic elites in Eastern Europe from the 7th-6th centuries BC. Veronica Cicolani and Lorenzo Zamboni then undertook a critical review of the traditional markers and approaches applied to the identification of human mobility in the Po Valley and Circum-alpine region during the Iron Age. Finally, Peter Wells concluded the first day of the conference with a critical discussion of written sources and their value for assessing Iron Age migrations in comparison to archaeological data.

The second day of the conference started with a paper by Peter van Dommelen on Iron Age West Mediterranean mobility, showing how Greek and Phoenician colonisation relied heavily on local Iron Age communities, who played a key role in forging new connections. Alicia Núñez-García then explored Phoenician mobility within the context of long-distance exchange/trade and intercultural contacts, with a particular focus on the impact of the Phoenician presence on the Atlantic coast of Iberia. The effects of migrations during the Orientalising period were further examined using the Portuguese Tagus Valley as a case study, including a comparison with historical parallels from the 16th and 17th centuries AD in South America (Davide Delfino, Luiz Oosterbeek and André Luis Ramos Soares). Adopting a historiographical approach, John Collis critically reviewed the influence of culture-historical models of migration while also incorporating a warning about some new interpretations based on DNA analysis. The connection between cultural change in northern Gaul during the Late Iron Age and the typology and geographical spread of metal dishes in the region was explored by Quentin Sueur. The following paper by Michael Meyer, Mathias Seidel, Robert Knechtel and Björn Rauchfuß examined the western spread and local effect of the so-called Przeworsk culture, which originated in Poland but then expanded through human mobility into certain areas of central and western present-day Germany. Moving on to the Lower Rhine region, Nico Roymans and Diederick Habermehl applied an interdisciplinary approach to the study of migration and ethnic dynamics between the Caesarian conquest and the early decades AD. Manuel Fernández-Götz and Rachel Cartwright then presented a comparative approach to Iron Age and the Viking Age population mobility, incorporating concepts such as colonisation and diaspora. Luis Berrocal-Rangel and Lucía Ruano, for their part, proposed a long durée comparative study linking the spread of significant Iron Age materials and the dense medieval network of transhumance in western Iberia.

In the closing keynote, Kristian Kristiansen argued for the reconstruction of absolute population figures based on settlement and environmental data from well-studied micro-regions such as Thy in northwest Jutland. These numbers were then used as a baseline for Bronze Age temperate Europe, serving as the starting point for a multi-scalar approach to mobility which included estimating the volumes of trade in regards to products such as metals and woollen textiles.

The conference concluded with an extended discussion which addressed topics such as the ways to reconcile new natural science approaches with traditional archaeological data, the communication of the results to the wider public, and the role of archaeology in understanding present-day migrations. The organisers plan to publish the conference contributions as an edited volume.

Go back to top