Samantha S. Reiter (TEA Editor)

It’s that time of year again. You can smell adventure in the air. It creeps in just as lunchtime conversation veers away from the Eurovision vote and short-term weekend plans to the fieldwork just appearing on the horizon. Weeks ago, here in the usually quiet halls of the National Museum of Denmark’s Environmental Archaeology and Materials Science section, the halls and landings in our department were bursting at the seams with the controlled chaos of preparations for the yearly expedition to Greenland. Every day, as I wended my way past orderly rows of Pelican cases packed with drone parts, boxes of sampling materials and wooden pallets stocked with survey equipment and survival gear, my mind was transported. I relived days of duct-tape miracles, great discoveries, long hours of dusty work, close calls and the closer camaraderie brought about by a shared passion for archaeology and the tight living quarters of summer fieldwork.

It can be difficult to remain behind, footsteps echoing through an empty foyer when colleagues have departed for warmer (or colder!) climes and all the excitement that those journeys entail. In the case of our department here at the National Museum of Denmark, no one reports on advance fieldwork polar bear training (seriously—it’s a thing!), and we who remain behind talk about our summer holiday plans with the family instead of where to situate this year’s trenches. Over the years, colleagues from different institutions throughout Europe have spoken to me candidly about their heartache when they have to remain behind at this time of year. Moreover, they say, waving farewell to departing expeditions can lead to daydreams of ‘jumping ship’ and joining up with a commercial archaeology outfit. According to a 2020 survey, only 5.4 % of EAA members are employed in commercial archaeology, while well over half of respondents come from within academia. But what is it really like to be in commercial archaeology day in and day out? To delve more deeply into the issue, TEA interviewed four commercial archaeologists (respectively working in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands) about their experiences on the ‘other side’ of archaeology.

When I described my own wistfulness about fieldwork and some of the envious comments I had overheard from colleagues in academia during one such interview, a rich laugh sounded out over the Zoom link. “Commercial archaeology is not exca-vacation”, remarked A. Scheffler (pro Arch GmbH, Germany). She continued, “You can’t forget that there will always be things that you love to do and others that you don’t. For example, I am not always thrilled about driving a shovel through frozen ground early in the December morning. Commercial archaeology is a year-round enterprise; we don’t excavate only during term breaks under the summer sun.” See Figure 2. Commercial archaeology, too, is often hard work, even if claiming archaeology as your profession will instantly make you the starlet of any cocktail party.

Figure 2: A commercial archaeologist’s ‘favourite’ weather in Bavaria! We covered the features with wood and tarpaulins to keep the ice away, and to create air cushions against frost damage. Photo by A. Scheffler.

In many cases, that idealised vision which academics have of field archaeologists working outside at all times can even be a disadvantage. There is a significant amount of pressure from contractors to always be able to observe archaeologists digging in the dirt. “It’s as if they think that if they can’t see us [outside], then we must not be working… but there is so much work that goes on behind the scenes. Digging it out of the ground is not the end of the line,” says Scheffler.

Speaking of which: post-excavation work is another area in which commercial archaeology differs greatly from the academic counterpart. Commercial archaeologists must work to an imposed deadline associated with business. They must wrap up reports within an allotted schedule, and maintain that schedule often under tight budget constraints. As a result, persons working in commercial outfits have to ‘wear many hats’ in a way that many academic, or ‘armchair’ archaeologists do not. “We all have a certain period or artefact type which is ‘our baby’” says Shoemark (Northern Archaeological Associates/Ecus). “But whether we get to work with that piece of archaeology really depends on the kinds of jobs coming in. It can be feast or famine for Roman coins, for example. Luckily enough, we soon gain experience and appreciation for working in many different areas or periods or materials.” Commercial archaeology units need to pull together to get good archaeology done, and to deliver it on time. “It’s the organisation that actually takes the most of my time” says Frank Stevens of Synthegra Archaeology in the Netherlands. “Running the business part is a science in and of itself.”

Academics tend to assume that commercial archaeology work is perpetual, as new construction in archaeologically-valuable areas in Europe are often legally required to be evaluated and supervised by a commercial company. For this reason, it may be tempting to imagine that commercial archaeologists benefit from good job security, as they may be free from issues such as those that recently occurred in Sheffield (see Collis 2022, last issue). However, as anyone who has worked in the commercial archaeology landscape before – and our interviewees – consistently pointed out, job security is always a subject of concern. As is felt everywhere in archaeology, culture is often in danger of budget cuts.

Nevertheless, commercial archaeology units have had an overall uptick in activities in many parts of Europe during recent years. As most commercial excavations take place outdoors, archaeological fieldwork was one of the few areas that did not have a general slowdown in professional activity during COVID (see here; for exception, see here). Shoemark says that, in spite of a COVID slowdown, “the bottleneck is loosening, and we are seeing a great many new tenders going out”. Overall, though, it seems that archaeologists in academia as well as those in commercial units do archaeology under the pervasive shadow of unemployment.

While being made redundant due to budget cuts is a common danger to all of us in the cultural heritage sector, there are certain aspects of working in commercial archaeology that interviewees find even more appealing than academia. This rings especially true when it comes to contact with the public and the uses to which archaeology is put. For example, some commercial archaeology companies specialise in bringing together the archaeology and cultural history that is their bread and butter together with the contracting company’s aims and goals. Stevens gave an example from his work with the Dutch Water Management Board and the Municipality of Hardenberg. In 2021, they formed a consortium with Synthegra with the goal of mapping river gullies in the northeast Netherlands, in order to eventually help facilitate more natural fish movements and to develop 50 ha of the surrounding area as a park highlighting the area’s cultural historical aspects. “Part of the project includes a viewpoint with information boards explaining about the water and fish traffic project as well as the archaeology and cultural history of the area which surrounds it”, says Stevens. “You’ll be able to go on a cultural and historical tour of the region, and it’s been exciting to be a part of actively developing that!”

One negative prejudice that commercial archaeologists face from their academic colleagues is about publication. A prevailing view in academia tends to presuppose that the amount of time that commercial archaeologists spend in the field leaves little time for high-impact or open-access publications. “Essentially, grey literature puts data into limbo. If only a few people can access a site report, it makes it difficult for that information to contribute to wider archaeological knowledge”, says an academic colleague. Shoemark gives an excellent counter example in which Ecus Archaeology in the UK has been breaking new ground with regards to the accessibility of their data. For example, in connection with the archaeological mitigation on behalf of Highways England for road upgrades for the A1, Ecus Archaeology (then Northern Archaeological Associates) published three monographs detailing their findings (including the major Iron Age settlement at Scotch Corner and the Roman city of Cataractonium and evidence for the most northerly Iron Age coin blank manufacturing centre in Britain discovered to date) as well as all accompanying data. These are now freely available for public download. In short, many commercial archaeology units and their clients are making increased efforts to increase dissemination and accessibility, whether or not the data seem immediately newsworthy.

All in all, the recent interviews with commercial archaeologists reveal that, be they commercial or academic, archaeologists seem to all be in the same boat in terms of job security as well as the joys and pressures of working in the world of cultural heritage.

Regardless of how the grass may look greener on the other side of the survey line, there are pleasures and pitfalls in all aspects of archaeological work. At whatever end of the spectrum we find ourselves—from the long summer days of conducting shovel tests to the gruelling quiet of the desktop—archaeology is by and for all of us.


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