Friday, 30 November 2007

Bad habits of archaeological managers and where they came from

Some of the stranger attitudes displayed by senior archaeological managers are inexplicable without some reference to the changing nature of archaeology as an activity and a business over the last 25 years. What I want to present is an alternative narrative of that change, highlighting the implications for the viewpoints of those involved.

1982: old-style Rescue

This is the first stage where I have direct experience. I started as a Volunteer. This status needs some explanation to younger readers. The archaeological bodies at the time used the term 'volunteer' as a legal manouvre, so that technically the site staff were not employees, and thus did not have to have things like NI, sick pay or holidays. It was just about possible to work full-time as a digger on the circuit of government-funded rescue digs around the UK, although it wasn't comfortable: the only accommodation provided was a campsite. This rigorous apprenticeship weeded out all but the fanatical would-be diggers. So summer excavations (in particular) had very large numbers of very poorly paid staff who would be expected to leave after a fairly short period.

Myth 1: It's not worth training people, you won't get the benefit

This sorry state is perhaps well-enough known. Less well-known is the other side of the coin: the supervisors and directors, in contrast, were quite well-paid, and enjoyed generous subsistence allowances. As a result, those diggers who did make it into their ranks suddenly enjoyed a transformed lifestyle.

Myth 2: You don't have to treat people well now, they will get rewarded later

The natural rhythm of the rescue year was an alternation of a short and intense period of excavation and then a quieter post-ex time for the core staff.

Myth 3: Don't let the diggers get near recording, they won't be around to analyse it

1986: MSC Schemes

The economic problems of the early 1980s led to the creation of Manpower Services Commission and its Community Programme, aimed at using the long-term unemployed to do some socially useful work. Archaeologists found that projects which would have attracted no other funding were suddenly viable; having large teams was a positive benefit. There were some downsides to this: the proportion of supervisory staff was limited to less than 1 in 10; the diggers, drawn from the local unemployed, were completely unskilled in archaeology, and were in some cases unwilling draftees.

One of the principles of the CP was that the staff had to paid the rate for the job; since council's didn't employ archaeologists, the nearest equivalent was chosen (unskilled manual staff). The paradox resulted in which experienced graduate diggers were being paid less than their MSC counterparts, who also enjoyed employment rights.

There were some very good results of this enforced contact with the general public. It sowed the seeds of the emphasis on outreach and education that eventually created the TV archaeology boom of the recent past. The certain knowledge that new staff were unfamiliar with the excavation process meant that induction and training were formalised. And the social background of archaeologists was diversified, as it was discovered that being a middle class graduate was not a necessary qualification.

But because of the structuring of the funding, anomalies in tasking arose. Anything that could be done by non-archaeological staff was effectively free. Anything that could only be done by archaeological staff unencumbered by people to supervise was almost impossible. Anything that involved spending money on equipment or external staff was severely restricted.

Most projects found themselves caught in a cycle of running an excavation team to provide the funding for some post-ex work on the previous excavation, and then needing a new excavation to fund ... and so on

Myth 4: Keep digging, never mind the post-ex

Restrictions on funding for specialists led to a healthy tradition of DIY finds work, and an unhealthy tradition of ignoring finds and environmental work completely.

Myth 5: Specialists? What do they know?

1989: PPG16 and contract archaeology

PPG16 was a shock to the established archaeological structures, the county archaeologists and the regional units. It is not surprising that it was met with suspicion and indeed outright hostility. It is unfortunate that the terms of debate, such as it was, took place in an information vacuum, in which nobody understood business or commercial practice.

The closest that county archaeologists had come to this within councils was the then-current process of floating off the direct labour departments as separate businesses, driven by CCT: Compulsory Competitive Tendering. Since this was what they had heard of, they assumed that the best, or perhaps only, way by which developers would procure services was by competitive tender, heedless of the few voices that pointed out that this was only appropriate when the task could be clearly specified and quantified in advance.

Myth 6: Competitive tendering is how business works

This is nonsense. Most archaeological evaluations fall well below the £25K threshold for public bodies to run an open tender; private bodies wouldn't think twice about using their preferred supplier for such a paltry sum.

There was also a paranoia about standards, or more particularly cowboys. I recall the baffling sight of archaeologists who had previously complained bitterly about the poor excavation standards, inadequate records, and nonexistent publication plans of their local unit desperately defending them against outsiders who might, well, ok, do the job, and write a report, but they weren't local.

Myth 7: Only the locals can do archaeology properly

The question then arose of how you can define good practice, now that it was something to worry about. The answer was to specify in minute detail the way to dig (even though in the past considerable freedom had been granted to excavators to select their own approach). A long and comprehensive brief was answered by a longer and more comprehensive specification. The fact that, prior to excavation, nobody knew what would turn up and how to deal with it when it did was simply ignored.

Myth 8: Specifying methods in advance ensures correct outcomes

Sadly the tendency towards long briefs has eroded the idea that somebody digging a site has a duty to familiarise themselves with the context of the site by reading about nearby sites, attending lectures and conferences, and talking to other archaeologists.

Myth 9: Archaeology is about digging, not understanding


The myths I have listed above emerged from the particular circumstances of the time. I have implied that many were recognisable as myths, or at best partial truths, at the time; but they certainly form poor insights into modern practice. But the senior archaeologists of today will have been exposed to those conditions in the past, and unless they have unlearned them they will still hold sway subconsciously.

This is an important point: it is only by trying to articulate the beliefs now that I have recognised their source; you would be hard pushed to get anyone to say any of these out loud, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't inform their thinking.

Keep this list to hand, and see how many myths you recognise a someone tells you why you don't need a finds budget, or you have to write a 20 page spec for a three-day evaluation, or you shouldn't worry about junior staff's employment conditions.

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