Saturday, 28 November 2009

Curatorial practice after the crunch

They tell us that the recession is over. Over the next few years, the rate of development will increase, and commercial archaeology will be back in business, and even if it doesn't reach the frantic heights of the recent gold rush, curatorial archaeologists will be kept busy (unless a new government decides that heritage is an impediment to economic growth). There is now a breathing space in which curators have a chance to consider whether any chnages in approach are needed. I think the answer is yes, based on how it worked before (excessive documentation, delays in response, inconsistency), but also because of changes that can be foreseen. The next decade will see a revival in construction and its associated archaeological activity at the same time as savage cuts in local government budgets, falling especially heavily on non-statutory functions. It will be a lucky curatorial service that retains its current staff while facing a doubled workload. Something's gotta give - but what? An answer which would work would be a shift to light-touch regulation. The Corgi gas servicing scheme had training and accrediation for workers, but very limited inspection of work done. Maybe this is a model that could be considered for archaeology. What would this entail in practice?

Trusting the record
In assessing the possible impact of a development on archaeology, it is possible to spend an enormous amount of time wondering "if there's a flint over there, and a flint in that field, surely there must be a henge here?", or "Fred's been fieldwalking round there for years - I wonder if he's got anything in his notebooks?", or "I'll just check the early OS map and the tithe map and the APs to see if anything turns up". You should rely on the HER to tell you where the known arcaheology is. If the rason you can't is because the HER is an inadequate record of known arcaheology, then you should a) hang your head in shame that after 35 years it still isn't doing what it was supposed to do, and b) invest significant resources in enhancing it.

Focusing on important stuff

Every development might affect archaeology, known or unknown. These days, Total Archaeology runs up to the present, so any development will have an affect - removing a fecne or a lamp-post. Obviously we cannot hope to save, monitor or record it all. There will be losses. Focus on the major stuff - big holes in important sites.

Relying on Standard Operating Procedure
Don't re-invent the wheel. Almost all of curatorial and contractual archaeology involves applying a standard set of principles and practices to the specific requirements of an individual development. Most of these principles and practices are shared with the rest of the UK archaeology community, so you should think twice befoe developing local variants, and three times before tailoring them to single projects. There's no shame in saying "do the same as usual".

Trusting the contractor
The contractor is being paid to examine in great detail the development, to identify the main impacts, think about the arcaheological effects, and devising a programme of mitigation. They are being paid to prvide a professional service. Let them. If they are accredited orgaisnations or people, they have passed a gatekeeper test and are subject to monitoring by the IfA. You don't need to check whether they have costed for Portaloos or have chosen the right Roman pottery specialist. So don't check. Reserve the right to inspect if you wish, but do so sparingly.

Communicating quickly
Telephones eat time. Writing eats time. Handle all possible communications by email: a one-sentence message confirming a spec can be written in 10 seconds (after allowing 5 minutes to scan through the key archaeological elements). If you get FAQs from developers or planners, put a FAQ page on the website or send it to them.

Don't stretch a point
What also eats up time is arguing about things like landscape character. Preparing an argument takes a long time if you are having to justify a largely arbitrary and personal view. So don't do it. If you have managed to protect the hard archaeology then you've done the most important part of your job. Heritage has become an easy piece of ammo for NIMBYs, leading you into controversies in which the impacts on archaeology are negligible. Any time that you find that you are having to do a lot of research before you can comment, you're probably trying too hard to find something to complain about.

I for one will not accept any claims from curators that they are under-reseourced and over-worked unless they can claim to have followed the above. Yes, it's hard work, but it's your job, so get on with it.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

CPD: no more excuses

Fairly quietly, and fairly uncontroversially, the IfA has just transformed the way that professional archaeologists must behave, by making it compulsory for their members to undertake 25 hours of CPD a year in line with a Personal Development Plan [templates for CPD log and PDP available on their site]. From a vague statement in the code of conduct that archaeologists have a duty to keep themselves well-trained and informed, identifying training needs and fulfilling them has become one of the key responsibilities of a professional worthy of the name. This is good news - I believe that those who claim to be unable to locate any skill gaps either are already in fact managing a lot of CPD or haven't thought about it enough, or at all. They should start with my Action Plan.

The impact of the rule change will vary - in organisations which are Investors In People , employees will already have PDPs which cover both employment-focused and personal development. For others, employers will probably have to accept that training their staff is something they will have to do, and possibly pay for.

But what if the employer can't or won't. Here are some suggestions for CPD activities that will cost little or nothing but will have a instant payoff:

* read the legislation and guidance - Planning Policy, the Copyright Designs and Patents Act, the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Araes Act, the Valetta Convention, Environmental Information Regulations. These are quite interesting once you get into them, and will equip you with a much better grasp of the overall context of your work.

* Time management - Read Getting Things Done and implement it; make an iGoogle homepage ; or just read some advice online.

* Read some journals. Medieval Archaeology, PPS, Britannia, and Post-Medieval Archaeology contain interesting book reviews and reports as well as excavation accounts - now reading them is work.

* Attend one or two day-schools or events. Maybe ones you wouldn't normally go to.

* Generic skills: negotiation, assertiveness, project management, team leadership, effective meetings, report writing.

* Presentation skills: Powerpoint, html, Word

* Master digital photography - find out what ll those buttons actually do, nd see if you can take some photos that show what they are supposed to

That should keep you busy for the first two or three years.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Bridging the skills gap and re-thinking evaluation practice

The worst of the recession appears to be over, at least for archaeology. The concern now (for the remaining members of the profession) is whether it can cope with a rise in demand for work, needing more staff, and in particular if the lack of specific skills will prevent or delay projects. I don't think it should.

There may be a pool of archaeologists, laid off in summer 2008, who would be available for recruitment. This may prove harder than expected; it is surprising how quickly people realise that archaeology may not in fact be the only way they want to spend their lives. Quite apart from the fact that they can probably earn more for doing less demanding work, the basic level benefits may prove hard to resist - the prospect of long hours in the van to be dropped in on some random site may appeal less to people who've got used to being paid from the moment they walk into the office.

But even so, that leaves a smallish gap. Even if the 600 or so posts which were lost were re-created, there have been 8,000 new graduates in archaeological subjects since September 2008 (based on the figures in Profiling the Profession). Doing some analysis of the figures for age profile and length of contract, there were 1,000 archaeologists in the age range 25-29 who responded, representing a cohort of about 600/year. (It's a shame that the websites advising would-be archaeologists on degree courses don't point out that 1 in 10 of graduates in normal conditions end up working in the profession.) So any shortfall in available existing diggers could be readily filled by new staff.

Of course, for many years now archaeologists have been unwilling to employ such people, leading to the dilemma that only those with experience will be employed. This makes life easier, since even new staff will be able to work from the start, but obscures the fact that someone somewhere must have provided some training. You hope so, anyway, although the fact that someone has been on lots of sites may not mean they have contributed much or learnt anything. Rather than rely on this informal apprenticeship, an employer would be better served by audited the skills of its new staff, identifying any gaps, and maybe, you know, provide some training. This need not be a series of lectures on the theory of stratigraphy - it could consist of being shown common local pottery types, or how to start a sludge pump.

Although it is hard to extract this directly from the report, it appears that most of these recent graduates working on commercial fieldwork projects up to the age of 29 then move on, either to other roles within archaeology, or leaving the profession. As a result, employers should expect that there will be turnover, so there will be new recruits, so there will be training needs. So plan for them.

But the other side of the concern is the loss of specific specialist skills, such as building survey. How can an organisation deliver a project without the necessary trained specialist staff? The answer is, the same way they used to, before 41% of staff had masters degrees, before Investors in People, before CPD. If you need someone to record a building, send them out with some drawing stuff and cameras, and tell them to get on with it. Archaeologists used to be good at devising, developing, and refining methodologies for new areas of work - so as soon as the Hedgerow Regulations 1997 defined the need to determine which hedgerows are historic, projects came in and were done. And desk-based assessments as a formal exercise were created overnight by PPG16- and again, they were done. Not perfectly. But archaeologists are capable flexible people with a strong grasp of recording and reporting. It may be that some silly errors are made, that buildings are misclassified or misunderstood. But a record will be made: possibly a different record, possibly a better record, than one that would have been made by a buildings expert with tunnel vision for a specific feature or type of building. It is interesting to note that East Lothian Council assumed that it would be archaeologists who would be dealing with recording buildings (see their excellent Historic Building Recording guidance (2006)), a view that would have been anathema to Conservation Officers in the 1990s who thought architectural historians should be relied upon.

And finally, it must be said that a break in continuity, and a return to first principles, might be a good thing. Commercial archaeology before the bubble burst had become a frantic, mechanical process yielding isolated factoids. OASIS now has 4000 grey literature reports for download. A random example is Wessex Arcaheology's report on The Wickets (the report is clear and detailed) (also available direct from Wessex). A planning condition, a written scheme of investigation, a specification, an evaluation, a report, an archive, to commemorate the fact that trenches were dug and nothing was found. Perhaps it was worthwhile. But for the planners to require developers to fund the excavation of 6% of the site area on the basis of: residual flints found in the general area (but not the site), residual Roman pottery and medieval found in the general area (but not the site), and the possibility that medieval tenement plots might run back 100m from the High Street (although there are no topographic grounds for expecting they might, or that they would yield significant archaeological remains if they did), seems bizarre. The report describing this evaluation says "No archaeological research, either desk based or intrusive has previously been
undertaken for this Site." Perhaps some map work might have been a simpler and better way to decide on the burgage plot question? Surely this 'dig a hole just in case' mentality should be rethought? How about assessing on some real basis the likelihood that archaeological remains might be affected before swinging into overkill mode?
(I should note that I have no particular issue about or knowledge of this development and its archaeology, but it does seem an exemplar of everbody working very hard to prove that nothing was there, when there seemed few grounds for thinking there would be).

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Being positive about business meetings

Archaeologists involved in fieldwork projects spend most of their time thainking about arcaheology, and talking about it to other archaeologists. This is , unfortunately, poor training for dealing effectively with non-archaeologists (see What not say at a client meeting, for example). But meetings are a critical part of the relationship between an archaeological contractor and their client; if done well, they can ensure that the project runs smoothly and any problems are resolvedin a sensible and fair manner; if done badly, they can negate all the work on marketing, branding and image and lead to misunderstandings and costly delays. So it is worth getting them right, and needs non-archaeological skills: there is therefore good reason why office managers will usually handle this part of the work. But eventually any project manager will have to attend a meeting. How they can they ensure that they come away with the right result?

Be Prepared

Print out the agenda and minutes. If you have little time, check the minutes to see whether there were any action points relating to your wokr: you can be certain that you will be asked about these. Also make sure that you know where the meeting will be held, and how to get there.

If have more time, it is worth looking at the list of attendees in order to work out who they are, and which firm they represent, and to think about whether there is anything you might want to discuss with them.

You should also prepare, preferably in writing, a short account of your progress in terms designed for a non-archaeological audience.

Be On time

It sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised. The people you meet may have no interest in or understanding of your work, may never listen to a word you say or read a report, but they will notice if you are late, destroying all the effort that your company has invested in appearing as an efficient and businesslike contractor.

You should also bear in mind what they will expect to see: if you want to confirm their opinion of archaeologists as bumbling eccentrics this is a good ay to start.

Be Smart

Don't look like an archaeologist. In most professions, status is demarcated by dress codes: important people wear ties. So if you want them to think that you're important, wear a tie. Again, confound their expectations: you want to be treated as an equal.

Be Informed

This development is probably the first time they've had to deal with archaeology (every project is a first date). Having an archaeologist there will be an excellent opportunity for them to find out about planning policies, archaeological methodologies, recent legislation, and anything else they can think of (they may well as about fossils and dinosaurs too). So it's best to be able to respond in a coherent way, at elast to the moe directly relevant questions.

Be Tactful

You may work for a lot of different developers; you may undertake work on adjoining plots for different clients. Although (from your point of view) there is no conflicty of interest, the devloper may feel that you are not 100% loyal if you spend a lot of time talking about your other work. It is important to remember that you may have been given access to commercially sensitive information (completion date, for example), and you should respect confidences.

Be Interested

Other specialists involved may mention things which are directly relevant (the ecologist may be doing some work on hedgerows; the engineer may be planning geotechnical work). But even if not, it is worth keeping your ears open so that you can understand their role better.

Be Vague

You will probably be asked questions that you cannot answer: "How long until you're finished? How much would it cost to extend the excavation? Can you move to seven-day working?" Don't feel that you have to offer guesses. If it's beyond your expertise or mandate, say so. It's better to say that you'll check back and let them know than to give a misleading or wrong snap response.

Be Efficient

After the meeting, sit down and tidy up your notes, taking special care on anything that relates to your work. Tell the office about anything substantive that you have learned.

To put it all together, be P O S I T I V E !

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Email is your friend, not your enemy

A recurrent feature of any discussion about time management and working practices is the feeling that email is out of control; people say that they have to check it constantly and yet know that the old messages stack up, and they can never deal with it all. As a result, they say that if only they could handle the email mountain and have confidnce that they'd seen the important stuff, they'd be able to cope, leading to the desperate arbitrary expedients of 'email free Fridays' or 'no email after 3.00' rules.

This self-analysis may not, in fact, be accurate: an overflowing inbox may just be the symptom of a wider malaise. But since handling email forms such an important part of modern working, it is worthwhile thinking a little to get it right. Unfortunately, most of the problems come from other people, sending you stuff, but you can at least try to make life easier for your recipients.


Use the subject line

. . . to say what the subject is. The actual subject, preferably. Anything sent under a geenric heading, or [no subject], will be difficult to locate later when you're trying to find it. Don't use ALL CAPS, and start the subject with the key words.

It's often possible to put all the necessary info in the subject.

Subject: Re: Meeting tomorrow?

Text: Yes, 10am is fine.

Subject: Meeting 10am ok

Email conversations tend to drift onto new topics; if this happens it's best to re-title messages periodically, rather than end up with:

Subject: re: re: re: re: re: re: Dinner tonight?

Text: Will you marry me?

For similar reasons, it's much easier to keep track of threads if you stick to one subject per email, so that if there are three issues you want to raise with someone, send three messages: this will allow them to respond to each on its own timeframe. Otherwise it's likely that only the first, or most urgent, issue will actually be addressed.

But there is an even more basic question: should you be writing an email at all? Email is great for short, quick, transient and non-controversial communication with people with whom you have an established relationship. It is not good for arguing, or explaining at length. A good rule of thumb is the 10/5 minute rule: if it will take longer than 10 minutes to write or 5 minutes to read, don't send it by email. Turn it into a Word dodument, or talk on the phone. Few people read long emails carefully, so don't expect them to.

Think hard before you use 'reply all' It is annoying to be copied into a two-sided debate in which you have no interest. Much better to have the debate in private and then circulate the conclusion to all.

If you are going to forward an email, it is helpful to add some sort of gloss: "Do you want to go to this conference?", "See the comment in para 2 which we might want to respond to", or even just a simple "any use?".

I would discourage the use of automatic read receipts. Somebody who has read the subject of an email, and decided to open it, is ready to read the contents, and the intrusion of a pop-up that they must read and click on before they can do so breaks the flow. There are a few occasions when a positive response is needed: I would just add a note in the text: "please confirm you've had this message".

In theory it should be possible to use priority markers (red text, !) to gain the reader's urgent attention to a particular message, but unfortunately these tend to be used only by spammers, and will therefore make people less likely to read it. Instead, start the subject line with "Urgent! "

Having a corporate signature text with phone number and a web address is a good idea. Having one which is bloated with legal disclaimers and vague threats against unintended recipients is a bad idea. Often these disclaimers are so broad that anyone wishing to conduct serious business would be justified in refusing to respond and insisting on dealing with someone whose word could be taken as some form of official sanction. It would be better to train staff in what they should say than to rely on these probably unenforceable clauses. Similarly, asking "do you really need to print this email?" may be ineffective. You could argue that the environmental impact of adding to the size of a message that has to be colelcted and stored by multiple recipients might outweigh the tiny number of trees saved by indecisive readers who were persuaded not to print it.

Don't apologise for cross-posting. The days when you only got messages you wanted have, alas, gone. Wasting everbyody's time by making them read this before getting to the substance is more annoying than getting the same message twice. But equally, don't circulate needlessly. Reading irrelevant emails can absorb an enormous amount of staff time, especially if they are labelled (unhelpfully) "Important notice to all staff" but in fact are of interest to three people in the organisation.

Finally there is the question of tone. It used to be common for people to treat email as if it were an electronic letter, written in the fairly stiff and formal language adopted in many businesses. Increasingly, though, it is coming to resemble speech, and it is hard to maintain that it should necessarliy be any more formal than would be used in, say, a telephone conversation. In general, peopel would rather recive an instant response, even if brief, slangy and mis-typed, than wait half an hour for one which said the same thing but in more coherent prose.


So maybe your readers will start being glad to get messages from you. But right now, that isn't really much help with your inbox. What can you do?

Break your messages up into folders. A good way is have folders for individuals or groups. When you're looking for an old message, you may have forgotten its subject or date but probably can remember or guess who had sent it.

Use message rules and filters. It is worth setting up rules so that new messages are moved straight into the relevant folder. You can then at a glance spot responses you were waiting for while leaving others to one side.

Have a folder for newsgroups. Those messages can go straight there and wait for your leisure; alternatively you can periodically use 'mark folder as read' so you can forget the rest. If the newsgroup has an acessible archive (as Jiscmail groups do), you can safely delete these messages en bloc.

Process your emails. Leave non-urgent unread messages in their folders. Scan the messages in the active folders, open the important ones, and respond to the simple ones straight away. Then go back and deal with the important complex ones. Whether you then go on to deal with the others is up to you, but you can be confident that you know about everything you need to for now.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Book proposal

I'm drawing up a book proposal at the moment:

Project Management for Archaeologists: A handbook


Introduction: archaeology and management

1 The archaeological manager
Time management
Training and accreditation
Team leadership
Task management

2 The project
Context Legislation and guidance
Documentation Briefs, specs, project designs, standards
Clients Contracts, meetings, reports, correspondence
Curators Roles, powers, styles
Post-excavation and reporting

3 The responsibilities
Health and Safety
Employment law and administration

.. not sure whether to write it first or send the idea round to publishers.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

The secret of painless downsizing

The secret of painless downsizing is that it is impossible. Even if done well, it is a negative, distracting, unsettling, upsetting and stressful experience, not just for those directly affected but for the whole organisation. Any downsizing will absorb enoroums amounts of unproductive time in meetings, paperwork, and gossip. If done badly, it will be all of this, and more, and still fail to solve the problems of the business. So what are they keys to doing it right?

Be open

Everybody involved will feel like shit. Those who suffer will blame you, the organisation, the profession, the economy, themselves. This is not the time to forget politeness, or play favourites. Information should be clear and shared transparently. How you behave can have a determining effect on how those who are made redundant feel about your organisation, and in general.

Planning ahead

Being bounced by a sudden crisis into taking snap decisions about staff is hardly the right approach. Well before things reach that stage, you should be looking at your core business area, at trends in the marketplace, and at your staff's skills. The temptation to keep going and hope for the best should be resisted.

Take the right action

Be as drastic as you need to be. Wishful thinking isn't a business strategy, so you may have to close down entire teams or operations. What you don't want to do is have successive rounds of cuts because you couldn't face them at first.

Keep the right people

Ideally, you should have a forward plan, of how your core business will survive and in due course grow again. This should define what people you need to keep: their value to you now, and in the future, rather than in the past.

Be fair

Last in first out is a clear system: at least people know who is at risk. But it isn't likely to be the best way of deciding who best fits your business needs. Any alternative needs to be fair and transparent: this is not a chance to get rid of the people who have annoyed you at some point in the past. This is hard work, but essential. If moral arguments aren't enough, maybe the prospect of an employment tribunal would help.

Look after your leavers

It's not their fault. You should do everything you can to smooth their transition, to find new jobs, providing references. They will be talking about your organisation wherever they go: what will they be saying?

Friday, 27 February 2009

The archaeological marketplace

In times like these, effective marketing can make all the difference between survival and closure. Does your current strategy deliver business? Or are you wasting time and money?

If you're relying on repeat business from your existing developers, you will starve

There were 4,500 developer-funded reports per year sent to HERs in England before the credit crunch (source: Archaeological Investigations Project)
There were 500,000 planning applications per year (source: Planning Portal)

So, on average, 1 in 100 planning applications leads to archaeological work of some sort. So even if a developer is highly active and submits a lot of applications, they are unlikely to need archaeological assistance more than once in a blue moon.*

If you're relying on word-of-mouth you will starve

Developers don't talk to each other very much, and certainly don't share their commercial secrets. They won't recommend you to their competitors. And in any case, given the low incidence of archaeology, it won't be often that someone who has had a problem meets someone who has got one at the moment.

If you're relying on your reputation you will starve

You can't rest on your laurels and wait for work to turn up based on your reputation. The only archaeologists likely to be recognised outside the archaeological community are Time Team (and maybe Bonekickers).

Every project is a first date

You need to make a good first impression. It's no good muddling along and then producing the best report in the world at the end: they won't hang around. But managing that impression is difficult.

What will be noticed
Answering emails and phone calls quickly and politely
Having professional-looking stationery, staff and premises
Professional and quality accreditation
Friendliness, enthusiasm and efficiency
What curators say about you

What won't be noticed
Academic credibility
Specialist knowledge
Previous experience
What past customers say about you

I man ways, this is depressing, since it means that the qulaities we value highest are least effective. But it's probably better to realise that, I think.

* Environmental Assessments are different: developers for types of development that require these *will* be repeat customers and *will* know about archaeology.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Training without a training budget

It may seem a bad time for the IfA to be promoting CPD, when for once there really is a rational case for reducing expenditure on training. But much of the entrenched (ho ho) opposition to compulsory CPD schemes over the years has been the result of a misconception that CPD must mean training and training must mean formal expensive courses. For some topics that may be the case, but there is a great deal of value to the individuals and the organisation that can be done at little or no cost.

Sharing expertise

Do all your field staff recognise finds? If not, it would be well worthwile spending an afternoon looking at local pottery types, clay pipe, animal bone, glass. Many recent graduates may have had little opportunity to handle material and learn the diagnostic features.

Make sure everybody in the organisation takes decent photos: this may involve looking at the various cameras you use and what the options mean. Perhaps more importantly, it is a chance to discuss why we take photos and what use they are. It is depressing to think quite how many hours have been spent over the last two decades taking multiple poor photographs of uninteresting features which have each been carefully catalgued and archived.

Most organisations have people working in silos: they may have adjoining offices but have no idea at all what other people do or why. Get them to explain their role. Quite apart from anything else, it's good practice in giving presentations.

Talk about project costings. These shouldn't be mysterious: an understanding of how they are done, and what they eman, may well have an immediate pay-off in attitudes and behaviour, once they realise quite how much money goes on plant hire.

Also, it's easy for organisations to forget that new staff don't know the history: it would be useful for them to know a little about why it was set up, what its major projects have been.

And one thing you can't do enough of is discussing grammar and layout and the real nitty-gritty of report writing.

Goal-orientated learning

Arcaheologists have a long and honourable tradition of teaching themselves new stuff when they need to. This is particularly true of software. Over the last year I have picked up some html, xml, wiki formatting, Powerpoint design, and print-on-demand publishing, because, in each case, I needed or wanted to achive something and so had to work out how to do it. It's true that this reactive type of learning is hard to fit within the CPD framework, although it is possible to some extent to predict areas you might want to develop.

Updating knowledge

Unlike a lot of things for which training is expensive, gathering archaeological information, on developments in Mesolithic studies or Roman urban sites, is free or cheap. Read some books and journals; go to a talk or two. These are real and worthwhile learning activities and, who knows, may even make you better at your job.

With a little imiagination, it's possible to carry out a transfomative training porgramme across an organisation without ever having to write a hundred-pound cheque to an 'expert'.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Hard time economics

Any doubt about the impact of the recession on commercial archaeology has been removed by the recent IFA/FAME report on Job Losses in Archaeology. Depressingly, this news has already led to the re-emergence of rhetoric about cowboy contractors and dodgy freelances. It is sad that archaeologists instinctively think that any organisation that operates more cheaply than them must be transgressing established standards of practice, when these are probably the least threatened area.

It is worth thinking, though, about what a mature commercial archaeology industry would look like. The starting point must surely be that a unit should conduct its main operations within, say, one hour travelling time from its base. It can make no sense in the long term for field teams to commute or live in accommodation: either that becomes very expensive (if those involved are properly compensated), or very demoralising (if they aren't). The logic of 'super units' like Wessex and Oxford is debatable. From the starting point of a unit covering a radius of 30-50 miles, you can work out how much archaeological work can be expected, and therefore how many staff are needed. If the current capacity is more than the work available, the unit is unsustainable even in times of high economic activity.

One question that seems mystifying to many diggers is how one-man-bands (OMBs) and freelances can undercut established units. Maybe they do turn up on site in sparkling new 4x4s and use gold-plated trowels, or maybe they don't.

What the successful ones do is:
* work hard - not 8 hours a day, 10 or 12 (office work gets done in the evenings)
* limit overheads - minimal office staff
* cost carefully
* work locally
* know their area well
* don't pay themselves much

There will always be a market for OMBs alongside larger units. OMBs offer personal service and cheapness: to compete, units need to offer something more, in terms of reliability, range of skills, track record, professionalism and scale. Some clients will go for the certainty of outcome of an established unit; others will take a risk. Perhaps the hardest thing for OMBs to handle is contingencies: if a minor watching brief suddenly turns into a Roman cemetery excavation, where can they find a digging and specialist team to deploy in a hurry? Having said that, units might have problems responding too, but since they have more than one project at once there is at least the possibility of switching resources when needed.

The real problem for unit faced with a drop in workload is cutting back. The idea that less digging means fewer diggers is one that most managers can grasp. But unless overhead costs are reduced, they will become ever more disproportionate as the volume of work drops.

How to cut overheads

There are no painless cuts. Archaeologists expect admin support, facilities, and management. Hard luck: they may be luxuries.

As turnover drops, the ability to resource secretarial and administrative support shrinks. Because archaeologists don't pay themselves very much, it is often cheaper to get them to do this work. There was a time when the hassle of sending faxes, typing letters and routing phone calls was a distraction for archaeological staff, and it therefore made sense to employ office staff to handle them, but perhaps these days with email and mobile phones that is no longer true. Most units are stuck in an 80s organisational model of who does what.

One of the problems with project work is that the team involved pays little attention to the wider organisation: it's 'just there'. 'Why aren't there any more context sheets?', people ask, not expecting the answer 'Because you didn't get any more printed.' Tools, PPE, cameras, surveying equipment, vehicles, finds bags, computers: it's all stuff that someone has to resource. It may well be that the stock of material cannot be maintained, and projects may end up having to cost for new purchases instead. This may be wasteful and expensive, but it does have the benefit of forcing managers to consider the full historic cost of their work ratehr than the incremental costs.

Cutting management costs is hard, partly because this is managers deciding to put themselves out of a job. But it is worth thinking from scratch: how large does an organisation have to be until it can support a chief executive who undertakes no chargeable work? It depends how much they get paid, of course. But most unit are top-heavy with not one but several senior managers. This may have been sustainable in the days of large project volume, but if the volume goes down, it isn't any more. Not that they need to be sacked, but they do need to change their work pattern so that they carry out their management tasks in gaps between chargeable work.

Finally, it must be faced that many of the things that units like to do may not be possible: outreach events, open days, conferences may have to be dropped unless they come attached to their own income streams.

It is interesting to note that these measures would make units much more similar to the OMBs.


A longer article based on this post was published in The Archaeologist 71 (2009) now available as a pdf

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