On Commercial Archaeology and Public Benefit

Before turning freelance, I spent a decade working in the commercial archaeology sector, and have seen a fair number of archaeological projects over the years. Some great archaeology done by fantastic archaeologists, and post-excavation analysis done to the highest standards. But, what is the point of it, if all that work brings very little benefit back to the communities who live near the site in question? If the results of the project eventually, after many months or even years, end up as a spiral-bound report lodged in the local council offices of an Historic Environment Record (HER) or Sites and Monuments Record (SMR), is that it, and is that OK?

Picture yourself living in a town, and word gets around that there’s a dig going on. Everyone loves to hear news like that, and everyone wants to know what’s been discovered. But what happens when they find out that the dig is going on behind high hoarding, and nothing can be seen? And then nobody tells them what’s going on. Suddenly archaeology is a lot less sexy than we see on the TV. It’s exclusive, done behind closed doors. Now, to say that all excavations are carried out like that is nonsense, and there are some great examples where community involvement has been open-armed. But these examples are rare given the thousands of archaeological investigations that take place across the UK each year.

A lot more can be done.

It could be argued that archaeology is in crisis. Jobs in archaeology have become uncertain, with many hundreds of people being laid off during the last three years. I was one of them. Cuts elsewhere have affected English Heritage and other heritage organisations.

In 2010 David Cameron said about the £115billion brought into the UK through tourism:

The last government underplayed our tourist industry. There were eight different ministers with responsibility for tourism in just 13 years. They just didn’t get our heritage. They raided the national lottery, taking money from heritage because it didn’t go with their image of ‘cool Britannia’,” he said, referring to the brash popular culture of the late 90s, especially music and art, sometimes co-opted by the Blair government. (source)

There’s a fair bit of fixing to do in the heritage sector, and nobody is going to do it for us.

I propose that commercial archaeology units start taking public benefit a lot more seriously. When I used to chase people for details about their projects to put online, so very few wanted to. There was a belief that “the client won’t let us” – often without even asking them. I don’t think that the most appropriate people to talk to each other about putting archaeological information online are archaeological managers and their equivalents in a construction firm. Archaeology is treated like any other pollutant – it must be removed before construction can begin, and that’s it.

Archaeology has great value in so many areas. As well as informing people about their pasts, it has huge potential for inclusion in marketing materials. The PR departments of every firm need to know what excavations are going on, and talk to outreach staff at the commercial archaeology units. These are the people who need to talk with each other. A (nearly) statutory obligation to fulfil planning criteria is not a means to an end.

The default contracts of commercial archaeology units need to be altered to include a statement about openness and inclusion of archaeological information. They need to state that the results of the project, in realtime if possible (security caveats permitting), will be published online, in full, unless the client opts out. Put posters on the hoardings, or a blackboard – whatever low-tech and available solution is around to tell the local community what’s going on. Call a local reporter, get it in the paper. The client looks good, and people are happy.

I know the question that most people who work in archaeology will ask at this point. The “That’s All Very Well But Who’s Going To Pay For It” one. That old chestnut, and the elephant in the room. There are many answers. It could do us a lot of favours to be as visible as possible in archaeology, and forge stronger links with the tourism industry. If our profession becomes irrelevant, then nobody will want to pay for it at all. We need to want to do this and make it happen by being inventive.

Approaching the Considerate Constructors Scheme with a clear summary of the reasons why archaeology should be publicised could be a good start. They were set up to improve the image of construction, after all. Build costs into contracts. Provide ‘concessions’ for developers with their logos, and liaise with their PR departments. Approach local print/design companies to sponsor banners and posters. Be agile!

I don’t have all of the answers, and I’d love to hear some of your ideas. Does it matter if archaeology continues to be largely invisible with fading relevance? Leave a comment below and let’s see where this goes.

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7 Responses to On Commercial Archaeology and Public Benefit

  1. Trevor Williams 7 December, 2012 at 12:16 am #

    Well said Tom.

    I worked several years as a willing lowly paid grunt in commercial archaeology.

    So disappointed that after Investing so much Enthusiasm, Care and Hard Labour the Reports are Unavailable to me.

  2. Ant Beck 7 December, 2012 at 11:06 am #

    Thanks Tom,

    I tend to agree. We should be doing a lot more about this. There is a need to ‘open’ up access to the corpus (data, archives, grey literature) to as broad an audience as possible (this will require us to get past a number of barriers – ethics (mainly the ‘people will use this for looting’ argument) and licences.

    There is a need to improve engagement. I am of the opinion that by basing our approach on being open is a good thing. Furthermore, we should being open in a way which facilitates re-use (i.e. providing services to aggregated structured data rather than dumping them on the web with a CC licence). By providing data in ways which are easy to consume interested stakeholders can do interesting things with the stuff. Paul Ramsey makes some interesting points on data access of Geographic Information in the Open Government Data age http://blog.cleverelephant.ca/2012/12/whats-so-hard-about-that-download.html

    I don’t think money is the issue. The problem is to get those in power to give something away: a sense of ownership and possibly even ‘exclusive entitlement’ to the data. This is power and getting organisations to give away power is difficult. On one shoulder there is the angel telling you ‘it’s the right thing to do’ on the other shoulder is the devil telling you ‘you can monetise the content’. In these tight financial times monetising content is attractive for a whole range of reasons. However, putting any form of barrier around the data will reduce impact and engagement. If our heritage is a social good then, subject to some ethical conditions, society should have unfettered access to the heritage resources held, or curated, by public institutions on our behalf.

    I talk about this in a recent World Archaeology paper: https://dl.dropbox.com/u/393477/PrePrints/VisionforOpenArchaeologyPrePrint051212.pdf



  3. Bill White 3 January, 2013 at 3:25 am #

    Ant Beck,
    I wholeheartedly agree with you. I’ve been an cultural resource management archaeo in the United States for 10 years and I’ve seen a lot of the problems you mentioned. I think the main problem isn’t so much money or power. Its the fact that we archaeologists have done such a poor job of making our craft known to the public. Let’s face it: we’re nerds. We don’t really know how to relate to people most of the time and communicate at such a high level that most of the public doesn’t understand what we’re talking about.

    I think the solution is right here before us: the internet. I’m so sick and tired of the companies I’ve worked for balking at sharing our data, reports, and projects with the public that I’ve started my own company dedicated to helping fellow CRMers find and keep work and letting clients know about the benefit of having quality archaeology that portrays them as good corporate citizens.

    I’m just starting, but I plan on using the internet, my computer, and my cell phone to spread the word about our industry. Wish me luck.

    BTW This is the first time I’ve read this blog. Good job! You just got a new follower.

    • Tom Goskar 3 January, 2013 at 8:37 am #

      Thanks Bill and Ant for your comments. It’s heartening to know that I’m not alone in my thoughts about openness and archaeology. It’s good to get talking with others about it in public, which is in keeping with the spirit of the argument. Let’s keep it up!

  4. Tracy 12 February, 2013 at 4:55 am #

    I am an archaeologist in the USA too. Bill White is correct—and so are you Tom. This crap has continued for way too long—by that I mean archaeologists giving lip service to “public archaeology” in the classroom but not really caring much about it as a matter of practice in their own personal space. Now, I know there are notable exceptions to that generalization, and those folks are to be commended.

    However, I think all too many do not care. They want to just focus on their particular realm of research, publish the results in reports and journals that really are obscure to the average American, and build up a reputation among their academic peers (who gives a shit about anyone else), and hope that it will have some sort of nebulous personal “pay-off” in the future—like say a better job or tenure.

    But you know what? The part of it that really pisses me off is the archaeologist who thinks the purpose of public archaeology ought to be to “give the public a deeper appreciation for archaeologists like me and the kind of work I do.” Forget it bucko!!! It is not about you!!! If you got into archaeology primarily for some sort of ego rewards, you might should have given more thought to medicine or entertainment. I guess the other part that really pisses me off is the archaeological attitude that goes something like this:

    “Well, I believe that we should share some of the results of our research with the public—but ration it carefully—ensuring that they will know only what little we want them to know—and all the while believing that the average member of the public is a blooming idiot who can absorb one or two paragraphs—only in summation and lightly written.”

    This is like having a 1,000 page archaeological report—and then saying, “We’ll share with you only the last two paragraphs in the Summary and Conclusions section at the end of the report. The net effect is to leave the average taxpaying citizen on the street corner with a tin cup whispering, “Alms, alms, alms for the poor.” The public that pays for archaeological work deserves better and far less condescending treatment than this.

    I do not know what it is like in Great Britain, but I do know what it is like here in the USA from personal experience. Send 10 e-mail inquiries about a specific archaeological subject to an archaeology graduate student, a practicing archaeologist in CRM, or an archaeologist at a university, and you might get one or two responses at the most. Chances are extremely high that absolutely none of the graduate students will respond. I have often wondered why this happens. I have a very demanding job in environmental protection and archaeology—worked 65 hours last week—but I still found time to post on your blog tonight, and I find time to answer every e-mail message that comes into my box. What do I think about this archaeologist nonresponsiveness?

    I think this. If your e-mail message or letterhead does not have the obvious earmarks of a Department of Anthropology or Archaeology at a university, does not have the obvious earmarks of a museum, does not have the obvious earmarks of a CRM firm, or does not have the name of some archaeological “buddy” or otherwise well-known archaeologist—-YOUR MESSAGE WILL BE IGNORED. They just assume that anyone else that would be writing to them is some member of the public who is “obviously beneath their dignity” or someone sniffing for information that will help them to find and loot an archaeological site–never mind how faulty the latter assumption happens to be. Personally, I think this is really stupid and insane behavior on their part because it means that the archaeologists who are earning their salaries from taxpayer dollars (or pounds) are clearly and unequivocally biting the hand that feeds them and even throwing excrement (effectively) into their faces. Now, there is just no excuse for that—no excuse whatsoever—especially if they claim to believe in public archaeology. And I do not want to hear any of those, “You don’t know what my life is like and how busy I am” whines. If you and I can find time to respond to all of our e-mail messages in our busy schedules—so can they. Their problem is that they just do not want to find time and do not give a flying shit about anything but themselves and their narrow little archaeological focus.

    Well, if I sound angry, I am. I have seen one or another aspect of this bullshit ever since 1971 when I first got interested in American archaeology—dropped out of archaeology in disgust (among other reasons) for 15 years—and then came back in 1997.

    The bottom line for me is that most of the archaeology in the United States is done on the taxpayer nickel. I happen to be one of those taxpayers, and the return on my investment could be a hell of A lot better.

    Here in the United States, many archaeologists seem to believe that they are actually some sort of “secret agents” involved in a vast “secret service enterprise” to calmy and quietly (sh-sh-sh-sh-sh–ush!!!) save America’s heritage before it slips away into oblivion. What is the point in saving it if you plan to hide 98 percent of it from the American taxpayers that buy your beer?

  5. Brendon Wilkins 12 February, 2013 at 12:40 pm #

    This all comes down to clarity of purpose – and though the raison d’être of commercial archaeology is to serve a wider public benefit – it has been designed and scoped to do this by managing the impact of change on the historic environment. That is it’s primary purpose, and the cool stuff, the stories, the research, the public engagement – is all secondary to that.

    The whole sector is ripe for disruptive innovation, monetising public engagement to ensure that this becomes a commercial imperative rather than a bolt on after thought. Given the entrenched position of many of the larger operators and the climate of austerity, such change will be viewed as an absolute threat, and will be extremely hard won.

    Here’s to the future!

  6. Tehmina Goskar 17 March, 2013 at 12:10 pm #

    I do believe this syndrome is not exclusive to archaeology. The selection of what gets protected, conserved and interpreted is highly partial and often led by internal institutional agendas of the major national bodies, or local trusts, who are ‘in charge’ of historic buildings sites and collections. What is shared with the public and what isn’t is at their whim, not those of (interested) local communities who are usually last in the queue to receive information or have a meaningful say.

    Another beef I have is the increasing tendency to get interpretation done by design outfits who may be good at graphics panels and digital ‘interactives’ but are not subject experts and often interpret the data available incorrectly and incoherently. Industrial heritage is particularly bad for this, in my personal opinion.

    The best work I have seen has been done by ‘amateurs’ who have a love for the subject, are good at explaining things and are freely sharing their photographs, videos and other information online and elsewhere. I for one am joining that crew and spending my spare time gathering and sharing information rather than continue to battle against the censorship and selfishness we witness and tolerate all the time.

    Archaeology and the built environment could take a leaf out of the books of local studies libraries and record offices. They exist to share information, full stop.