In Sweden, as increasingly in the entire industrialised world, the cost of archaeological rescue excavations rests upon the land developer. This is known as “contract archaeology” or, euphemistically, “mitigation”. Here it’s largely an affair within the public sector: most of the fieldwork takes place because of state road and railroad projects, and most of the contracts are picked up by state or county organisations. Though private foundations and limited companies do operate here, Swedish contract archaeology is mainly a question of routing money from taxpayers to public-sector archaeologists via a circuitous path.
When Swedish public money is spent, a market competition mechanism like that in private business has increasingly been used in recent decades to ensure maximum bang for the buck. All public jobs above a certain expected cost must be put out to tender. For each new stretch of highway, the National Road Administration’s people knows e.g. what quality asphalt they need in what quantities and by what date. They decide what they need and they haggle with contractors for it. But there’s one exception to this system: contract archaeology.
Land developers are required by Swedish law to buy archaeology. The County Archaeologist decides the quantity they have to buy, that is, how much evaluation and trial digs and, finally, how many square meters of final archaeological fieldwork. And the County Archaeologist also decides the quality, that is, how many archaeologist hours and specialist analyses the developer will have to buy per square meter.
The reason for the exception is that while asphalt quality is an easily gauged and mission-critical parameter in the success of a highway project, the quality of the rescue archaeology is not. If the road engineers hire a more expensive asphalt company, the road improves. If they hire a more expensive archaeological contractor, the road is unchanged, but the project gets finished later, which is really bad for them.
But individuals and private firms are also forced to buy a certain amount of archaeology in Sweden, mainly to prepare for the erection of houses. Share holders in private companies of course watch the bottom line, and if the company staff makes unnecessary outlays, the share holders get pissed off.
This explains why contract archaeology cannot be put out to tender in the manner of asphalt work: the people forced to buy contract archaeology have strong incentives to ignore the quality of the product. They have very good reasons to go exclusively for a low price and a speedy delivery, quality be damned. And yet, the whole of Swedish archaeology is now up in arms because a Government draft bill (departementspromemoria) suggests that archaeology’s exception to the tender rules should be removed in order to increase competition.
According to this suggestion, the County Archaeologist would only be allowed to decide which units are competent to take on jobs, and then the land developers would pick the bid they like for each job. Pretty much everyone on either side of the fence agrees that it would be entirely unprofessional for land developers in the public and private sector to go for anything but the cheapest option. The bill simply shows that its Conservative authors are blinded by an ideological commitment to market capitalism and don’t care about archaeology.
As I said, Swedish contract archaeology is mainly a question of routing money from taxpayers to public-sector archaeologists via a circuitous path. I believe that we could take some of the inefficiency and overhead out of this system by sending the money straight from the public coffer to the excavation units without shunting it through the National Road Administration. This would also remove the pretense that land developers care about archaeology and emphasise that the cultural heritage is a public resource. The County Archaeologists’ offices should still be allowed to decide on quantity and quality for each project, as they do today. But they should be made to conform to a national standard, as these things vary widely between counties under the current system.
More views of the increased-competition bill (please tell me if I’ve missed someone):