UK Contract Archaeology in Deep Slump

As pointed out here many times before, archaeology is a bad career choice as the labour market is tiny and ridiculously overpopulated. I mainly keep tabs on the academic subset of this labour market. But via Alun I've received news that UK contract archaeology, the business where you remove and document sites that get in the way of land development, is in poor shape because of the economic recession. The Institute for Archaeologists announces that one in six jobs in contract archaeology has been lost since the start of the recession, with more losses likely in the near future.

In Sweden, there has been a tendency for archaeological unemployment to vary in counterphase with that of other professions. In other words, when everybody else experiences a boom, we get a bust, and vice versa. This is because in a quasi-socialist state, the government usually invests in public works to combat unemployment during a recession, and public works generate a need for contract archaeology. But I guess it's been a long time since the Labour Party in the UK advocated quasi-socialism. And judging from all the closed shops I saw in Chester back in February, the recession seems to have hit the UK much harder than Sweden. (My crappy mutual fund has gained 7% in the past two months, yay!)

But still, this is actually unimportant news to would-be archaeologists. Because when there are 10 000 archaeologists and 600 jobs, it makes no difference if 100 of those jobs disappear. The only reasonable way to do archaeology and have a good life is to work four days a week as a doctor / lawyer / engineer, and spend Fridays and weekends doing amateur archaeology.

[More blog entries about , , , , ; , , , , , .]

More like this

Björn in Helsingborg wrote me with a few questions regarding archaeology as a career. Where did you study, for how long, what exactly? University of Stockholm. Three years crammed into two years at 150% speed, that is, a BA / fil.kand. Four terms of Scandinavian archaeology, one term of history,…
Here's another whine about academic employment in Scandy archaeology. Yesterday my PhD diploma turned five years old. This means that I have now, at age 36, ascended to heights where I am automatically considered over-qualified (or simply failed) for a forskarassistent entry-level assistant…
A recurring theme in my blogging of the past year (e.g. here: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4) has been that a degree in Scandinavian archaeology (BA, MA or PhD) is almost entirely useless from a career perspective. The reason is that our labour market is over-populated at all levels, from the lowly shovel-wielder…
I've been asked to write an opinion piece about the future of Swedish archaeology for a high-visibility venue. This, as you can imagine, I enjoy doing a lot. Here's an excerpt from the piece as it's looking at the moment. Swedish academic archaeology should continue its on-going voyage back towards…

Darn. And here I was planning to get into contract archeology as a day job so I could do brain research as a hobby on the weekends...

There is however a dearth of finds specialists in development archaeology ( and they seem to be all but extinct in the academic sector in the UK) - and we have been rushed off our feet as the first wave of the recession caused a lot of units to start doing the post ex on a lot of back log sites. I reckon the recession catches up with me in the next quarter - and I need a break anyway to write up all my academic papers!!! The next question is if its a double dip recession, and when the infrastructure projects come on line - although government projects seem to ignore archaeological provisions everyone else has to obey (see the olympics...)

This is gloomier than I expected actually, there's a big road-building project* just been started near my place, but obviously there aren't enough of these public projects to make up for the slump in private development. Much of the private development was driven by our ridiculously high property prices of course, and even now the housing market's recovering a bit there's precious little incentive for the big building projects on inner-city sites which provided a lot of work.

OTOH, I've heard of a couple of building heritage/conservation specialists hiring architects/archaeologists lately. People seem to be doing more alterations to existing buildings, less knocking stuff down and building new. But the employment from that area is really small-scale.

*The plans for this road were drawn up about 20 years ago, they built half of it then left the rest going nowhere much. So it can't really be described as a new project. I doubt they'll find much interesting archaeology there either.

By Charlotte (not verified) on 07 Aug 2009 #permalink

Tileman, Swedish excavation units generally don't have small finds specialists on staff. They prefer to call us in on a case by case basis, if at all.

Actually the economic situation of privatized contract archaeology in Britain must be really bad. First the foreign archaeologists working for british firms came back home. Then some months ago we started seeing british archaeology firms appearing in France, trying to get contracts. They are proposing prices lower than anybody else, and in this way are lowering the already rather low levels of pay in the contract archaeology market. Nowadays you find specialists with PhD degrees working for the pay of a simple field technician...

I sometimes debate with a professor of archaeology whether his department's MA and and PhD courses are really valuable to the students. His main argument pro is that most of his PhDs get archaeology jobs after graduation. But those jobs are the same poorly paid ones in contract archaeology that they were qualified for before they started the PhD program! In effect, he simply helps raise the qualification bar for a set of rather menial jobs.

My experience is similar to Tileman's. As an animal bones specialist, I've been able to keep working pretty steadily for some months after the diggers started to struggle because the units started to fall back on their post-ex backlog. Now though I get the impression that that backlog is starting to run out, which I would expect to start hitting the specialists.

By archaeozoo (not verified) on 07 Aug 2009 #permalink

I switched career into some other buisness, i hold a MA in physical anthropology/archaeology.There are too many universities and colleges that teach and offers archaeology classes and no jobs,the weight is put on theory and not into practice. I could ramble over this subject for ever and ever.
I'm trying to find some amatuer possabilities in sweden wich seems to be impossible. I'm not after their job i want to help out and keep up my skills, i don't cost anything and can only spend my free time there i have a dayjob which pay lousy already but i don't intend to quit. If you have any suggestions i would be happy!

Archaeology courses at universities in our part of the world never teach the students professional skills. But that actually makes sense since there aren't any jobs.

A late comeback - I hope my survey on finds practice last year will see the light of day soon, but in general there are a lot of free lance specialists outside the units, with a few generalists in-house, although work being undertaken by unqualified staff is a concern, and at least one unit has decided to do as much work in-house as possible to retain its core staff.
following from another comment - I took a break from the commercial sector to do a Phd which I undertook with the intention of setting up as a specialist ( as mentioned above there is not much room for finds specialists in UK academia)although it looks like I'm doing some teaching next year, as a way of keeping the money flowing until the upturn...

Before becoming a small finds specialist, a person should choose a really abundant find category. I'm into 1st Millennium metalwork, which is rarely found in any significant volume since urbanisation is so late in Scandyland. If I knew Late Medieval and Early Modern pottery, though, I could probably work as a free lance with that.

Oh yes!! In terms of the amount of work then in the UK the safest specialit is med/post med pottery. Med/ roman roof tile has the unique problem that many site directors think thats theres too much of it....