Chapple, R. M. 2011 'Was the building boom so bad for Irish archaeology? A reply to Fin Dwyer' blogspot postDocument Transcript
Was the Building Boom so Bad for Irish Archaeology? A reply to Fin Dwyer Originally posted online on 1 October 2011 at rmchapple.blogspot.com (http://rmchapple.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/was-building-boom-so-bad-for-irish.html)On the 17th of August 2011 Fin Dwyer published a blog post on his Irish HistoryPodcast site detailing “8 Reasons why the Building Boom was Bad for IrishArchaeology”. I only saw it a little while later, when a link was posted on the IrishDiggers Forum Facebook page. The original post is, obviously, a heartfelt and deeplypersonal assessment of the Irish archaeological profession’s recent past.This is my response.In the spirit of engaging in debate on the topic, I wanted to make a more formal andconsidered reply, that exceeded pressing the ‘like’ button on a Facebook page, or writinga brief comment on the blog page. Indeed, the comments on the original piece quicklybecame fractious and one response from the blogger to a critic was failure to engagewith the original points raised. I feel that full ‘engagement’ is impossible in a ‘commentbox’ format, so I have chosen to write a point-by-point rebuttal. But first, I’ve got to putsome cards on the table – I don’t know Fin Dwyer or the individual(s) behind the IrishDiggersForum page – I do not even know if they are run by the same people or not.Thus, I have neither personal animosity nor considerations of friendship in any of mystatements, either agreeing or disagreeing with the points raised. I do not claim to havedone any intensive background research, nor am I presenting this as anything otherthan my personal views on the original post. Like the original post, this too is a highlypersonal piece and comes from the heart as much as from the head. Inevitably, readersmay feel that it does not cover all the issues in the ways they would like to see. It’s notmeant to … If you disagree, post something in the comments or write your own piece!More cards on the table – I’m not hiding my identity behind a single name – I’m sorry,Fin, it took me half an hour to find your surname and, I still have no real idea who youare. I’m Robert M Chapple … Google my name and you’ll find out all you could everwant to know about me … and plenty you’d probably be happy living without! I’ve gota personal website that lists my entire CV and a whole host of publications. I’ve beeninvolved in various aspects of archaeology since 1989. In that time I’ve seen it go fromsomething akin to a Feudal system of strategic friendships and alliances to secure one ofthe few jobs going, through the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years and out the far side into the currentrecession. I’ve worked at nearly every level in field archaeology from entry level digger,through site supervisor onto site director and in senior archaeologist/project managerroles too. Along the way I’ve worked for some of the biggest consultancies and for some‘one man and his dog’ operations as well. I think that the only position I’ve not held isactually running my own archaeological company. While my career has been splitbetween the jurisdictions of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, mycomments here are confined to my experiences in the latter, though some of theexamples I draw on are from Ulster.
The Irish History Podcast lists eight points, so I’ll examine each in turn. 1) Unenforced and unenforceable legislationI partially agree with this point … the legislation was designed for another age … onewhich never foresaw the huge expansion in excavation that happened during the firstdecade of this century. I’m no student of legal history, but I’ve long imagined that theoriginal legislation (section 26 of the 1930 act) was intended to provide oversight to anumber of relatively small-scale excavations carried out as research endeavours byuniversity professors and their students, or by the National Museum, in response toreports of materials found during farming work etc. Even when the legislation wasupdated in the 1990s (section 21 of the 1994 act) it did not envision (nor could it everhave) the development boom and the strains that it placed on the legal framework.One aspect of the legislation I strongly disagree with is that of the licence being acontract between the ‘Licensed Archaeologist’ and the state. In my experience, this hasled to a number of serious issues where the state can threaten to end an archaeologist’scareer by refusing to issue any further excavation licenses, regardless of thecircumstances. By this I mean, whether or not the original archaeological companyand/or developer has refused to/cannot pay for post-ex or even if the archaeologist stillworks for the company. Under the current legislation sole responsibility lies with theLicensee. Mandal & O’Carroll (2008, 38) noted that one of the conditions of the LicenseApplication is that the archaeologist can confirm that adequate funds are in place toensure the works can be completed to the level of publication. They note that thefinancial arrangements are between the company and the developer … the licensedarchaeologist generally has no knowledge of the arrangements, much less a say in thematter. Mandal & O’Carroll suggest that the license method statement should state thetype of contract (i.e. fixed price etc.) with a ‘bill of quantities’ detaining the financialresources agreed. Such changes in the licensing structure alone would add greatly to thelegislation’s value and workability.While Dwyer sees the legislation as unenforced, I would argue that it was being appliedon the ground in the best way it could have been – with the emphasis being on the spiritof the law, rather than its’ letter. By this I mean that great effort was madeby Dúchas (later DoEHLG) to ensure that the legislation was used effectively andsensibly by an over worked and under resourced department to ensure that the system
kept functioning. Yes, there were (and, I believe, remain) flaws in the system, but myexperience of working with the licensing bodies has always been largely positive.The point of lack of independence of the site director is raised here. The argument – andI’ve heard it on sites across the island – is that when ultimate financial control lies withthe employers and the developers, pressure will be exerted on the ‘good’ director to rushthe job. The problem I have with this is that so many archaeologists, from diggers todirectors, have an often vastly inflated view of the position of the site director. I’m sorryto break it to you folks, but site directors are just another level of management. The jobis to get the archaeology dug, recorded well, and get the project wrapped up on time andon budget. Of course there is pressure – that’s the nature of the position. I realise thatmany people (myself included) entered the profession with pure and unsullied thoughtsof the importance of archaeology. But here’s the thing – no matter how lofty your aimsare, you still have to operate in a business setting … I’ve had to learn some harsh lessonsalong the way about how business operates. I would dearly love if all developers wouldstop all they’re doing and give me all the time I’d like to excavate everything to its’ fullestextent … I’d also like it if they didn’t question my obvious need for all those radiocarbondates (what do you mean, I can’t have two per feature?) and that lipid analysis of theinteresting looking Beaker Vessel. Unfortunately, life and business is just not like that.And that’s the point here – archaeology (no matter how important and lovely andprecious WE think it is) is a business, and exists in a business world. I know that I canbecome badly stressed on site, trying to juggle the various responsibilities of keeping tothe agreed timescales when the archaeology appears to be going on forever and you saidyou’d be out of there in a week! But let me say it again – I’d like it to be different, butthat’s how it is – that is the job I signed up for – and I’m not looking for anyone’s praiseor sympathy for it.Other than the illogic in the way excavation licenses are framed (as discussed above), Iwould have one gripe with the position of site director. It’s simply how you get there …in a perfect world you start off digging and, once you’ve put in your time and shownsome aptitude, you graduate to site supervisor. Again you put in your time, show thatyou’re good at archaeology and next thing you know you’re thinking about goingforward for the Licence Interview. I don’t know if it has changed much from when I satfor it, but back then I was asked about my knowledge of the heritage legislation and theremainder of the time was spent identifying and discussing artefacts. I remember somediscussion of excavation methodologies and the offer of a pint afterwards by one of theinterview panel (the late, and much lamented, Prof. Simpson). What there was noquestion about … nor was there ever any appropriate training along the way… was in thepart of the job that mattered most on a day to day basis – people management. I havesince received some training in this field, but not as much as I would like – or probablyneed.I hate to seem as though I’m being deliberately incredulous for dramatic purposes, but Itruly am taken aback by the phrase: “The archaeology companies primary function wasto make money”. If you for one moment remove the word ‘archaeology’ and replace itwith, say, ‘oil drilling’ or ‘haberdashery’ the true ridiculousness of the line becomes evenmore apparent. I do not want to sound pedantic about it, but the archaeology companies
may indeed have been set up by archaeologists who wanted to do beautiful andwonderful archaeology … but they are still companies and they are designed to(hopefully) make profits. Again we come back to the idea of there being a dichotomybetween profits and best practice … yes the life of a site director is not always a happyone, yes there are huge pressures involved … and yes, it’s up to you to make sure the siteis excavated to the best standards you can attain. As site director it’s also up to you tomake the hard choices when money, timescales and archaeology meet … they’re notalways easy choices and they’re not often pleasant … but they have to be made: how youexamine the site; what do you sample; what do you sacrifice? These are all legitimatequestions that the site director has to face – often alone. Just because they are difficultdoes not lessen their importance. Just because you cannot run a commercial excavationlike you would run a ‘wish-list’ research dig doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing andcompromises the spirit of ‘best practice’.2) Construction companies and developers held all the cardsAgain, I partially agree with this point. The way the legislation is framed, the burden ison the developer to pay for the excavation of the archaeology that they destroy toundertake their development. It is my opinion that this is as it should be. Yes, theyfrequently use their financial leverage or sheer bloody-mindedness to attempt not to payfor reports once the physical excavation was complete. I agree that changes are neededin the speed and severity of enforcement for those companies who refuse to honour theirobligations. I think that the statutory powers available are neither being as swiftly, noras harshly threatened or applied to those companies as is appropriate or necessary. Ialso believe that the legislation should be reviewed to consider ways in which thesesanctions can be intensified and strengthened. While I would love to advocate a systemwhere the developer could not sell the houses he builds until the final excavation wascomplete – it’s simply not practical and you don’t need me to spell out the difficulties.An alternative approach – used by Roads Service NI, but I’m not sure if it’s in operationin the Republic – is to require a substantial amount of bond money lodged with thedepartment. Once the final excavation report has been submitted and approved, thebond money can be released back to the developer. Obviously there would be resistanceto such an idea from the developers (more costs) and from the government (requiresmore resources in already lean times). On the positive side – it at least is a provenmethod, already used by other branches of government. A different approach may be to
examine a more carrot-based method of enforcement. Could we foresee a time whendevelopers are given tax incentives to ensure the completion of excavation reports?Before anyone reminds me that it is already their obligation and that they should do it,let me remind you: the system is patently not working and needs to be re-examined withthe greatest urgency.Dwyer at least realises that construction companies are not interested in archaeology forthe sake of archaeology, but are interested in the projects that make them money. Hesays: “They were only interested in financing excavations in order to destroy thearchaeological sites as quickly as possible”. But before we accept this at face value, let usput it into a little bit of context. Most developers had nothing personal againstarchaeology – merely that they were being forced to pay for it. The fact that manyindividual archaeologists experienced personal abuse from developers and constructionworkers, while not excusable, was – in part – an expression of their financial frustration.To add further context to this, let me be clear that developers do not like payingfor anything. I have a sneaking suspicion that if developers could sell you a house andthen tell you that the doors, windows, roof, plumbing, and wiring were all extras thatyou had to pay for on top of the purchase price, they would. This is not a particularcriticism of developers, merely an articulation of the fact that they are in business tomake money for themselves – the largest amount of money for the least outlay. If, asarchaeologists, we fail to understand this, then we have no place in a businessenvironment.As an aside, I would point out that that some of the friction on the ground betweendevelopers and construction workers on one side, and archaeologists on the other iscaused by mutually exclusive stereotypes. We are often viewed as representatives ofeither a middle-class, university-educated, liberal elite or as a bunch of filthy tree-hugging hippies and (in either case) opposed to development of any kind. There is muchto reject in this simple stereotype, but we would do well to realise that it exists. For ourpart, we often characterise ‘the other side’ as unwashed, ill-educated, rural, anti-intellectual savages who want nothing more than to destroy all that is beautiful and trulyimportant in the world for a quick profit. There may be some truth in this description, asunflattering as it is, but it is not the whole story. My purpose in identifying thesestereotypes is to allow us to move beyond them. We archaeologists need to become morebusiness-like in our approach – not just those who run the companies, but theexcavators on the site. Too often excavators treat their jobs as some form if extension touniversity life, where it’s ok not to turn up because you’ve got a hangover, or because it’sThursday. The company management may try as hard as they like to have a decentbusiness profile and foster mature relationships with the wider business community –but it is all for nothing if the site foreman repeatedly sees us arriving on to site like a rag-tag bunch of war refugees, with some missing and some late. Even our behaviour on siteis not always beyond reproach – too often we are found taking little smoke breaks,‘stretching our legs’, ‘just having a chat about this … erm … tricky natural’. As fieldworkers we must be aware that we are under constant (and justifiable) observation bythe development companies who ultimately pay our wages. I realise that I’m probablygoing to take some criticism for these remarks, but – answer honestly – am I actuallywrong?
Anyway, back to Fin … He raises the complaint that the archaeology industry was profitdriven (I’m not going to argue this one again) and that report writing was seen as adrain on resources and relegated to a secondary position. I agree, Fin, I really do. Weshould have been coming off site on a Friday evening and expecting to start post-ex onMonday morning. In 20 years, I think it’s happened like that for me once. As I’ve saidabove, there does need to be stricter controls over developers and how the completion ofarchaeological reports is enforced. However, the argument presented here appears topaint the archaeological companies as the ones mostly at fault. This is simplycontradictory – on one side we have the developers holding all the financial cards andnow we have the archaeologist not insisting we write up sites. I may not have run anarchaeological company, but I have been around enough of them to know that no oneever deliberately refuses to pursue a developer for funding for post-ex. Yes, we havejumped from one excavation to the next – to the detriment of reporting on ourdiscoveries – but for sound economic reasons. Simply put, during the boom times, ifcompany X could not put archaeologists on the ground on the day the developer wanted,then company Y certainly would. In the current climate, those of us left in the professionneed to be as flexible and business-friendly as possible. Just so we are clear, I mean‘business-friendly’ in the sense of accommodating the needs of developers, whilemaintaining a high standard of archaeological professionalism. This is not a ‘zero-sumgame’ where the advancement of one inextricably leads to the diminution of the other.3) A cut-throat free market operated between the archaeologicalcompaniesMy problem with the argument presented here is that it appears to, once again,differentiate archaeology (and how much we all love and adore it, and how valuable it is)from the rest of the economy. I really cannot say this enough: we may love and cherishwhat we do, but we cannot believe that everyone else does too. In the final analysis, notone of us (excavator, site director, company owner, or university Prof.) would keepdoing archaeology if it did not pay us to do so. We must learn that ‘business’ is not adirty word (or two four-letter words jammed together, as I once had it described to me).The rest of the western world operates on a system of competitive tendering, andwhether we like it or not we must too. Realistically, what are our alternatives? Bringingour entire society back to some Soviet-era communist utopia? Or would China be a
better role model? Seriously though, what is this point proposing? The way I interpretthe rationale behind it, it appears to be yet another form of ‘special pleading’ forarchaeology. Archaeology is such a ‘non-renewable resource’ that its investigationshould not be left to forces as tawdry and base as Capitalism. You have to ask yourself ifthe way ahead is for all archaeological excavations to be conducted by the state sector?While there’s much wrong with the Capitalist/free market economy system, destroyingcommercial archaeology to create an NHS for excavations is not the answer. Personally,I’d love to live in that world – where all archaeologists are well-paid civil servants withthe power and the status we simply know we deserve: after all, we are archaeologists! Iam aware that, having never worked as a civil servant, I may have an unrealistic view ofwhat this utopia might be like. That aside, such a scheme would neither be practical, norpopular – even in times of strong economic health, much less now with all Europeangovernments attempting to divest themselves of employees. If I have misrepresented theoriginal point, I do apologise, but there is only one other option I can think of that theoriginal article could be proposing – the archaeological companies agreeing the goingrate for labour between themselves, and sticking to it. I am sure that all readers will bewell aware that this arrangement is termed a ‘cartel’ and is universally considered to bean illegal business practice.The one area of this argument where I feel that I am unable to answer adequately is thequestion of ‘functioning oversight’. While I realise that it has not been a fixture ofcommercial archaeology, I am unaware as to whether it is a commonly used procedurein other aspects of the building industry, etc. If it is, then by all means, I agree it shouldbe introduced into our working practices. If it is not, then this is simply another case ofspecial pleading for archaeology to be put into a protective bubble, external to theconcerns and actualities of the ever so mundane, but real, world.4) Contracts and timetables were drawn up and agreed before excavationsbeganThe original post appears to argue that as developers controlled the finances ofexcavations, they also imposed their timescales in advance of the excavations. Dwyergoes on to state that despite the best levels of testing and research; archaeology is not sosimply quantified. He cites the hoary old chestnuts of the impossibility of knowing howlong any individual feature will take to resolve, and the frequency of archaeological
remains ‘unexpectedly’ turning up. On one side the argument is that no extra time orresources could be given when projects are costed in advance, then it changes to decrythe extensions granted as ‘tokenistic’.I own colanders with fewer holes than this argument! I disagree with every sentence andsyllable of this argument. In the first instance, in all my years in archaeology, I’ve yet togo onto a site having been told how long I’ve got to excavate it. Admittedly, there isfrequent ‘horse-trading’ in terms of line managers attempting to ‘bargain’ me down tosomething that will freak-out the developers slightly less (please let us not be so naïve asto pretend that this doesn’t happen). But these are minor adjustments to timescales – inthe region of 10% of total time on site – and certainly not anything like having animposed deadline without consultation. It may be that I have led a charmed life and amunbelievably lucky in this regard – it’s a possibility – but I would contend that anycompany or fieldwork manager that agrees a timescale for an excavation without havingany knowledge of the archaeology uncovered is an idiot and has no place either inarchaeology or in any form of business.The point about not being able to fully quantify the archaeology prior to excavationbeginning is frequently trotted out, and while there is some truth in it, it is frequentlymuch less that some of us would like to believe. A dark spread on the surface might be a2m deep pit, but if it is only 0.5m in diameter, that’s pretty unlikely. It is very difficult toknow how deep that curvilinear ditch is going to be, but experience should be your guide– if it’s 1m across, it’s not likely to be more than 1m deep … but if it’s 5m across, that’s adifferent story. A good site director has got to rely on experience and a bit of advancetesting (the 5m wide ditch may actually only be 0.5m deep, but it could be packed withartefacts). Similarly, the ‘unexpected’ archaeology does happen, but not as frequently aswe would like to think. Relatively small increases in the number of visible features (suchas after rain) is relatively common and should be allowed for as a contingency in thetimescale. On the other hand, not all of the features identified during topsoil strippingwill turn out to be of archaeological interest. Overall, it has been my experience thatthese things tend to balance themselves out. Lest I be accused of painting too rosy apicture of this process, I admit that things can go spectacularly wrong. In my ownexperience I had just informed a site foreman that the hill we had just topsoil strippedwas free of archaeology and that he could go ahead and remove it. It was at that point acolleague informed me that he’d found quite a lot of charcoal in a little pit, under a stonethe mechanical digger had just moved. I was confident that there could not be any morearchaeology about as the subsoil in the area was so clean and any archaeology would beimmediately obvious. As he started to excavate that small pit, he found that it wasactually a much larger pit … as more and more of the crew were deployed to excavate it,we eventually discovered that it was part of a large ditch encircling the entire hilltop. Ithad been totally obscured by a thick layer of the cleanest redeposited subsoil that I haveever seen. Yes, it was a horrible situation that caused tension between the archaeologistsand the developers – after all, they had been told that they could remove the hill andwere then forced to redesign their development. Not only is this my worst personalexperience in this regard, it’s the worst that I’ve even heard of in my time inarchaeology. So, while I am not ruling out the possibility that this does occur, I want torecalibrate the argument to accept that it a vast rarity and not the rule.
The other portion of the argument, implied, but not stated, is that fixed-price contractsare a detriment to archaeology. I’ll be honest and say that they’re not my favourite wayto approach the excavation of a site. I believe that I have made it perfectly clear that mypreferred type of archaeology is one where there is unlimited time and ample funds forall the dates and specialist analyses I’d like. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen inthe foreseeable future. Fixed price contracts are, however, a necessary evil and appearset to be the most common form of contract in the future. This is why fieldworkmanagers and site directors must work closely together, using a combination ofexperience, on-site testing and business acumen, to produce realistic timescales that areachievable. The time of bloated estimates and open-ended timescales is past and,whether we like it or not, we have to come to terms with it. The simple fact is that all theother sub-contractors on a development (and yes, we are just another bunch of subbies!)tender with fixed-price bids and while we may like to see ourselves differently fromroofers and electricians, we still have to engage in this world if we wish to survive. Canyou honestly see a firm of, say, plumbers telling a developer to let them at the job andsee how they get on? I’m not a plumber, but I’m sure that there are imponderables to betaken account of in that profession too – to think that archaeology is alone in this issimply arrogance and foolishness.5) Heavy machinery was used all too frequentlyMy initial feeling about this criticism is that the author would have preferred to title it‘Heavy machinery was used’. Indeed, this is a legitimate position to take – some peoplewould prefer to dig a site entirely by hand, eschewing any benefit offered by heavymachinery. However, if there is a misconception that we work with ‘a toothbrush andfine comb’ (or ‘digging with a spoon’ as it is characterised by some people I know), it isalso a misrepresentation to claim that ‘mechanical excavators were often the tool ofchoice’. The line of text linking the needlessness of digging everything by hand to thealleged over use of machinery (‘there is not an archaeologist who has worked in Irelandwho has not seen archaeological material needlessly and in some cases intentionallydestroyed by mechanical excavators’) is a pure fallacy. It is also a serious allegation. Ifthere is strong evidence of this, it should have been reported to the licensing authoritiesfor formal investigation, and not vague allusions made in a blog post. I realise that theoriginal post was a personal piece, but as such is not immune from the requirements ofevidence. This post is also a personal piece, and as such I would like to give two cases
where mechanical excavators were used to good effect. In the first case, on a recentexcavation in Northern Ireland, we placed a number of hand-dug trenches across a rathditch. Only once I was satisfied that the stratigraphic sequence was uniform across thefeature was a mechanical digger called in. At all times the machine was under thesupervision of an experienced archaeologist, with instructions to stop if something ofpotential importance was discovered. We even made a video of it. True, we were underpressure to conclude the excavation on time and on budget, but it did not prevent usfrom doing a professional job. On another site, on one of the motorway schemes in theRepublic, we dug the majority of an Early Christian ditch by hand, but the large baulkswere removed by machine. As the machine progressed through the ditch the supervisingarchaeologist noticed something important. She stopped the machine and investigatedthe feature. She had discovered a perfectly-preserved, stone-lined Early Christianhearth. The feature was hand excavated and fully recorded before the mechanicalprocess resumed. In short, I have never seen a mechanical excavator used to ‘needlessly[or] intentionally destroy’ archaeology. In my opinion, the original post attempts tocreate a false dichotomy between the use of machinery and a shorter excavationschedule on one side and the carrying out of good quality excavation on the other. Lestwe forget, every tool in the archaeologist’s repertoire, from spades and shovels totrowels and toothpicks was invented by someone else for some other purpose – itbehoves us to examine all the tools available to us and use the most appropriate oneswith due care and diligence.On a related point, I think it is important to remember that the complete excavation oflarge features such as ditches is a relatively new phenomenon. If we examine some ofthe older excavations of ditched sites, such as raths, we will not (to my memory) find asingle example of 100% excavation. Admittedly, the majority of these were researchexcavations, where the site was not due to be destroyed at the completion of theexcavation. Nonetheless, I have yet to hear anyone contesting the interpretations andwishing for enough grant money to go back and resolve these questions by fullexcavation.As a coda to this point, I would like to directly address an allegation raised by someonesigning themselves ‘Anon’. The comment on the original post states: “I saw the skeletonsof babies excavated by shovels and graves trowelled for by digger bucket … using thisrather curious technique you find the grave by the crushed cranium’. I cannot pretend tobe anything other than shocked by this. If it happened as it is described, I can only askwhy this was not raised with the licensing authorities – even anonymously? Let me beclear – a situation that bad, or a site director that incompetent, is in clear breach of thelegislation and should have been removed. Such an allegation of destruction, if provedto be correct, is utterly reprehensible and the person/people responsible have no placein our profession.
6) Straight up corruptionFor me, this is the single most invidious piece of the whole post. If the author has noproof of corruption, then why mention it? There is a huge difference between anecdotalstories passed around in a tea-hut and repeating them in the much more formal (andpermanent) arena of a blog post. Simply stating that is ‘naïve to think this was nothappening’ constitutes neither evidence nor a coherent argument. In the words ofChristopher Hitchens: ‘What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissedwithout evidence’, or ‘Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur’ if you’re feeling moreLatinate. For the record, only twice have I been in situations that would fall into thisbroad category. In both instances I was solemnly and sincerely told by constructionworkers than since I had found archaeology on the site, it was only a matter of timebefore the developer approached me with a bribe to help ‘forget the whole thing’. I wasalso told that this type of thing ‘happened all the time’. Needless to say, I met with thedevelopers in question on many occasions and was never once offered cash to help easemy memory or speed the dig up. This is why I hold such anecdotal stories of bribes andcorruption in such low regard. Again, if you have evidence of corruption – bring it to therelevant authorities or make it public, but please do not make unsubstantiatedallegations – it devalues the entirety of your other arguments.7) No one spoke upI completely agree with the sentiment that the vast majority of field archaeologists werein a very precarious position throughout the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years. But this can hardly be
placed solely at the door of the archaeological companies. My experience is that of‘Mark’ who posted a comment saying that diggers couldn’t get themselves organised tojoin a union and that most meetings about unionisation descended into drinkingsessions. It is sad, but true, and there is no one to blame but the archaeologiststhemselves (and I include myself in that category, too). Commentator ‘Mark’ raises animportant point that many of the archaeologists were ‘only ever passing through’ andsaw no value in it. I also believe that as a group, we were less than knowledgeable aboutemployment legislation and failed to avail of the legal protections available to us. With atransient and uncommitted base it is impossible to mobilise a workforce into aneffective social organisation – again this is our failure as employees, not the companiesfor which we toiled. Ask yourself: would you join a union that was run by youremployers? … No, me neither! So, I fail to see how this is their problem.The ‘troublemaker’ question is also raised in the original post … the problem thatanyone who raised questions over the quality of the work would not be rehired for thenext job. All I can offer here is my own experience, and I do not pretend that it is anymore than anecdotal. In general, my experience has been that many, but not all, of thosemost vocal about issues of ‘quality’ or methodology were those least equipped to make abalanced statement on such issues – individuals with inflated visions of self worth andarchaeological knowledge, un-sustained by actual field experience. There is a greatfreedom to perch your tent on the moral high ground and question the intentions andabilities of those above you, without ever having taken on those roles andresponsibilities yourself. I am fortunate in that I have managed to remain in friendlycontact with many archaeologists who worked under my direction over the years. Manyof these have gone on to excavate sites of their own and show themselves to be skilledand resourceful site directors. Some have even felt able to come back to me years laterand admit that directing an excavation is not as easy as you might think from theposition of a digger. It is certainly true for me – as an excavator I have worked for a widevariety of site directors – some good, some bad, some brilliant – but it was not until Istarted directing my own sites did I have any inkling as to how damn difficult it is to doit at all, don’t mind do it well. While I would not seek to defend every action of every sitedirector, I do suggest that anyone wishing to castigate us (either singly or as a group)look at the broader picture of how a site director must operate and the stresses andobligations of the position. Without wishing to engage in the argument ad hominem, abrief check of the excavations.ie site does not produce any excavation directed by Dwyer.I must thus conclude that Fin has not worked in this capacity. I do not suggest thatDwyer does not have the right to offer an opinion – whatever his level of experience. Iam merely pointing out the fact that there is a limit to his experience in these matters.Obviously, there is a limit to my experience too, but I believe that I have clearly statedmy background, position and experience at the beginning of this piece.Getting back to the topic of ‘troublemakers’ it has been my experience that a smallnumber of these, failing some gross dereliction of duty, were the hardest to remove.Bizarrely, the prime reason for this fear was that their dismissal would be interpreted asthe removal of a troublemaker, rather than an incompetent, unable to carry out theirjob. I realise that many reading this will object to such sentiments – and I support yourright to do so – but this is an account of my personal experience and I offer it as just
that, not an incontrovertible and everlasting truth. Instead, I ask that you cast yourmind back to those ‘troublemakers’ … were they really as knowledgeable and able asthey proclaimed? Or, even in just a few instances, were they using their indignation as ameans of self promotion or as a shield to their own incompetence? To be fair, this is notintended to characterise all who rose up their voices as villains. I merely wish torecalibrate the tacit assumption made by Dwyer that all these people were theunblemished heroes of archaeology, standing up like White Knights against thepolycephalic Dragons of profit-oriented consultancies and developers. Thischaracterisation is not the full picture and neither is the other extreme I have presentedhere as a foil.In my own experience, I have worked on a number of excavations (both as excavator anddirector) where such ‘troublemakers’ were invaluable in helping me change my thinkingor in suggesting an alternative methodology. To those in this category, I remain gratefulfor their input and I am glad they spoke up and offered alternate views and advice.However, there is another reason that the idea that those who spoke up got a raw deal iswrong to me. In my time working in the Republic during the ‘boom years’, we simplycouldn’t get enough archaeologists. As I discuss below, I saw a situation arise whereanyone willing to work was instantly given a job, whether or not they had any experienceor training. In this situation it didn’t matter how much trouble anyone caused so long asyou had your numbers on site and were resolving the archaeology.I find the assertion that university lecturers were in a position to speak out, but did notto be, at the very least, disingenuous. Why should anyone expect the majority of thisgroup to have any knowledge of current field practices; good, bad, or indifferent? To saythat they had very little knowledge of the alleged facts and then blame them for notspeaking out about it is utterly contradictory. Again there is an unsubstantiatedallegation that some did know, but chose not to ‘rock the boat’. This is utterly in conflictwith my knowledge of the Irish academic community. If we take, for example, the publicprotests regarding sites like Lismullin and the M3/Tara controversy there is ampleevidence of academics making their views known through television and radiointerviews and letters to the editors of varying outlets, from The IrishTimes to Archaeology Ireland. There is no way that one can correlate these clear anduncontested means of making their objections known with this alleged culture of ‘notrocking the boat’.
8) If you pay peanuts you get monkeysThis is one area where I speak with very little knowledge or authority, as I have neverrun an archaeological company. Thus, I have no actual knowledge of these ‘massiveamounts of money’ being made by the consultancies. I might point out that what appearas vast quantities of money to people like me, are rather trifling to businesses. I am notsaying that they were making so much money that it no longer had the same meaning.Not at all. I remember speaking to a company owner during the height of the ‘CelticTiger’ period and being shocked to learn that they needed to be taking in almost aquarter of a million Euros each month (€250,000) … just to break even. No profit there– just paying the bills: heat, light, power, cabin rental, staff wages … but no profit… each and every month! True, put that kind of money beside an individual excavator’swages and it looks like something from an Asian sweatshop, but it’s far from an accurateand fair assessment of the situation.Would I like to be paid a vast amount of money to do archaeology? Yes, of course Iwould. Do I think I deserve it? Damn right I do! And while that fantasy is cute andlovely, it’s time to enter the real world, folks. Again and again we come back to the pointthat while an awful lot of us do archaeology because we love the subject and think it’sthe most important thing in the world, that is not how we are perceived by society ingeneral and the workplace in particular. Yes, it does (usually) take a university degree tobe an archaeologist, but it (unfortunately) does not mean that we are automaticallyentitled to the same pay as others with comparable levels of qualifications, such asengineers etc. Yes, the consultancies undercut each other to get the jobs, but don’t youthink that the engineering firms were doing the same? What makes us so special that weshould be treated in a way at variance with market forces? Are we back to specialpleading again?I have had the pleasure of working with some of the best and most skilful archaeologistsof the current generation, and not one of us was ever paid what we would like or whatwe deserved. I am not arguing for low pay in archaeology – far from it – but I amattempting to articulate the unpleasant truths that the value of our labour is set not byus and not by the consultancies, but by external market forces, largely beyond ourcontrol. It’s sad and it is pretty damn depressing, but it is not the sole fault of those whoemployed us! As I have said above, there are ways we can attempt to change theperception and the worth of archaeology – but these involve changing ourselves and our
attitudes. We have to look like professionals and we have to act like professionals –unless more of us start treating field archaeology as a real job and not the ‘snooze’button between university and post-grad life, we will never make any progress in beingtaken seriously – and consequently being better paid. If we don’t stop treating fieldexcavation as that thing you do when you’re not too hung-over, or can be bothered tostruggle out of bed, we have no chance for any improvement. Obviously, the vastmajority of field archaeologists are hard-working and largely professional in theiroutlook, but we have a long way to go to counteract the poor impressions created by thefew that damage us all. The consultancies themselves are not beyond reproach – it is myopinion that much of the damage to the current standing and perception of fieldarchaeologists was done by the indiscriminate hiring of people with no training orbackground in the subject. At the height of the boom years it seemed like anyone whocould hold a trowel and not poke their own eye out could get a job as an archaeologist.In defence of the companies, what else could they have done? There was so much work,but not nearly enough archaeologists to undertake it all. The only option was to findsome kind of warm bodies to fill the roles. The end result was the driving down of wagesfor the majority and a drastic re-evaluation as to what was considered an acceptablelevel of archaeological training to do the job. I don’t like it any more than anyone else,but these are the facts as I see them.I object to the argument that ‘the real money was made by company owners andmanagers who never worked on sites’. I doubt that anyone who ever worked in fieldarchaeology has ever thought differently – as a group, we’re pretty much convinced thatlabouring in the field is infinitely nobler than sitting behind a desk. Guess what,sweeties? Nowhere in the world does a manual labourer make more than the folksbehind the desk – it just doesn’t happen! We’re also back to the ideal that companiesshould not make any profits – without banging on about it too much; it’s not going tohappen!I’m sure that some companies had their own helicopters … it’s just that I never workedfor them or heard of them. I did hear various stories about ‘another lot’ havingoutrageous perks for the management … but when I worked for them the stories werethe same … just with a different company name inserted! Sure, the offices of somecompanies appeared to be staffed with cretins who couldn’t organise scratching theirown behinds, much less organising ‘portaloos’ to be transported to the site and cleanedon a regular basis. Some of this was incompetence and some of it was pure and simpleparsimoniousness. I remember all too well working on one site where the companyowner not only refused to provide toilets, but when the supply of nails ran out I wasforced (as the only one on site with a Swiss Army knife) to go along the adjacent hedgeand collect suitably long thorns. No matter how you look at it, this was an unacceptableand shameful way to run a company. Why did we put up with it? Mostly because we feltthat we had no choice and that we’d made a commitment to archaeology, rather thanseeking material wealth. We didn’t stand up for ourselves. Until such time as we decideto do archaeology as a real profession and see its actual place in the economic and socialstructure, we will make no progress in getting better pay, conditions or even that mostelusive of goals: ‘respect’. While I have an extreme dislike to the term ‘monkeys’ in this
context, I would still rephrase the original point: act like monkeys and be prepared to beoffered only peanuts.Final thoughtsOverall, I stand firmly with the position put forward by John Tierney (one of only twocommentators to use their own full names), that the Irish History Podcast blog post isderogatory and insulting to the whole of Irish archaeology – whether it is a personalopinion piece or not. As Tierney says, we’ve seen both publications and quality increasemarkedly. We have also seen the entire understanding of archaeology on this islandchange in under 15 years – wholly and solely due to this massive influx of information (ifyou don’t believe me, compare and contrast O’Kelly’s fine publication ‘Early Ireland: anintroduction to Irish Prehistory’ (1989), with Waddell’s magisterial ‘The prehistoricarchaeology of Ireland’ (1998, 2000)(especially the 3rd edition of 2010) or evenBradley’s ‘The prehistory of Britain and Ireland’ (2007)). Where I would disagree withTierney is in the, perhaps, overly positive complexion he puts on the situation. True, thenumbers of publications have soared (look at my wish list for confirmation), but it is myfirmly held belief that as a percentage of actual excavations carried out, there is likely adecrease in real terms. While some of the formal publications to have emerged are ofhigh quality (see, for example, Delaney & Tierney’s ‘In the Lowlands of South Galway’for one of the most recent), in my own research for the Irish RadiocarbonDeterminations and Dendrochronological Dates catalogue I have encountered someterrible pieces of writing masquerading as final excavation reports. While I wouldpartially blame the individual consultancies for allowing archaeologists with noapparent writing skills to put pen to paper, a good portion of that blame must rest solelywith the site directors. If it is part of your job to write clearly and coherently, beprepared to do just that or take some form of training. Otherwise you should findyourself another job. Even with this criticism, I have yet to find any site report withoutsome merit – I definitely believe that we need to improve our reporting at all levels, butthe situation is not so bad as is implied by phrases such as ‘destroyed without adequaterecording’ or ‘poorly excavated, poorly recorded’.Do I have any regrets about my time in archaeology? Yes, a few … but I’ve more to beproud of than to regret. It is for this reason, I cannot allow the Fin Dwyer’s post to standunchallenged – I believe that it does not represent my experience in the profession. Yesthere have been negatives in the impact of the building boom on Irish archaeology, butthey are more than outweighed by the positive impacts for us all.Fin Dwyer expressed his desire that we should have a public debate on the issues. As Isaid at the beginning, this is my reply. I do not claim universality and I do not claim torepresent anyone’s experience other than my own. I invite anyone who wishes tocomment on this post to add their thoughts in the box below or pen their own rebuttalpost – if you don’t wish to start your own blog to do so, I offer anyone willing a ‘guestblog’ spot right here. However, please be prepared to be ignored or deleted if you feelunable to put your full name to any comments you wish to make!
Reference:Mandal, S. & O’Carroll, F. 2008 ‘Time for a rethink?’ Archaeology Ireland 22.2, 38-39.