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The future of commercial archaeology from a digger's point of view
#1
Archaeology has changed, the last 10-15yrs has seen the loss of many small geographically restricted companies with there specialist knowledge of local geologies, pottery ware's and specific urban stratigraphy. Taken over by a few 'relatively' large archaeological giants who have bullied and undercut there way through the UK (And too a lesser extent mainland Europe), knocking the small companies and there wealth of local knowledge aside and forcing them out of buisness. This growth of the giants is soon too reach its final chapter with the joining of two such companies into a force that will lead the way in setting wages and conditions for years to come. It is obvious that certainly the next few years will see wages and conditions kept down while this new company fights with the other major giant for dominance in the commercial field.

While this is great news for the developers it does mean lean times ahead for the field teams, but maybe just as importantly will the archaeology suffer? This year alone there have been a number of important sites that have been effectively trashed (Including an IA site ignored and bulldozed out of the way A Roman Villa being recorded as a field drain and a Medieval cemetry excavated with a 360) All the large companies have been guilty to a degree and appear more interested in profits then understanding our heritage. This mentality of promising to dig complex sites for progessively less money and time than any other company is damaging not only our image in the construction industry but also (More importantly) its forcing more and more experinced hands out of the field all together as they get disenchanted.

Anyone who has spent any length of time in the commercial field will have had contact with at least one of these companies, and no doubt will have been on sites with half the excavators needed whilst being forced to finish sites in less time then initally agreed. Many Project Officers (And increasingly supervisors who are forced into leading sites years above there experience level) are being progessively worn down as they battle from one site to the next. Many now seem to have lossed heart and see paperwork as something that slows the progress down, complaining when excavators try to record features to a standard that should be the norm. (Fill of ditch is of no use anyone! If thats all thats allowed to be said why waste the paper!)

This needs to change. But who is going to lead the way? Now most of the smaller companies have been forced out of buisness there seems to be nobody pushing for the quality that used to be the norm. If the companies are happy to let the quality suffer so they can rush onto the next site then who? Naturally the leading force should be the very people who are meant to be policing these companies already, the county archaeologists. Unfortunately in many instances they are just as bad if not worse. Sometimes bullied by there employer into allowing lucrative developments taking place many are willing to turn a blind eye.

So I guess this is what this rant is focused towards. We need change. Change in the system. We can't stop the growth of these 'mega-companies' (The developers often wanting large numbers of people eg. recent pipelines and road schemes) but maybe we can create an appropriate system in which the archaeology is given the time and focus it deserves, local expertise can be exploited and maybe eventually a proper wage can be given.

1st and foremost there needs to be a governing body that watches over the county archaeologists. I know that many councils (Mainly the more corrupt ones) are against this system, but it needs to be done. This needs to be done at goverment level and at the moment maybe EH are the only ones able to lead the way. Whilst I'm sure the IFA would happily take over this role it wouldn't work. The high numbers of large company managers involved at the very top of the IFA could bias the system to there advantage, and even if they were completely honest many would still percieve such a bias.

2nd We need to create a scheme that forces companies (Whatever size) to record and excavate to a set standard. Regardless of what the IFA say it isn't doing this! The last IFA inspection I witnessed comprised the inspector and manager arriving on site, not talking to a single digger and then vanishing into a pub across the road after a full 10mins. The IFA say that they would like to introduce a chartered type industry, but to do this they need a minimum 75% (Or there abouts) membership from current proffesional archaeologists. If they are to achieve this then they need to provide a cheaper membership option or ask companies to pay for there staff, many fieldstaff simply don't have the finances to pay.

3rd These large companies should focus on the mega jobs such as pipelines, road schemes, city centre developments, the recent london access etc... Leaving the smaller jobs to local companies with there better understanding and knowledge of spicific areas.

4th The large companies need to listen to there staff (We're smarter than we look! Remember). All the large companies appear to have the same mentality, abusing underpaid staff as a norm. Forcing most to do jobs at higher grades than they are being paid for, expecting them to work long hours for little reward, putting them in situations they simply have no chance of succeeding and then making them feel as if they are a failure when they can't meet the deadlines. Imagine if you will being a supervisor, asked to run a large complex site with half the numbers promised (Many being trainees new to archaeology) and when asked how long the site will take often cutting that time scale by a quarter or even half. And this happening over and over.

Archaeology at the moment is in meltdown, it has no direction or purpose. The fieldstaff are losing hope, I know we always complain, that there is (and always will be) issues. But we only wish to do the job we have studied hard and put ourselves in debt for! We shouldn't feel guilty for wanting to record and excavate features in the appropriate manner. We know we're not on research and that features need to be investigated fast. We're not talking about taking 3 days to dig a single feature using only a trowel, we're simply talking about you listerning to our views. When we say it'll take 2 weeks to finish a site with 6 diggers then thats what we mean. Not 1 week with 3 trainee's. Thanks for your time. Sorry to rant
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#2
Blimey, who even knows where to begin with all that??

Initially i'd like to say that everyone is aware that conditions are far from ideal within a number of companies across the world of Archaeology but i think that these problems aren't just confined to the larger companies currently dominating the scene. At least these companies can offer some form of job security and permanent contracts which must be a good place to start in raising standards.

Secondly, we need to remember that the majority of archaeological work is commercial and as such needs to be competitive in both cost and timescale. Remember, you are not on a research dig and haven't got time to stand back and admire your lovely section in that surprisingly interesting ditch you've just dug. However much it takes the romance out of your job, unfortunately sometimes you just have to get on with your job, like other professional companies, get the job done and move on.

We are not saving the world, curing cancer or changing people's lives and whilst we think we're important the sad truth is that the majority of other contractors you find on site simply don't think we are.
A degree of professionalism is needed just to make sure that people put up with us.

Small local jobs should not be dealt with by small local firms per se. These are often the bread and butter work of large companies and provide the steady income behind larger high profile jobs that may have a more minimal profit margin. On the other hand, whilst smaller companies with lower overheads are able to put in ridiculously small tenders for small scale jobs, this means that larger companies lose out to these people and whilst it may be acceptable to win yourself a job for which your happy to receive little above minimum wage, this means that larger companies can never place worthwhile tenders that would allow them in turn to pay their staff more. A bit of a catch-22 it seems. If you don't get the work you can't make pay conditions better.

I'm sure i had much more to say but i have run out of steam after venting my spleen somewhat, but i guess my main point is if it upsets you that much work elsewhere. I can't see things changing anytime soon!!
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#3
Some good points there, although I'd point out that some relatively small companies can still get and do large/very large projects, that's what the mobile workforce are for!

You're definitely right about 'outside' organisations trashing (often unwittingly) archaeology that the locals are fully aware is there, I've been the victim of that a number of times. On a slightly different point, the company I work for recently did a big road scheme where there had previously been trial trenching by several 'outside' organisations, many of which, due to unfamiliarity with the sh*** variety of naturals we get around here, had frequently either not-bottomed the archaeology (in one case by over a metre of stratified settlement deposits) or had just machined straight through the archaeology and missed the lot. The one batch done by a 'local' unit were all spot-on....
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#4
This is a different system to the one I work in. Most small companies have not been driven out of business by the bigger ones in the last 10-15 years. Many have grown and many have remained as small companies a few have gone out of business. The specific local knowledge argument has long been a joke with some such companies in one case not knowing that they were working in the county they were named after.

Small compamies are generally cheaper and do better work than the bigger companies. What we are seeing is a maturing of the archaeological market place. Fedup said "On the other hand, whilst smaller companies with lower overheads are able to put in ridiculously small tenders for small scale jobs this means that larger companies lose out to these people and whilst it may be acceptable to win yourself a job for which your happy to receive little above minimum wage." This simply is not true smaller companies can bid lower amounts because they have lower overheads and management structure and I think for will find that they pay better than the big companies.

What we have seen the demise in the last 20 years are the loss of council contracting units. I see this as no bad thing.

As for the mega companies they were the ones who sufferred the biggest job losses while many small companies who were "right sized" have fared much better.

Peter
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#5
drpeterwardle Wrote:This simply is not true smaller companies can bid lower amounts because they have lower overheads and management structure and I think for will find that they pay better than the big companies.

As for the mega companies they were the ones who sufferred the biggest job losses while many small companies who were "right sized" have fared much better.

Peter

Indeed. Often larger companies (in any sector) are too large and sluggish to adapt to changing market conditions.

I can sympathise with the OP, but smaller companies are not always brilliant. I've worked for several that have taken on jobs too large and have lacked the resources and know-how in order to deal with a site. I've never worked for a large company, so I can't really comment there. Its not the size of teh company that counts, its the quality of the people who are doing the job.

Even if a small unit operates on a county level - counties are still large areas, and you'll often end up working in a bit where you haven't worked before. Doing a bit of research beforehand is essential, whether you're big or small.

The only hesitation I'd have about a large company is being treated as a number, and the potential as a member of site staff for being shunted across the UK for work. I got fed up of that a few years ago working for firms with wide geographical spreads. I'll always prefer working for a smaller firm, as I feel you're more a member of staff than "Excavator 93" to the upper management. But thats my personal view, it may not be borne out by larger units I've never worked at!
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#6
Hmmm it's a good point that smaller units don't always do better jobs and that in many cases you don't need to know an area to dig or interpret a site correctly. There is however the problem with larger units that the poor staff may slip through the net as 'just a number' and whilst they may not be promoted, their lack of ability is not dealt with as rapidly as it would be within a smaller unit. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link however!!!
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#7
FedUp Wrote:Hmmm it's a good point

My God! I've finally made one!

I tend to dislike generalisims. Big vs small. Management vs. excavators. Girls vs. Boys. Whatever. Sometimes they're correct , but they're never ever the whole truth.

Everything should be assessed on its own merits.
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#8
seen all this, agree with DrPete (this consensus is really beginning to annoy me). But most of all
Quote:I tend to dislike generalisims. Big vs small. Management vs. excavators. Girls vs. Boys. Whatever. Sometimes they're correct , but they're never ever the whole truth.
. All generalisations are dangerous, particularly this one. Or something... That's also a (mis)quote from someone cleverer than me...
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#9
I think the point has been missed slightly. Yes I'm aware that no company is perfect and that some small companies are bad too work for, but they are not in a position to change the way commercial archaeology conducts itself in the way the large companies are.

Ok, I'll try and start again and be a little more clear and less rambling. For a start I'm not a newbie fresh out of uni with no real understanding. I've been in the field over 15years. I've worked with research groups, county councils, small and large commercial units including several of the current big guns. I've worked from digger grade to PO and have seen the system change and evolve.

I'm sick and tired of people saying that diggers now have it better then "back in the day", yes I agree in many respects conditions have improved. Generally stay away accom is not only provided but much better, there is better job security and welfare facilities are much much better. Although on that last point I feel that has more to do with developers H&S than the arch companies themselves. I certainly know from talking to others at other units that most are still happy to send a team of 4-5 out to an eval with nothing but the vehicle they arrived in. But in many respects they have it much worse.

Job security is still not a constant despite what many would say. Yes many companies offer permanent contracts but that doesn't stop them shedding staff when work is tight (We have to be practical, the work we do its going to happen. Why try and hide it?) Some of the larger companies are currently saying how great they are offering pension plans. Although as I understand government legislation the real reason maybe the legal requirements that are coming into effect at the beginning of the next financial year. The current trend to undercut and bid for jobs further and further afield means that the amount of time fieldstaff are expected to work away from home has increased dramatically! Which means there is no chance for someone who wants to remain in the field to be able to have a decent life outside work (God forbid). Also this need to streach site staff across as many sites as possible means in real terms that there isn't the experienced staff on hand to help teach the new hands.

Some of the larger companies rave about there inhouse training programs (I've seen two of these at work and know people involved with others). They are all the same. Due to the current nature of work these people are given no additional support or training, rather once they have been with the company X months and the managers need an additional person for a watching brief somewhere off they are sent. Now all of you who have done watching briefs will know the situation. You often have clients who don't want you there, will "forget" to tell you about planned intrusive works and can be fairly intimidating. You have no real equipment or facilities other than a camera, digging kit (If your lucky a laser level) and no-one at the office is interested because there focused on that big job in the next county. In this situation many diggers simply struggle and are then made to feel inadequate by the people who put them in that situation. Those that struggle through are given increasingly complex jobs, still with no training. Making many current supervisors and PO's bouncing from job to job doing lille more than trying to minimise the bollocking with there confidence shattered by the whole affair.

It doesn't have to be this way. In fact 5 years ago it wasn't this bad (And currently its getting worse). I know its probably slightly nieve to ask for more wages in the current climate but we can demand better working practise and conditions. If these companies stopped trying to bully each other then people could work closer to home (more often then now at any rate). I stress again that managers need to listen to the fieldstaff. They understand time constraints and how long things take to dig (A large ditch section will prob take between a day and day and a half to fully dig and record depending on geology. Doesn't matter how tight the schedule is thats what it takes). If we could stop streaching the work force to such an extent and allow those with experience to pass that knowledge on before sending new staff into difficult situations.

Lastly stop making the archaeology suffer. I'm certain in years to come when people look at the archives from the past 3 years there are going to see little difference between ourselves and the antiquairians before us. I know sites where only relationships were investigated, on one post-med factory complex the context sheets said little more than "brick wall" repeated over and over. Why don't people understand that the archive IS the site, if your not going to do it properly why not just let the developer rip it out and save some money! This smash and grab mentality that runs through commercial archaeology just makes us all look bad. We need time to record, we need enough staff on site to record within the provided timeframe, and we need the experience to record properly and show newbies how too.

Sorry I realise I just went into another rambling rant. I'll go away compose what I mean and come back
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#10
In an ideal world the consultant should reject the work described by 2403381 (may I call you 240?) as not being in accordance with the contract (as in another thread I'm slipping into my architectural/construction analogy again). In addition the curator, as a result of one of many site visits, will reject the work as not complying with the WSI and agreed specs etc. It doesn't help any trashed arch but the subsequent lack of payment will concetrate the minds and help the next lot.

In an ideal world. But this is surely the way forward. Give the right people teeth and let them bite. But does anyone (else) really care?
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