Over the past 20 years the number of archaeological excavations soared in Ireland. This is almost exclusively because of the building boom. Many people have argued that this was good for archaeology and our understanding of the past. Having worked in the industry I can convinced the opposite is true. The last 20 years have seen unprecedented destruction of archaeological sites across Ireland that were poorly excavated, poorly reported and are now gone forever.
I am not opposed to building on the remains of the past – every society in history has done it but this should be done within reason and properly recorded. In Ireland, the money invested in archaeology was wasted and many of the processes that lead to the current financial mess also changed archaeology into what was effectively a demolition industry. I think this happened primarily for the following 8 reasons. I would be really interested to hear what you think or your experience was.
1.Unenforced and Uneforceable Legislation.
Despite theoretically good legislation this was not enforced or applicable to the situation on the ground. According to legalisation construction could only begin when a licensed archaeological director had effectively given a site a clean bill of health. This legislation could function if the directors were independent but problems arose because they worked under extreme pressure from their bosses in archaeological companies and ultimately construction companies and developers(see point 2). The directors worked with the best of intentions but this pressure no doubt impacted on them.
Construction company’s and developers funded the industry and they were ultimately in control. This lead to a situation where archaeological directors who took longer (i.e. those doing the job right ) were put under extreme pressure as this delayed construction. Pressure also was exerted on directors from within the companies they worked for. The archaeology companies primary function was to make money. This profit lead environment lead to enormous pressurise being brought to bare on directors to finish excavations on or before time to enhance profits at the expense of best practice.
2. Construction companies and developers held all the cards.
The vast majority of archaeological excavations were funded by builders and developers. They held all the cards and had no interest in archaeology – their interest was naturally enough, construction. They were only interested in financing excavations in order to destroy the archaeological sites as quickly as possible. Therefore publishing reports of excavations and analysis of these excavations was always relegated to a peripheral part of the process.
The fact that the industry was profit driven lead to a situation where companies saw reports as a drain on resources since they were paid for excavations and not reports. Although the legislation requiring reports to be published is being more rigorously enforced, for years it was largely ignored. In many cases reports were not published or were published to a substandard level and many excavations carried out have little or no value.
3. A cut throat free market operated between the companies .
When excavations were put out to tender archaeological companies competed against each other for the jobs. With no functioning oversight contracts were awarded to the cheapest tender regardless whether the contract was realistic or not. This lead to a race to the bottom where the company with the worst wages (see point 8), conditions, archaeological practice and morals were lightly to win contracts for excavations.
4. Contracts and timetables were drawn up and agreed before excavations began.
As the excavations were usually funded by developers timetables were agreed before excavations began so they could fit into a building schedule. No matter how much testing and research is completed before an excavations begins it is impossible to know how long excavating something will take. More often than not unforeseen archaeological remains turn up. This would requires a time extension and although they were often granted, they were tokenistic in nature. The excavation deadlines were ultimately set, not by what archaeological material was found, but by pre-agreed timetables and budgets. This lead to situations with excavations “finishing” with material still unexcavated.
5. Heavy Machinery was used all to frequently.
The public often have an the misconception that archaeology is a profession where the tools of the trade are a toothbrush and fine comb, the reality in Ireland was that mechanical excavators were often the tool of choice. This is appropriate for stripping top soil or other limited cases – it is needless to dig absolutely everything by hand, but there is not an archaeologist who has worked in Ireland who has not seen archaeological material needlessly and in some cases intentionally destroyed by mechanical excavators in order to speed up excavations.
6. Straight up corruption.
Although I never witnesses this first hand I have heard widespread anecdotal evidence companies were paid off to finish excavations early. Given what we know about the level of corruption within the building industry in Ireland coupled with the fact that archaeology could seriously delay building projects it would be naive to think this was not happening.
7. No one spoke up.
Archaeologists working in the field for the major consultancy firms were in an incredibly weak position. A lack of unionisation gave ordinary archaeologists almost no protection. Due to the precarious nature of employment anyone who raised questions about quality of work could easily and were often not be rehired on the next job. The people who were in a position to comment primarily university lecturers, rarely did. In reality they often had very little experience or knowledge of what was actually taking place in the field. Those who did know chose the all to familiar Irish path of not rocking the boat. They rarely if ever expressed concerns about the fact that the very sites they wrote about were being destroyed without adequate recording.
8. If you pay peanuts you get monkeys.
Despite the fact massive amounts of money were being made by archaeological consultancy firms, the people doing the digging were paid shocking wages. At the height of the boom, even after several years of experience highly skilled archaeologists were paid less than €500 per week while companies were making vast profits.
On any site there were three of four levels, starting at a general operative often on the minimum wage, above which there were site assistants, supervisors and then finally a director. On the site, the director was the only person earning what was the average industrial wage or above. The real money was made by company owners and managers who never worked on sites. Some companies had helicopters to ferry company officials from site to site while the people doing the work were paid pitance. Having worked as a site assistant for years in my experience this vast inequality lead to a lack of motivation and and high levels of resentment. This definitely impacted on the quality of the archaeological excavations.
I am currently working on a short audiobook on the Black Death in Ireland. Set to the backdrop of 14th century war, famine and the impacts of a changing climate the book will be several hours long and will be available for a small fee in October 2011. Stay tuned for more updates.