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The four and a half inch pointing trowel ... and the damage done



Examining the relationship between a long term career in field archaeology and mental health and substance abuse.
The four and a half inch pointing
trowel ... and the damage done
This article is dedicated to the picnic table in the south west corner of the beer garden of
Clarkes Bar in Drogheda. And to all who sail in her.
By Stuart Rathbone
Anatomy and the Archaeologist
The human shoulder is a phenomenal mechanism. It is formed of a combination of three bones, two
types of cartilage and 10 muscles and it can perform an astonishing range of movements. I'm 35
years old and right handed. Because I'm trying to limit my use of expletives I shall describe myself
here as a field archaeologist. My right shoulder, located at the top of my trowelling arm, sounds as if
it is lubricated by Lego bricks. At the other end of my trowelling arm is my wrist, an equally
impressive demonstration of the power of evolution. That's supposed to consist of 13 bones in total,
the 5 metacarpal bones that form the base of the hand and the 8 carpal bones that articulate against
the distal end of the radius. Listening to my wrist snap, crackle and pop as I move it around I suspect
that at some point in time those 13 bones have been substituted for hundreds of Rice Krispies. I now
live in perpetual fear of ever letting my wrist come into contact with milk.
I suspect that anybody who fails to identify trowelling as a potential source of Repetitive StrainInjury
whilst preparing a risk assessment really isn't trying too hard. It does get you wondering though
doesn't it? What risks are we exposing ourselves too chasing this ridiculous career? I suspect I'm
probably having some sort of mid-life crisis but seeing as I'm quite unable to buy an Audi sports car,
I'm going to offer up this little discussion instead. On the off chance you don't want to listen to a
lengthy rant from a depressed field archaeologist it's probably best if you turn this off now. The
internet is no doubt full of much more enthralling places to be. I hear the porn is rather good at this
time of year...
Ok, well that should have chased away the light weights. Time to let you into a secret. I love being an
archaeologist! Honestly and absolutely there is not another job that I could imagine doing, and more
than that, I'm pretty sure becoming an archaeologist saved my life. Now that doesn't mean I'm not
disgruntled and pissed off, what archaeologist worth their salt isn't? But I do love my job and I'd like
to think the advantages and disadvantages of working as a field archaeologist could be discussed
usefully, with a view towards some mythical time of improvement. Inspired in part by the formation
of the Facebook group Representation for Irish Archaeologists, and the newly established IAI Pay
Rates Working Group, I thought it would be timely to offer up some of the thoughts I've been
mulling over for several years. But I'm going to speak about some things that never seem to get
talked about publically, at least not until the wee small hours when everyone is sitting comfortably...
What I want to discuss are subjects like drink, drugs and mental illness, and how they relate to the
Irish Contract Archaeology and Mental Illness. Cause or Effect?
I feel it's fair to say that archaeologists are a fairly odd lot. As Philip Barker famously wrote, “No
excavation is without its awkward characters, eccentrics or misfits”, and that most likely holds as
true today as it did when first published in 1977. A certain weirdness is probably part of the selection
criteria for people who elect to spend their time four feet down in a sloppy hole, earning a pittance,
whilst being rained on. In my experience archaeologists tend to be intelligent, unusual, committed
and passionate people, painfully capable in some areas, curiously incompetent in others.
Archaeology is one of those rare professions where a bit of oddness is expected and downright
strangeness can at least be tolerated. I'm sure most people who worked in Ireland during the boom
will be able to think back to former colleagues who they can't imagine could have functioned in
many other lines of work, and I would have to count myself among that number.
There are some interesting connections that can be made between the lifestyle of contract
archaeologists, the occurrence of mental illness, and the levels of alcohol and drug misuse. The
development of mental illness and drink and drug problems are believed to be influenced by a
complex combination of factors relating to the genetic makeup of a person and the nature of their
environment. The important part for the archaeological profession is that whatever the biological
and sociological background of our compatriots may be, there are other factors that have a
substantial impact on wellbeing. It is within our collective power to make alterations to these factors
if we can identify avoidable problems and find appropriate ways of negating them.
Social stressors known to affect the chances of an individual or community developing mental health
and/or drink and drug related problems include poverty, unemployment or underemployment and a
lack of social cohesion. Additionally, immigrant populations are known to be disproportionately
affected by these problems, relating typically to poor social conditions and limited opportunities.
These factors are crucial to this discussion as, to be perfectly blunt, they could be part of the job
description for most contract archaeology positions in Ireland.
These topics are difficult to address in due to a lack of data. Two profiles of the archaeological
profession in Ireland have been undertaken, the first published in 2002, the second in 2008. A third
survey was undertaken this summer but it will be some time before the results are processed and
released. Unfortunately these surveys have been conducted from a very management orientated
perspective and, whilst they contain a great deal of important and useful data, they do not provide
any direct information about the mental wellbeing of the archaeologists, about the rates or alcohol,
tobacco, and narcotic consumption, financial information beyond simply wage rates, or the social
conditions and background of the archaeologists. In 2011 I undertook a small survey of 23 friends
and colleagues to gauge their opinions about some of these issues, and much of the anecdotal
evidence discussed below is based on those distinctly unscientific results.
The 2002 survey, undertaken by CHL Consulting Co, reported that there were an estimated 650
professional archaeologist in Ireland, with 47% of them working in the contract sector.
Archaeologists had high levels of educational qualification, with 99% of archaeologists having a
primary degree, and 70% having a post graduate qualification. The survey struggled to contact
contract staff but states that half of those working in contracting were employed on short term
and/or part time contracts. It was concluded that the average earnings were not high, with a figure
of €35,680 being stated as the average, but with the acknowledgment that had the full number of
contract staff been represented this figure would have probably been reduced. The report suggests
that the low earnings and poor employment conditions are the main reason why, despite having
enjoyed their courses, the majority of graduates in archaeology "do not intend to pursue a career in
archaeology and are not seeking vocational training in archaeology."
The more recent profile of the profession published by UCD in 2008 (but undertaken in 2006) found
that there were 1709 professional archaeologists working in Ireland. The level of education had
diminished slightly but remained high over all, with 80% having a primary degree and 41% having a
post-graduate qualification. This shift is probably down to the increasing use of General Operatives
in the contract sector, or their inclusion in the second survey when the first survey had identified
only a single General Operative in the profession. The overall average wage across the whole of
archaeology had increased only very slightly since the 2002 survey and stood at €37,680. Again this
figure was thought to represent an over estimation due to a failure to obtain data from all of the
poorly paid site staff. That the average wage had only increased by 5.6% in 4 years is a clear
symptom of the common practice of employers not increasing wages in line with annual inflation
and effectively producing an annual wage cut. The 2008 survey broke down the wage structure of
the career in more detail than the previous study. It found that 76% of archaeologists earned less
than the national average wage and that the largest category of staff, the site assistant, earned on
average a shocking €12,000 per year less than the national average wage. The 2008 report also
found that 70% of workers were subject to unstable duration of employment and that the majority
of archaeologists had changed employer within the previous 12 months. It also noted that union
representation was entirely absent from the Irish contract archaeology sector.
There is no official data on the levels of personal savings held by archaeologists, nor on their levels of
home ownership or other sorts of measures of success and status such as number and type of
foreign holiday, type and condition of their cars and so on. Amongst my closer acquaintances no one
ever seemed to have very much money beyond the price of the next pint and a pouch of rolling
tobacco, but there were obviously other people around who didn't suck at life as badly as we did. It's
clear that Licensed Directors, State Sector Archaeologists and certain specialists were paid well
enough to attain home ownership, but below those pay grades I suspect home ownership would
have been all but impossible without the intervention of family money, or a lifestyle combining total
abstinence with an afterhours job in prostitution.
Migration is a complex issue because not only were there a large amount of immigrant workers
within the sector but the short term nature of the work required constant migration within the
country as people moved from job to job. According to the 2008 survey, 45% of archaeologists were
of non-national origin. This is a ridiculously high percentage for a skilled profession, and is the sort of
figure more often seen in traditional transitory jobs like fruit picking. This figure had increased
dramatically since the 2002 survey when only 18% of archaeologists were found to be from
overseas. Fruit picking has clear parallels to archaeology in terms of it being poorly paid outdoor
work dominated by short term contracts, exactly the sort of disadvantage that can lead to an
industry being heavily dependent on recent immigrants.
Despite the reliance on large numbers of foreign born staff it seems that immigrants may have a
particularly difficult time in progressing with their careers. According to the 2008 survey 71% of
immigrants were employed as site assistants, and only 6% had achieved the well paying positions
such as Site Directors, Senior Archaeologists or Mangers, although an additional 5% were employed
as specialists. Obviously there is a question of the time it takes to adjust to the archaeology of a new
country, but even taken that into account these figures seem unreasonably low. Surprisingly only 10
immigrants are listed as teaching staff at the universities, a suspiciously small number, so perhaps
there was some issue with data collection. However it is hard not to see these figures and not to
reflect once again on the similarity between immigrant archaeologists and fruit pickers.
Internal migration is a massive part of contract archaeological culture in Ireland, as people relocate
frequently to maintain employment following one short term contract after another. My own
situation illustrates this rather well, I moved to Ireland from the UK in 2001 and subsequently lived
at 15 different addresses, in seven different towns, prior to my departure in 2012. I always found
this one of the hardest aspects of the job. Just as you get settled down somewhere with a nice place
to live and have developed a strong relationship with your colleagues it's time to pack up, move on
and start all over again somewhere new. In effect most field archaeologists live in a sort of vast and
dispersed mobile ghetto where everyone is away from home and social circles consist entirely of
other archaeologists in similar circumstances. In other professions you get paid a premium for
having to endure this sort of constant disruption, in contract archaeology you get the reverse. Not
being able to put down roots and never feeling secure is extremely wearying and I'm sure a very real
source of depression and anxiety. I know on several occasions I have moved somewhere new and
have simply been unable to deal with the situation, becoming withdrawn and isolated and never
establishing any bonds with the new crew. If you ever met me and found I was acting like a moody
arsehole this may well be the reason. Well, that's my excuse anyway and I'll be damned if I'm not
sticking to it!
We simply do not know how much archaeologists drink, but anecdotal evidence would suggest that
heavy drinking is for many an accepted part of the lifestyle. After a long miserable day spent knee
deep in fulacht juice it is no surprise that the next port of call for many archaeologists will be the
pub. I know lots of archaeologists don't drink beyond a sensible level, and I actually know a few who
are T-total, but personal experience suggests that towards the bottom of the career ladder alcohol
consumption often runs out of control. Full blown medically defined alcoholism is perhaps much
rarer than people often assume, but there are simply too many accounts of crazy alcohol fuelled
lifestyles for this area to continue to be ignored. Whilst it may be appropriate to link the heavy
drinking to possible depression and other work related malaise, the permissive nature of
archaeological excavations should not be overlooked. It's easier for archaeologists to turn up to work
with a killer hangover, or drunk and stinking of the booze they may have only stopped drinking a few
hours previously, than it is for people working in many other professions, in particular those
confined to a formal office environment. In such condition field staff can frequently find a discrete
place to weather the storm, a ditch well away from the site director or a big pit at the far end of the
site. Even a regular offender is likely to find their behaviour is covered by both their fellow diggers
and the on site management team, and formal disciplinary action is all but unheard of. Alcohol
related absenteeism is likewise often overlooked, and I suspect occurs at a level which would
frequently trigger formal disciplinary action in any sensible working environment.
Similarly the levels of drug use in Irish archaeology has never been formally addressed. In my
experience cannabis smoking is extremely common, although it would be impossible to offer any
opinion as to whether it is more popular among archaeologists than within the population as a
whole. I certainly suspect the amount of smoking dope at work is higher than would normally occur,
a large excavation simply offers too many opportunities for tokers to indulge in their passion. On the
other hand I suggest the use of other drugs is probably lower than might be expected. Mushrooms,
LSD, Speed and Ecstasy seem to only form a very minor part of the contract archaeologists diet.
Heroin and Crack don't appear to have any place in Irish archaeological culture. I only ever came
across a single former Junkie from Ireland working in archaeology, although I did know several more
who had moved to Ireland from elsewhere in the EU. In all cases they were clean during the time
they were employed. Cocaine use seems to have been fairly minimal, and certainly the great surge in
the popularity of cocaine in Ireland during the boom years seems to have largely passed over the
heads of the Irish archaeologists. In discussing this topic several people have pointed out to me that
this was almost certainly a result of financial constraints rather than a response to any ethical or
medical concerns about the drug.
The more serious mental illnesses seem to be absent from Irish archaeology, which is not surprising
as it is often impossible for people suffering from the more severe afflictions to maintain
employment. Many people will be aware of the unfortunate case of the young Scandinavian
archaeologist working on the Drogheda Bypass in 2001 who had a severe mental breakdown and
had to be sent home after the Gardai were forced to intervene. That case is useful as it firstly
illustrates the difference in consequences between severe mental illnesses and the less severe
forms, but also its prominent place in the unofficial mythology of Irish Archaeology highlights how
rare such serious incidences were.
One Interesting result of my unscientific survey was the suggestion that eating disorders may not
have been very common amongst archaeologists. If this were confirmed during a proper
investigation then, as with cocaine use, archaeologists would be seen to have bucked a national
trend. An absence of eating disorders does rather makes sense given the context; even a quick
glance at the typical excavation crew would highlight that physical appearance and body image are
not generally a high priority.
Depression and anxiety seem to be the two most commonly cited examples of mental illness that
archaeologists are vulnerable to, and these can be seen to be perfectly understandable responses to
the prevalent working conditions and terms of employment. It is simply not apparent whether the
instances of depression and anxiety were any more common within the archaeological sector than in
the general population. Personally I would be surprised if they were eventually found to occur at the
same rate as the wider population, contract archaeologists have every reason to become depressed
or suffer from anxiety. If the levels were ultimately found not to be higher it would point to a level of
resilience that would be worthy of recognition!
It is also worth discussing the level of resentment that can accumulate in an archaeologist over time.
This is something I am weary about myself, and I am increasingly conscious of how pissed off I get
about my situation. It does no one any good to be poisoned by bitterness. Year after year,
disappointment after disappointment, this stuff builds up piece by piece. Whilst I'm not sure it would
classify as a mental disorder, it is a reasonable and logical effect of people’s circumstance after all, it
is certainly not a pleasant thing to live with. I become most aware of this when I speak to former
colleagues who have left the profession. Some of the comments I have heard regarding their
archaeological careers have left me pretty speechless. I'll quote one example, from a Licensed
Director about the same age as myself who has moved on and will remain anonymous, "I have kept
away from archaeology as much as possible to keep myself from cutting my fucking wrists with
Entering the unknown
It will by now be apparent that there is much vital information that has simply not been gathered by
either of the previous surveys and sadly was not covered by the questionnaire issued this summer
for the next professional profiling project. Until this data can be gathered through a survey with a
proper methodology it is difficult to reach any firm conclusions. There are a number of additional
categories of information which I would like to propose as of being of interest and importance.
Rates of tobacco consumption are unknown, but with just 22% of the Irish population now smoking
it seems to me that the rate within the contract profession might be considerably higher than in the
wider community. There are all manner of links between mental health problems, alcohol and drug
misuse and tobacco consumption. This subject is far too complex to go into in detail here, but it can
be pointed out that whilst the relationships are not straight forward, high tobacco consumption
within a social group may be a symptom of numerous underlying problems. If contract
archaeologists were found to smoke at a higher rate than the national average then this would be a
strong indication that something may be seriously wrong within the contract archaeology
community, and this seems to be a promising area for future research.
The class background of archaeologists working in Ireland has never been addressed. I would suggest
that this is important information as I suspect that people from a traditional working class
background are underrepresented. This may have an effect on the academic framework of Irish
archaeology, as a universally middle class perspective may be limiting the scope of our
interpretations. More relevant to this discussion is the suspicion that middle class attitudes of
mistrust or disinterest in the Union movement have not been beneficial to our profession and have
led to an over reliance on a professional body that cannot or will not provide the type of support so
much of the workforce desperately wants. Crucial terms such as 'collective action' and 'withdrawal
of labour' are entirely absent from our discussions, and betray an overall unfamiliarity with the
history and tactics of the fight for fair terms of employment.
Other topics that could be covered by future surveys include the quality of diet and nutrition, levels
of exercise outside of work, amount of time archaeologists get to spend with their families (both
immediate and extended), access to health care and other services such as dentists and, in time at
least, life expectancy data. An extremely useful addition would be a baseline study of the health,
wellbeing and background of people at the very beginning of their archaeological careers, during the
first weeks of their first year at university.
Is it worth it?
Obviously if the situation is as bad as hinted at above we must question why anyone cares about
being an archaeologist in the first place? Why don't we all just walk away and get real jobs? But
working on a well-organised site, with a reasonable run of weather, proper equipment, a realistic
timescale, and a crew with the right skill-level remains an incredibly rewarding experience. The
endless lonely months of monitoring are quickly forgotten when the stars align and you finally get to
work on a decent excavation. The relaxed working environment can be very enjoyable, and the work
can be pleasingly physical without becoming a wearisome burden. It is well known that long distance
runners can form an addiction to the endorphins released to counter the pain caused by pounding
out knee destroying mile after mile. Is it too ridiculous to speculate that something similar might be
going on with trowelling? The excitement of always being on the verge of discovering a nice artefact
never leaves, and the thrill of seeing unknown sites emerge as the top soil is stripped away is
endlessly compelling. The sense of accomplishment of a job well done, or of testing your skills to the
limit is something many other lines of work would fail to replicate. Archaeologists should never stop
learning, and each site presents new methodological or technological problem to solve. There can be
a tremendous sense of camaraderie on site, and when the site is well run there is a pleasure to be
had in being a part of a large communal effort. For those with drink and drugs problems, or with
mental illnesses, an archaeological site can be a liberating place to work. The compassion with which
some senior staff treat crew members with obvious problems does them great credit. This
recuperative aspect of archaeological excavation is being explored increasingly in the UK, most
prominently with the high profile Operation Nightingale, but it has also been explored through the
Turbo Island project in Bristol, and other community based projects.
The question being asked here is not whether an individual project can be a rewarding experience, it
clearly can be. But after 10 or 15 years working in archaeology should we not be able to expect to
have more to show than a dodgy arm, a scarred and fatty liver, burnt out lungs, a maxed out
overdraft, a worrying credit card debt and a car on its way to the scrappy? The sense of communal
ownership that crews feel about their sites dissolves alarmingly fast at the end of an excavation,
when the site director and a few supervisors disappear off with the archive and the artefacts and
everyone else is left looking for a new job in another new town.
Improving prospects?
Contract archaeologists fall into an employment protection void. The impermanence of our
contracts denies us normal employment rights. As an industry we are too small and too awkward to
have been scooped up by the union movement. To date we have failed to successfully establish a
representational body that actually, or at least actively, cares about the ordinary worker in the
A comparison with the construction industry is illuminative. The Construction Industry Federation
agreements lay out a framework of internal training, career progression, agreed pay scales and
welfare requirements that read like pure Science Fiction or Communist Propaganda when compared
to what has been produce by the IAI. This disparity becomes all the more ridiculous once we
acknowledge that most archaeologists actually work in the construction industry but are not a trade
recognised in or covered by the CIF agreements. In 2011 the Construction Workers Health Trust
published a survey that examined a range of health issues that led to absenteeism and early
retirement among construction workers. Alongside a whole host of other medical problems a series
of mental health disorders were included, as was alcoholism. It seems then that the construction
industry has forged a path that contract archaeology could usefully follow.
Whilst it may be easy to make a few jokes about archaeologists being drunken dope smoking loons,
it does a serious disservice to the actual situation. Heavy drinking is not a laughing matter, it does
terrible damage to the body's internal organs and can be a source of all sorts of mental
unpleasantness. Dope smoking may be becoming ever more socially acceptable, but at the same
time it is becoming abundantly clear that it can cause serious psychosis and trigger latent mental
illnesses, including bi-polar disorders, especially given the strength of the new hybrid strains of
weed. Some people have even claimed that smoking cigarettes isn't terribly good for you. Living in a
state of heightened anxiety and stress for any extended length of time is seriously bad for your body.
This is most prominently seen in very poor urban areas, where even once other factors such as drug
use and violence are taken into account people are still found to be dying at an extraordinarily young
age from a mixture of seemingly unrelated disease. Although the medial causes are not fully
understood, there is a strong suspicion that the uniting factor may be that people are critically
affected by living at a continuous high level of stress, exacerbated by poor diet. One of the body’s
responses to stress is the release of the hormones Cortisol and Adrenalin. In small doses these
produce extremely useful effects, but when a person lives in a continually stressed state these
hormones begin to trigger all manner of harmful processes in the body that may be the root cause of
the range of seemingly unrelated diseases. Whilst it would be churlish to suggest that the life of an
Irish field archaeologist is comparable to the situation of the residents of the worst American and
European ghettos, there are some stark similarities, and the long term damage that might be being
caused to people's health needs to be considered with some urgency.
We need to move away from a situation where self-inflicted problems are part of a permissive way
of life. Staff should be called up when late or absent due to drinking, smokers should be subject to
limiting fag breaks to official break times and on site dope smoking should be eliminated.
Archaeological employers should expect a more professional attitude from the workforce and, in line
with the construction industry, could perhaps start enforcing random drink and drug tests. If we are
to be taken seriously by the construction industry then we also need to have a look at our collective
appearance; whilst individual expression is all well and good, we do ourselves no favours by turning
up to work looking like we've just come back from a wet year at Glastonbury.
At the same time we should be working towards a situation where some glaringly obvious and long
standing problems are finally resolved. Whilst anyone who entered archaeology because they
thought it would be a good way to earn money was demonstrably delusional, there should be no
reason why a workforce that is so highly qualified and skilled should be denied basic rewards for
their hard work that comparatively skilled people working in any other industry would expect. Home
ownership should be realistic and attainable, ownership of a decent reliable car should be universal,
and other niceties of life such as foreign holidays and a high quality diet should be a given. Financial
security in terms of savings accounts that actually has some savings in them and pension funds that
actually accumulate over time should become a normal state of affairs. The former is obviously the
responsibility of the Employee, but the Employer must provide high enough wages to make setting
some aside in a savings account feasible. Pensions are a difficult issue given the frequency with
which archaeologists change employers. The obvious solution is to halt that practice and develop
models where long term stable employment becomes much more common. In the absence of that
sort of reorganisation there is need to find a type of pension scheme which is in the control of the
employee and which employers will feel happy to contribute towards for the duration of short term
Working conditions also need to be altered. In particular the standards of onsite welfare facilities
needs to be dramatically improved, even enforcing the actual legal minimum standards would
represent a massive change in many instances. Hard wearing all weather clothes should be provided
by the company, for the comfort of the staff and in order to provide a more professional
appearance. The cheap stuff that disintegrates within minutes of being handed out is simply an
embarrassment to all involved. We all know it rains in Ireland, and archaeologists have to be
prepared to work in some pretty bad conditions. However at some point it simply becomes
counterproductive to remain on site, and this should be subject to a formal agreement. Such a
measure need not mean a loss of productivity. If welfare facilities are up to scratch and equipment
levels are appropriate then it is quite possible to begin post excavation processing whilst rained off
site. This is simply a matter of being properly organised in advance, and many companies have
successfully proved this is possible, unfortunately without it becoming an established norm.
An aspect that desperately needs to improve is career development. Hard work and competence
should be rewarded with assistance to move up the career ladder. Too often opportunities are
awarded through random chance, simple convenience or managerial laziness. Site supervisors are
often left unable to progress in their careers due to a lack of post excavation experience. Post
excavation work they have every right to expect to come to them is too frequently palmed off on
office based staff denying the site supervisors their route for progression. Similarly names are too
often left off of reports, leaving site staff unable to claim the credit they deserve. Small
improvements in these areas would make a tremendous difference to people’s sense of self-worth.
If a person has been doing a good job for a reasonable period, they should be rewarded with training
which would ultimately benefit both the employee and the employer. Archaeologists love to see
their work get published. Employers often fail to exploit the positive effects of assisting someone
getting one of their sites published in a magazine or journal. Any small cost incurred would no doubt
be repaid by the renewed enthusiasm of the staff. Instead of everything being left in grey literature
limbo, companies should pay for those extra couple of dates that are needed to progress with a
project, sort out the missing specialist report, or arrange for the drawings to be taken beyond multi-
coloured AutoCAD stage so they are actually useable.
As the recession took hold there was a lot of talk about transferrable skills, and I note this is a line
many Universities currently push as they attempt to lure in new students. It is my understanding
that around 95% or more of archaeology graduates in Ireland and Britain find work outside of
archaeology within a few years of finishing their degree. This is categorically not because of their
valuable transferable skills. Let's get this clear, transferrable skills are a myth. A list of transferable
skills is a list of things that you can sort of do but which other people are much better at doing and
are properly qualified in. In terms of Continuous Professional Development any training offered to
staff in subjects that could be placed onto these transferable skills lists should be undertaken
through externally organised courses and lead to recognisable qualifications that would mean the
newly acquired skills actually are transferrable. Until that principle is accepted then as a field
archaeologist your list of transferable skills reads as follows; you look like shit, you smell kind of
funky and you don't mind standing outside in the rain. Congratulations, you can now apply for a job
as a scarecrow.
Employers should spend a little more time thinking about how they can improve how their staff feel
about themselves and the company they work for. A small amount of time and money could provide
a re-invigorated work force that would easily repay that investment through improved productivity.
A smaller, better trained workforce, with a measure of contractual stability will feel that their
employer has invested in them and is likely to feel like they have an investment in the company in
return. I have no doubt that a crew of 25 such motivated individuals could do the same amount of
work as 40 archaeologists who don't give a toss and who all have hangovers. When the recession bit
archaeologists saw their earnings fall at an astonishing rate, far and above the sort of decreases
reported by the press for other sectors. Rather than using the wage bill as the place where savings
could be made to win competitively tendered contracts, it is possible that a serious efficiency drive
could have been successfully implemented instead. Obviously that would have seen an overall
reduction in the number of jobs, but at least those remaining in employment would have had a job
that was worth having and that was worth fighting for.
I am not one of the people that resents the major company owners. Nor do I worry about how they
sleep at night. It is my understanding that they sleep very well, on expensive mattresses under
luxurious sheets. And that's fine, they have worked hard and earned their money. They do a job I
would be quite incapable of. Left to my own devices I would surely blow the budget every time on
elaborate excavations, extensive post-excavation, and shiny publications. It is hard, however, not to
conclude that some of their behaviour over the years has been incredibly crass. Everyone involved
needs to realise that there is a very complicated reciprocal arrangement between employers and
their workforce. I hope to have highlighted some of the negative consequences of poor employer-
employee relations, where at the most extreme employers are needlessly affecting people's health
in quite severe ways. On the other hand poor behaviour by employees does little to promote the
cause of the workforce. If field archaeologists ever want to sit at the adults table they need to start
acting in a more professional manner and stop treating archaeology as an extended adolescence.
Should both parties start to make little steps in the right direction the result will be mutually
beneficial and over time we may end up with the profession we actually deserve. What I desperately
hope is that we can begin to resolve the situation and that the next generation of aspiring
archaeologists will not have to put up with the same bullshit that we have already had to put up with
for far too long.
Some Selected links
Construction Workers Health Trust
Operation Nightingale
Archaeology of Homeless People at Turbo Island
Stress and Poverty
Alcohol, Tobacco and Mental Health
A massive thanks to Robert Chapple for running this piece on his Blog and
for the use of his photographs of some fine looking members of the Irish Archaeological community.
Thanks too to David Connolly, the wily Bajr, who showed an early interest in this piece but was
unable to sneak it past his editor. Finally thanks to the people who took the time to answer my little
survey, I'll stand any of you a pint should our paths cross once again.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.