I'm a freelance archaeologist specialising in urban stratigraphic sequences, excavation methodologies, and the development of training materials for site staff. I'm also an archaeological illustrator. My company is called Urban Archaeology, and there's a blog about what I do: http://urban-archaeology.blogspot.co.uk/

If I told you, I’d have to kill you….

The Day of Archaeology is meant to be an opportunity to give the wider public an insight into the work of archaeologists -‘a life in the day of an archaeologist’. Most posts will be about the specific work the archaeologist is doing on the Day of Archaeology, but this one won’t be. I’m not allowed to tell you what I am digging, or where I am working. I’d like to say that if I told you I’d have to kill you, but the reality is I’d probably just be thrown off the project.

It is not that I am working on some top secret government excavation, it is simply that my client- who is developing the site- doesn’t want any uncontrolled publicity. So….instead I’m going to talk about some of the issues around publicity and openness in commercial archaeology.

Archaeology as public benefit

One clear justification for archaeological work is that it has a public benefit, and that people are interested in what we do- in fact several major contracting units are ‘educational charities’ as the carrying out and dissemination of archaeological work is considered to be of intrinsic benefit. Many commercial archaeologists spend a lot of their time trying to inform people of what exactly it is we are actually doing, after all there is little point in doing our work if people can’t hear about it. So it can seem a trifle odd that we spend a lot of our time palming off passers-by with vague statements, weasel words and (frankly) bullshit. We would (usually) love to tell you more, but often we simply aren’t allowed.


Why? Well, a lot of sites have confidentiality clauses written in, as do many employment contracts. You simply aren’t allowed to talk about what you are working on. Breaking the confidentiality clause can have serious repercussions- I know of several archaeologists who have been severely reprimanded for posting photos or comments on Facebook about the sites they work on, and of at least one archaeologist who has been sacked for tweeting about their job. I would bet that at least a few Day of Archaeology bloggers will be breaching their contracts by posting about their site!

Most archaeological work in the UK is done within the planning system and since planning applications are often locally very contentious ‘the archaeology’ can become a football for use by all sides. As someone who spends a lot of time working in development archaeology, but who is also facing the prospect of 140 new houses in the field behind my home, I can kind of see both sides. If there are any possible archaeological remains on a site then those can be used to lobby to stop development (although only development would usually see those remains excavated) and dry, factual archaeological statements can be twisted by both sides to support their argument. It’s a sad situation that sees archaeologists stuck in the middle and often not able to talk about what they have found. They can be attacked by vested interests on both sides, and often it is easier to keep quiet and not say anything at all.

In my personal view however, keeping quiet is usually not a good idea. People will always fill a vacuum with noise; better to have good, open communication to the locals- it is their heritage after all. Desk Based Assessments and Evaluation reports will usually be posted on the Planning Portal, so the question to clients is why not make the most out of what you are paying to have dug up?

Making it public

Several large commercial excavations have managed to deal with the issues of publicity and control in an adult way: producing real-time blogs, websites and updates throughout the life of the project. There are some really supportive clients who realise that archaeology can bring excellent publicity for their company -last year I worked on one such site for a local pub who were fantastic clients and who actively supported blogging about their site; they ended up with a short piece in The Sun and Current Archaeology, and lots of free publicity for their business, as well as the respect of many locals for funding what turned out to be a very important excavation.

Public talks, open days and displays can all get the information out to those who are interested; local societies are always interested in talks on local excavations. Displays of key finds are also a good way of telling a site’s story- although dusty cabinets in office foyers can feel a bit unloved, especially after a few years have passed, but they can work really well in getting museum finds into the wider world.

The Risks

Of course there can be some good reasons why you might want to keep shtum on a finding- you might need to do complex specialist tests like DNA or radio carbon, further background research or prepare a decent press release so you can tell the story better. There are also times when you don’t want rivals to steal your findings: excavation reports can take years to come out and there are some ‘academics’ who are known to use information heard ‘down the pub’ to try and beat the scoop by rushing out articles based on incomplete evidence.

There is also a risk of attracting nighthawks– thieves who use metal-detectors to rob sites of finds and disturb the archaeological deposits. I’m not sure whether publicity does attract significantly more nighthawks, but it is a risk. Sites with human remains are often considered similarly risky to publicise- on many cemetery sites you simply can’t lift all exposed burials every day, and there is a risk of people breaking in to steal skulls, as well as legal obligations to keep the remains screened from public view that can be problematic.

And partly some of the reticence is because we are a bit scarred by press reports that exaggerate and embellish the carefully crafted press statement, and home in on the irrelevant or the photogenic. This makes us want to control the media more, rather than realising that we just have to accept occasionally crap reporting and rely on the intelligence of the public to follow the links to the real story.

The Public Face of Archaeology

The public face of archaeology is vitally important: we carry out excavations because people are interested in what we do, and they are interested in us. If we don’t try and communicate and stay sealed off behind our hoardings then we shouldn’t expect the public to support or understand the work we do. Clients will often be reticent about opening up a wider public engagement and worry about the risk of bad publicity, but as long as the excavation is being done properly, and the reasons, methodology and findings are clearly communicated, then there is seldom a risk of this. Some clients will wait until after the site is finished before sending out a press release and this is perhaps a happy medium between full openness and secrecy. There are real risks, especially if you make unexpected discoveries, but in my view it is nearly always better to get good, factual information out first, rather than having to react to bad press.

The Cost

Of course the key question is cost, everything costs money, and clients are concerned about the cost of hoarding posters, viewing galleries, open days and the possible pressure to do further work beyond the brief. And our time as archaeologists is also dear -evenings giving lectures or weekend open days are not always paid, and we have a hard enough job meeting deadlines without the extra work of organising public engagement and writing blog posts in our spare time. But the cost is usually worth it for all parties -the archaeologists benefit from having to communicate their findings in a clear and understandable way, and can learn new skills at public events, ties are made with local communities, the public benefit from learning about their archaeology and heritage, and the clients generally get good publicity and a visible profile.

Sensible site publicity doesn’t need to be hard work, many sites post construction updates on their hoardings, and archaeology can easily be added into this. It doesn’t need to be academic level, peer-reviewed text, just a basic outline of what is known and what has been found. A few photos and some background text and that is enough for most people who are walking past the site, if you can link to a company website or a project blog then fantastic- you can use QR codes so passers-by can scan get more information on the spot.

So the next time an archaeologist spins you some vague bullshit through the Heras fence about ‘old stuff’, or is evasive and changes the subject when you ask if ‘you’ve found anything interesting’, just remember that they may actually be itching to tell you all about the ditch they’ve been digging, or the pottery they just found, they just aren’t allowed.

After the Fieldwork, the Hard Work: Post-Excavation

When I signed up to Day of Archaeology I thought I would be out on site, I didn’t know where –originally it looked like a big site in London, but that has been delayed, and then it seemed I’d be up the road on a site I evaluated a couple of years ago. As the recent heat wave began I became a bit apprehensive at the idea of digging 3m wide rubble-filled ditches in the baking heat, but that site slipped too…


jarkot temple nauli general

Temple and nauli at Seeitakura, Dailekh

So I am in my office finishing off the report for some recent fieldwork I did in west Nepal for the Central Himalaya Project. The project intended (amongst other aims) to record a sample of medieval stone monuments belonging to the Malla dynasty, evaluate the suitability of recording techniques including photogrammetry, and try and develop a database for future assessment and analysis. In total we recorded 58 sites, with 32 temples, assorted other sites and monuments, and over 80 architectural fragments. The fieldwork was hard work –up by 6am, lug all the gear to site, work through the day with a short break and back at 7pm for data entry and downloading. But the team was good, the weather was hot, the beer was ice cold and the scenery and locals were fantastic. It didn’t exactly feel like a ‘jolly’ as all my mates called it, but it was quite nice to be sipping single malt looking at the stars and glad there wasn’t a CSCS card for thousands of miles.

 waterpoint blackedNauli or waterpoint

The downside of any expedition is coming home, and with archaeology that doesn’t just mean returning to work, but writing up your results. Fieldwork somehow always seems more ‘fun’ than the grind of office-based Post-Ex, and there has been plenty of checking and cross-referencing of records, data-entry, and form-filling to do. The monument gazetteer seemed endless, the temple terminology impenetrable, and there were seemingly hundreds of drawings to check, ‘ink up’ in Corel-Draw and work out exactly what each stone fragment might represent.


‘Pillar Stones’, Dailekh Bazaar

In amongst the grind there are moments when it all comes together, managing to reconstruct a ‘lost’ temple from fragments of stone, the satisfaction of finding that your thoughts on temple architecture were echoed by published works, the realisation that common motifs and styles were being used across hundreds of miles and on a wide variety of monuments of both Hindu and Buddhist origin.

 Temples at Bhurti Mandir, Dailekh

Temples at Bhurti Mandir, Dailekh

The draft report is now complete, its 160 pages, 42,000 words, and nearly 100 illustrations. At times when writing it I wished I hadn’t recorded so many monuments, but now, having completed the work I just want to go back and record more!

In limbo: site slippage and juggling jobs

I was meant to be working on site today; at less than an hour’s drive up the road it would have made a pleasant change from working several hours’ drive away, but the site start date has slipped. It’s a fairly common occurrence and can happen for any number of reasons, sometimes down to delays in planning permission or due to other construction work, the client’s cash flow, or sometimes just the weather. Sometimes sites go into apparent hibernation and only resurface months or even years down the line, when suddenly you get a call or an email saying that ‘the footings are being pulled next week, where are you’!

On this occasion it is due to planning control and not yet having the Written Scheme of Investigation signed off –this is the document that says what we will do on site (and afterwards), and how we will dig and record it, and it has to be approved by the local Planning Archaeologist within the relevant local authority. Ours is still in limbo, so the site can’t start.

Managing the flow of work is never easy, and is part of the reason why site staff contracts are often short, and not extended until the last minute –no-one knows if the work will be there on Monday. When you are a sole trader it gets harder –you either need to be able to clone yourself to deal with a glut of work, or find something to fill the hours when a job slides. It is almost always outside your control, and sometimes there seems to be little that can be done to mitigate the problem.

My freelance work is luckily not restricted to site work –I’m also an illustrator, create training materials, do grant-funded research and I carry out post-excavation and publication work on various archaeological projects. All this work often has slightly less demanding deadlines than the fieldwork -it has to be done, but the deadline is usually ‘tomorrow’, rather than ‘yesterday’. So having a mix of different types of projects gives me the flexibility to be able to deal with last minute delays to sites. Picking up and putting down projects every few days isn’t the most efficient way of working, but  sometimes you have to do it: its a juggling act.

Day to day the juggling of current jobs is usually ok, and you do get the occasional day off to counterbalance the runs of 18 hour days required to meet deadlines. The bigger impact of slippage is in tendering for future work as it may take a month or longer for sites or PX programmes to go live, and all the time all your jobs are slipping, being brought forward, and morphing from one day watching briefs into three week excavations. The Year Planner starts to look like 4-D Tetris, and its often only at the last moment that it all comes together.

So today, instead of digging a late prehistoric/Roman and medieval site next to a pub in the Cotswolds, I am finalising the report on a project I did in Nepal earlier in the year…