Picking up the pieces

I’m a Project Archaeologist and one of the roles of a Project Archaeologist is to pick up the pieces when a colleague has to abandon a project.

For the last decade I have been acting as Project Archaeologist for the Irish Concrete Federation which represents the Irish Concrete and quarrying industry. The role of the Project Archaeologist is to manage the archaeological process on behalf of a client at all stages of the development process. Generally the function of the Project Archaeologist is to advise the client on all aspects of the potential cultural heritage impacts of a project from design stage, through site identification and acquisition, the planning process, environmental impact assessment, planning conditions, excavation, post excavation and publication. In Ireland the functions of the Project Archaeologist are often formally stated in a Code of Practice agreed between a development organisation and the State. Codes of Practice have been agreed with a number of organisations such as the National Roads Authority, the Railway Procurement Agency, and Bord Gais Eireann.

I like to think of the role of Project Archaeologist being similar to a film producer. The Project Archaeologist doesn’t direct the excavation but they are responsible for what comes before the excavation and for a lot of what comes after it. Like a film producer the Project Archaeologist can also be left to pick up the pieces if the Director can’t finish the project.

ICF Code of Practice

ICF Code of Practice

This year on my Day of Archaeology I’m driving to Co. Galway to collect the excavation archive from a colleague who is giving up archaeology and emigrating. Things were very different in 2008 when Michael, the man I am traveling to meet, won the contract to excavate the medieval Moated Site at Clonmelsh, Co. Carlow through competitive tender. The site at Clonmelsh was part of the manor of Grangeforth, which belonged to the Cistercian Abbey of Baltinglass that was founded by the King of Leinster Dermot Mac Murrough. The site had to be preserved by record in advance of a quarry extension, and all that remains of the site today is the excavation record which consists of the context and sample sheets, site notebooks, drawings, finds and samples.


Clonmelsh under excavation 2008

Clonmelsh under excavation in 2008

In 2008, at the end of the Celtic Tiger boom, there were over a thousand licensed excavations carried out in Ireland and this was already a considerable reduction on previous years. But with the subsequent collapse of the Irish economy the number of archaeological investigations has been reducing each year and many consultancies like Michael’s have failed. The ultimate objective of any archaeological excavation is to produce a published report and the failure of his consultancy placed this process in doubt. With the support of the developer I worked with Michael and encouraged him to submit a proposal to the developer for the continuation of the post-excavation project. The developer agreed to fund the work and a certain amount of progress was made. But the situation in Ireland has continued to deteriorate and Michael has found it impossible to support his family. As a result he has been forced to quit archaeology, put his house on the market, sell his furniture and his car, and take his children out of school and emigrate in search of a sustainable future. It’s sad to see a colleague forced to abandon their career and  leave their home and start again from scratch. I wish Michael well for the future. I’m afraid he is not the first Irish archaeologist forced to emigrate and he probably won’t be the last, as tens of thousands of other Irish people have been forced to leave in recent years. Now I’m left with the excavation archive wondering what to do next.


Clonmelsh site plan

Clonmelsh site plan

I’m writing about this because it is sadly one of my main tasks this week but also because it represents the current reality of archaeology in Ireland. Irish archaeology has been blighted by economic failure, imposed austerity and the failure of the commercial archaeology model. Those of us who are left are trying to pick up the pieces, but the loss of collective knowledge and experience will never be made good. Many excavation archives generated during the boom years now sit in store rooms with no one now to write them up and bring them to publication. The National Museum has been working to acquire the finds and archives generated by consultancies during the boom so the data won’t be lost but the task is monumental, and is being carried out at a time of reducing staff and resources. Most of this material will simply remain stored away for years to come. I’m reasonably familiar with the site at Clonmelsh so, with the support of the developer, I’m going to have a go at finishing the report, but  the data from so many other sites may never see the light of day.

I regularly write about archaeology and you read more of my blogs here.