A SMALL INTRO TO COMMERCIAL ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE UK
By Emily Johnston
Commercial archaeology has many different names in the UK - you may also hear it being called applied archaeology, developer-led archaeology, contract archaeology - but all these names refer to the same job. This type of archaeology is probably the type of archaeology that you think of when you hear people say they’re archaeologists, because it is where most diggers in the UK will work.
Before any building work happens – like a new block of flats, a new road or a shopping centre are being built in an area – archaeologists must understand whether there is any archaeology that will be hit by the construction, and if there is, then we excavate and record it.
There are lots of different tasks that need to be carried out in commercial archaeology, before archaeologists start digging – and lots of these roles will be shared in their own posts for you to find out more about. First, when a company wants to build something on a site, whether that’s in a city (urban) or in the countryside, archaeologists will survey the area. There are lots of different ways that archaeologists can survey areas. Some of this will be done by looking at maps, historical records and photographs of the area, to understand whether there’s a likelihood that there’s any archaeology there. Archaeologists will also evaluate the area for archaeology through ‘field-walking’, which is when they walk in set grids across an area, collecting and recording any artefacts that they find. Geophysical surveys which give readings of any structures or changes in soil underground, without actually digging the ground.
If archaeologists believe that there is archaeology under the surface, then there are many tasks for archaeologists to do. Archaeologists will often create trial trenches in order to understand if any archaeology survives. Often large machines are used in commercial archaeology to remove the top layer of soil, and archaeologists will watch the machines to make sure that the machine stops digging if there are signs of archaeology.
Digging is only one part of the commercial archaeology process. Sometimes archaeologists can be called in when a development unexpectedly hits archaeology. When archaeologists are involved in developments, they need to work quickly, because there are tight deadlines to meet. Working as a commercial archaeologist can be exciting – the archaeology can be very interesting and varied, from Prehistoric sites with round houses and lithic artefacts, to urban sites where you’re excavating Victorian roads, and even sites where you’ll be excavating cemeteries and graves.
Digging in Britain can often be cold, because construction continues throughout the year, you can find yourself digging through layers of ice before hitting soil – like I was the other day! Depending on the type of soil at the site, sometimes very little survives. For example, in Scotland the soil is very acidic, meaning that lots of organic material decomposes. We can often be digging negative features, which means following the outline of cuts, by looking at the different colours, consistency and composition of soils. And often you’ll only find very small fragments of artefacts in these features.
Working as an archaeologist is a physically demanding role – you’re often expected to work long days outside, in all weathers, and you’ll be digging with shovels and mattocks as well as your trowel. If you’re thinking about being an archaeologist, you’ll have to be fit – but there are many different ways of being fit - its not only being strong, often its being able to continue the same types of tasks throughout the whole day eg being able to dig a large slot for the day. The world of archaeology is inclusive and if you have any physical disabilities then don’t be put off, as many commercial units will still want to work with you.
The world of commercial archaeology is very exciting. There are lots of different sites to be involved in, and you can often find yourself moving around different projects, and sometimes working on ‘away’ work where you’ll be living and working with fellow archaeologists on a job.
If you’re thinking about making a career as a digger then you can prepare yourself by getting as much experience as possible. Working on a variety of sites in the UK will help you when it comes time for applying to jobs.
Emily Johnston is currently working as commercial archaeologist in Scotland. She's also interested in archaeology & heritage outreach and is the founder of this website.
She can be found on her personal twitter account @emilyrjohnston or through any of the links on this page!
A great resource for commercial archaeology in the UK is BAJR - British Archaeological Jobs & Resources. Not only is this a great place to ask questions and network, but there are many opportunities shared, and advice given for when you're looking to start your career in archaeology. Bajr has also created a skills passport, which you can have ticked off when you have been trained in different archaeological techniques. The sooner you can fill this up and show that you're a skilled and experienced archaeologist the better!