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Commercial and Research Archaeology

You might think that all types of excavation are the same, but there is a noticeable difference between research and commercial archaeology. Of course there's some overlap - and field schools will prepare you for some of what's to come in a job in commercial archaeology. 


When you think of an archaeologist digging, you may not realise that there are different reasons that the excavation is going ahead or that the archaeologist may be working or volunteering as a part of different organisations and companies.


There are many people who work in archaeology with feet in both the commercial and the academic / research world - so you don't need to pick one or the other.

Some organisations and projects have community digs, which is a great way for locals to get involved in archaeology. You don’t have to be studying archaeology, or have any experience, to get involved. These sites are usually run by community archaeologists, who organise events and outreach. A commercial company may also have a community archaeologist as part of their team, and will organise open days or community digs that they know locals will be interested in!

In the UK, there are around 3,000 archaeologists. Most of these archaeologists are working for commercial units. Commercial (or developer led) archaeology is the type of archaeologists you may see around building work. When construction or developments are going ahead, archaeologists will first find out what archaeology there is in the area, then work to record and understand it. Find out more about commercial archaeology here! 


Before archaeologists start working, they often want to have experience digging - and usually courses at university will ask for students to get experience digging on research digs. For some universities, students have to have completed a certain number of weeks of excavation (or other archaeology related work). 


A research dig is an excavation that has the goal of undertaking research. Sometimes these will be run by projects, or by university lecturers, or by both! On a research dig, archaeologists will often have to pay a fee to take part, to help keep the project running. The person running the research dig (the director) will usually have researched the area, and will know what they are expecting to find - for example, that could be an Iron Age hill fort, a Roman town or a medieval settlement.

Differences between commercial and research archaeology



Commercial excavations are paid for by the developer (the company who is planning to construct something on that land). Therefore, they want the excavation to be finished as quickly as possible, so that they can start building. Commercial excavations will usually last quite a short period of time, which has been agreed upon with the developer. 


Research digs can last for many many years. These excavations are often funded by grants and awards, universities or by the people who are taking part (by paying a fee). They do not have the same time limit on them, and therefore can continue so long as they have permission and money. The archaeologists on research digs are often students, and take place over the summer break. These “seasons” of excavations can happen every year, so participants can continue going back! These may last for a few weeks or months at a time.

Seasonal Digging


Research digs usually happen in the summer months - this is when both lecturers and students have their summer breaks and can travel to digs. A field season can last for several weeks or months, and the director will have goals that they want completed in that time. 


A commercial dig will continue until the excavation is completed. Because they have agreed a time period with the developer, they have to work continuously through this time. Whilst research digs often happen in the summer months (when the weather is better for digging and there’s less chance of being rained off!) commercial digs can happen throughout the whole year. This means that commercial archaeologists can sometimes have to work in the rain or snow!



Since commercial archaeology excavations usually have to be completed in a short amount of time, it is very important that archaeologists work very fast. This often gives archaeologists a surprise when they start in commercial jobs, after only being on research digs. Commercial archaeologists usually have goals with a certain number of features to dig in a day!

Stratigraphic vs Section Excavation


One of the biggest differences between commercial and research excavations is how they decide to excavate. This difference is mostly caused by the time available to dig. Since commercial units have to be quicker, they have different techniques to excavate an area. 


Stratigraphic excavation is when archaeologists excavate layer by layer (have a look at the glossary to remind yourself what stratigraphy is!). This can take longer to excavate an area, as each new layer will be recorded - photographed, drawn and documented. 


Most commonly, in commercial archaeology features will be sectioned. Imagine you have a round pit. Archaeologists will dig half of this pit out - this is called 50%. They will then study the section of the pit to understand what the stratigraphy is, and record everything in section. If there is a linear feature (like a long ditch), commercial archaeologists will dig sections (or slots) into it, instead of digging the entire feature. They will have to dig a certain amount of this feature - usually 10%. So if a linear feature is 50m long, they will dig 5 1m long slots into it. If archaeologists find any interesting deposits or artefacts, then they will often go on to completely excavate the feature (100%). 


In some cases, commercial archaeologists will excavate features stratigraphically - this is usually called digging in plan. Often on urban sites, it is more common to excavate layer by layer - because there are many more layers that have built up over the years.

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