Saturday 13 June 2009

Changing landscape of archaeology

WILL THE recession leave Irish archaeology in the past? Over a decade and a half we have witnessed an unprecedented rise in archaeological activity in Ireland as a result of the boom in construction. Several private archaeology firms have sprung up and commercial archaeology has become a lucrative business, writes BRIAN O'CONNELL.

Between 1993 and 2003, there was a 10-fold increase in the number of licences for archaeological excavations issued, the majority of them granted to private consultancy firms. It is estimated that by 2007, about 1,700 archaeologists were working in Ireland, whereas a decade earlier that number was 500.

The National Monuments Acts (1994 and 2004) include a requirement for archaeological investigations where major infrastructural projects were undertaken, thereby ensuring that archaeological activity accelerated in line with the infrastructural splurge.

But what have we learned from the spike in archaeological activity over the past 15 years that we didn’t already know? And what now for archaeologists and their employment prospects given the changed economic climate?

At an industrial estate in Little Island, outside Cork city, nestled among carbon-copy factory units, dozens of archaeologists are at work collating the findings from excavations and writing detailed reports.

Headland Archaeology is one of several private archaeology companies that have entered the Irish market in the past decade. On a tour of the premises, company director Damien Shiels says the firm currently has 45 employees. “Archaeology has been seriously damaged by the recession,” he says. “We’re managing to survive, but there has been a definite downturn.” Shiels studied archaeology at University College Cork, worked excavations around the country, and then spent time in the museum sector before making the move to commercial archaeology in 2006.

What is his team working on at the moment? “There are a lot of human remains from Athy, Co Kildare, in our specialist unit right now,” he says. “We’re looking after them for Kildare County Council.” In a separate building adjacent to the main offices, where a smaller team of archaeologists is sifting through skeletons and skulls, carefully cleaning and documenting each one. An archaeologist points out the signs of TB on a male ribcage, while another person appears to have died from a blunt force trauma to the head.

In other parts of the building, employees are working on comb remains and pottery fragments from a pit in Co Carlow, producing surveys on monuments and historic buildings in Cork, or sifting through trays of flint tools and axe heads. A graphics department prepares plans and drawings to illustrate the reports.

As well as trowel and shovel, the modern tools of the archaeologist include geophysics and GPS, which can estimate, through non-invasive survey methods, what features exist beneath the surface. Commercial archaeologists often make the case that before the economic boom individuals would target a specific site they wanted to investigate in a very ordered and planned manner. What the new roads network has essentially done is cut a swathe across the country so that, in theory, archaeologists are seeing a cross-section through the evidence.

SO, WHAT HAVE we learned? Large amounts of Bronze Age settlements have been found, yet even with the activity of the past 15 years, Iron Age settlements are still less common. “There are a lot of questions around the Iron Age,” says Shiels. “I think they are becoming more focused now due to the work of the last 20 years. Archaeology really got its act together in the last two decades, and I think the commercial environment helped that happen. If there is a big road scheme, it is reliant on the archaeology being looked after to proceed.”

One of the criticisms of the archaeological work in Ireland over the recent past is that too few of the finds have been communicated with the public. While the National Roads Authority (NRA) has held exhibitions and published finds regularly in an accessible manner, there is a feeling that due to their workloads, private companies have struggled to communicate the results of their work.

“It’s important that we continue to publish,” says Shiels. “We have to get our reports and finds out there, otherwise there is very little point in doing much of this. We need to be able to share our knowledge with people, both with other archaeologists and the general public, because there is a significant amount of money spent on archaeology and the public deserve to get something back out of it.”

Perhaps, now that infrastructural projects have slowed down, there will be time for more collating of information and taking stock of our archaeological material. There is a feeling in academic circles that much of the work over the past decade has been data collection, with little sharing of information or time to analyse fully the results and significance of multiple finds. This may have led to tensions between commercial and academic archaeology, but the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government believes that communication between the two aspects of the sector has improved. “There have been some differences apparent between the academic and other sectors of the archaeological profession on a number of occasions,” a spokesperson says. “In recent years, there has been an increasing amount of collaboration between academics and commercial archaeologists.”

A long-standing dispute at the site of the new M3 motorway near Tara, highlighted that not every arrangement between the NRA and the wider archaeology sector is successful. The building of the road, through the Tara Valley, unearthed the types of sensitivities and tensions that can emerge, when major infrastructural works are built in close proximity to areas of historical merit. “Lip service was paid to archaeology but archaeologists were used to destroy our heritage,” claimed Maggie Ronayne, a lecturer in the Department of Archaeology, NUI Galway, at a conference in 2008. At the time, Mary Deevy, senior archaeologist with the NRA said more than €30 million had been spent on archaeological research related to the Hill of Tara and that the route with the potential for least disturbance was chosen.

The Department of the Environment acknowledges better co-operation between commercial and academic archaeology could exist. In a statement, a spokesperson says: “From our perspective it has been increasingly obvious that a new legislative framework more suited to the needs of the 21st century is needed. The review of archaeological policy and practice put in place by the Minister [for the Environment, John Gormley] has as its first priority the drafting of new legislation and this is well advanced. From the perspective of the profession as a whole the need for more co-operation between sectors and for continued professional development is obvious, and the Institute of Archaeologists in Ireland has made progress with this.”

PROF MUIRIS O’SULLIVAN, senior lecturer in archeology in UCD, had the following to say about the need to communicate finds: “I think it will take another 10 years for the flow of information to emerge. The NRA has taken a lot of criticism, but they have been very good at communicating results on their website and through publication. But the fact remains, if I as an academic wanted to do something on some particular feature, it is difficult for me at the moment to nail down where the material might be. I wouldn’t know something was discovered last summer because of the scale of activity and lack of coherence in the structure.”

Finola O’Carroll, chairwoman of the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland, says the big worry for archaeology at present is the skills drain, as opportunities for work reduce. “A lot of people will migrate into other professions, but we are very worried about the skills that may be lost. There was a huge amount of professional skill gained during the last decade or so, such as well-honed excavation skills and accurate report writing. I hope now that the Government allows for upskilling programmes or that schemes are introduced to allow archaeologists to remain in work and that people can be maintained even on three-day weeks if necessary.”

But will future generations thank us for unearthing such large amounts of archaeological material at the taxpayer’s expense? Pat Cooke, a cultural policy lecturer at UCD, is uncertain. “If you assemble a collection of 500,000 deer bones and somewhere 40 years down the road, a guy writes a paragraph based on the material and concludes that, contrary to previous belief, prehistoric Cavan Man didn’t eat 835lb of meat, but instead ate 936lb, is the pay-off worth it?”

Cooke says we need to take care not to make assumptions future generations may not thank us for. “This generation is making assumptions but future generations, who will have to pick up the bill, may have different opinions. It’s like examining grandmother’s attic when she dies. Sometimes, there is a feeling, what was Granny doing collecting this stuff? Granny, of course, believed we all wanted the stuff and had to have it.”

Article written by Brian O'Connell.

© Irish Times

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