Commercial Environmental Archaeology: are we back in the dark ages or is environmental archaeology a potential agent of change?

Elizabeth Pearson

Cite this as: Pearson, E. 2019 Commercial Environmental Archaeology: are we back in the dark ages or is environmental archaeology a potential agent of change?, Internet Archaeology 53.

1. Introduction

Terry O'Connor coined the phrase 'humming with cross-fire and short on cover' (O'Connor 2001, 40), at the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference at Birmingham in 1998: the phrase could be used to describe one debate during the proceedings, where conflicting views were expressed. There were those who said environmental archaeologists/palaeoecologists (and other terms) were too data-driven or data-constrained, hence the accusation 'Environmental archaeologists: rich on data, still short on theory and epistemology'. This was posed as a question for re-consideration in the TAG 2015 session proposal. Some argued that the approach of theoretical archaeologists was too 'pie in the sky'; they were concerned with aspects of past life that we couldn't possibly hope to see in the data. Has anything changed? Hopefully, the contributions presented at the TAG conference in Bradford in 2015 and those that are now presented here show that approaches have changed somewhat, and there is now a more diverse approach to interpreting data. For example, social zooarchaeology may be defined as a new approach, as discussed by Russell (2012) and Sykes (2014). I say 'we', but many of the articles here are presented by university-based researchers: what about reports written by environmental archaeologists working in the commercial sector?

I'd suggest that the style and approach seen in discussion sections of most environmental reports produced for commercial excavations are still quite similar to those written in 1998. What has changed is that certain sub-disciplines, such as geoarchaeology and palynology, in particular, have gained ground, and to some degree alongside others such as chemical residues, isotope analyses and archaeomagnetic dating. Scientific archaeology has become more prominent in the brief that archaeological contractors are given, and several comprehensive Regional Research Frameworks (which include sections on Environmental Archaeology) have emerged since the 1998 conference. Examples include the University of Leicester (2017), West Midlands Regional Research Framework (2016), Hurst (2017), and Garwood (2007) for the Midlands. So, change is slow, but we do take on and adopt more diverse methodologies.

However, theoretical terms, such as 'epistemology' or 'Ingoldian' theory, tend to be absent and are generally used where the evidence cannot be readily explained by everyday subsistence activities. At Clifton Quarry in south Worcestershire, for example, large quantities of charred cereal grain in a pit of late Neolithic date, of atypical composition, were discussed in terms of 'structured deposition', along with artefactual remains (Mann and Jackson 2018). So, are we still being conservative in the way that we interpret data?

I do not wish to draw distinctions between commercial archaeology and academic archaeology to reinforce divisions. Rather, it is meant to be helpful, and is building on a topic discussed as part of a collaborative paper presented by Gill Campbell at the 2014 European Environmental Archaeology conference in Istanbul: 'Changing perspectives: exploring ways and means of collaborating in environmental archaeology' (Campbell et al. 2018). This was a paper that explored perspectives from environmental archaeologists working in different sectors (commercial archaeology, academic, English Heritage and freelance specialists) and looked at what their 'drivers' were (that is, what dictated their working lives?). We all agreed that it helped to understand these pressures in order to work better together.

One question briefly touched upon during a meeting, aimed at collaborative input into this article (Campbell et al. 2018), was whether environmental archaeology and theoretical archaeology were still like 'oil and water'. It was said that many working in commercial archaeology may feel they have so little time at work to engage in theory in depth and that theoretical language is often impenetrable. How much is the time factor a self-imposed mindset or are there other issues?

2. Commercial Archaeology and Research

Environmental archaeologists working in all sectors of archaeology are engaged in research, but the way in which we contribute and develop new approaches to research differs. The focus on types of research (for instance, practical and methodological versus theoretical) also varies between sectors. It could also be said that many of the comments below apply across the archaeological profession and not just to specialists. Below I list some of the other reasons why the working environment of the commercial sector may not be conducive to grappling with new approaches to research:

Archaeological unit-based workers

Freelance workers

For the purpose of project budgets it is assumed that we more or less know it all, and there's little wriggle room for research in the office. So, how do we push the boundaries of interpretation? Discussions do happen, but often it is in out-of-work hours that our minds work more expansively, and I think we all do this. We carry on our analyses in the pub! We discuss journal articles and excavation reports that we have read and put the world to rights. Therefore, to improve our interpretation of data we are to a large degree dependent on the university sector to push the boundaries, but our own interests and life experiences can come into play and broaden our perspective.

We can all probably relate to the 'brain storming in the pub' approach. In one case, this has developed into a more organised affair, with regular meetings in a pub and organised talks, sometimes referred to as 'Drinking Symposia' (Figure 1). This is the 100 Symposium, part of L-P Archaeology's 100 Minories project in London (L-P: Archaeology 2016).

Figure 1
Figure 1: From the ancient Greek 'drinking party' symposia to your modern-day research (and drinking) symposia, part of the 100 Minories project. © Copyright L-P: Archaeology 2014-2015 | CC BY 4.0

Whichever your sector, you will no doubt use academic research combined with some out-of-work brain-storming. However, the point I would like to make about working in the commercial sector is that pushing the boundaries of interpretation tends be very individualised, and not a coherent and funded approach. It is not written into our job description.

If our efforts in this capacity are patchy, are we on the back foot? I would like to leave that open to debate, but offer the suggestion that attention to new approaches to theory and interpretation could be a legitimate part of our Continued Professional Development (CPD), and should feature in briefs for archaeological projects and updated research frameworks.

If it seems that I am painting a grim picture, then there is always another side to the coin: we are part of a sector that has been generating 'big data' for decades. It is a natural product of commercial archaeology.

3. Commercial Archaeology, Big Data and Museum Archives

Figure 2
Figure 2: From planning application to museum archive

In 2004 Worcestershire County Council and the University of Worcester requested planning permission to construct The Hive, a building that now houses the city library, University library, the county archives and the archaeology service. The Worcester City archaeologist (a planning archaeologist) routinely scans requests for planning applications, and was aware that this development would have an impact on significant archaeology. This was based on information held in the Worcester City Historic Environment Record (HER), the equivalent of which is available for most other cities, boroughs, counties or other administrative areas. Based on previous knowledge, the development would impact upon an important area for Roman archaeology, revealed by excavations at the adjacent former Worcester Royal Infirmary, now a University of Worcester campus (Sworn et al. 2016), and a nearby site at Newport Street, Worcester (Davenport 2015), now the Point Severn development. It would also affect the medieval and post-medieval city ditch and city wall.

The city archaeologist then provided the brief for the work for the various stages of investigation, culminating in excavation between 2008 and 2011. Most work now operates under competitive tendering so it is quite a tightly controlled business. In most cases a finite budget has to be agreed before a single scoop of the machine bucket has been made. Costs are based on prediction of the archaeology in the ground. It is impossible to excavate 100% of the development area, and it is rarely possible to make a detailed analysis of all the site records and physical remains recovered (both artefacts and ecofacts). Priorities have to be made, and the resulting products of this process are the archaeological report (Bradley et al. 2018) and the material archive (Figure 2).

The project report is submitted to the HER and in turn, therefore, informs future projects. The HER is critical in determining future work, and in most cases is a far more sophisticated tool than it was in 1998, if updated and used to its full potential. The material archive is offered to the local museum.

As the wheel keeps turning, the data and material archive is building up year after year, and it now forms a formidable resource. It is one that is available to all: professional archaeologists and the public. So who's using it, and to what purpose? Are we making the best of it?

This is the 'big data' and 'big stuff'; there are bibliographies and databases online specific to environmental archaeology such as the Environmental Archaeology Bibliography (EAB) and the Archaeobotanical Computer Database (ABCD), but these mainly hold data concerning published reports and are both out of date. The problem has been that only a small percentage of archaeological reports are formally published in a traditional paper form, and therefore relatively easily accessed, though digital reports/articles and datasets have been appearing for a while. It leaves a cloud of grey literature: the unpublished archive reports.

3.1 The research resource: grey literature and shared data

Since 1998 much progress has been made to make this resource accessible in the UK. The examples below are relevant for the UK, but archaeological databases are also available that hold European and worldwide data.

Grey literature has always been available within HERs. It is usually free to researchers, and available for a fee for commercial projects. Making it available online at the click of a button has raised its profile. There are various portals where it is available, for instance the Archaeological Data Service Library of Unpublished Fieldwork Reports, otherwise known as the Grey Literature Library or GLL. Here, contractors upload their own reports (through OASIS), or through Heritage Gateway, where national datasets and HERs can upload data, thereby making it accessible.

Datasets (site databases and GIS data) are also available from the Archaeology Data Service (ADS). For example, the English Heritage (now Historic England) Silbury Hill database (English Heritage 2014) is available on ADS, with a small amount of data on environmental archaeology, and the GIS data for the Where Rivers Meet project (University of Birmingham 2012), which has a strong geoarchaeology focus, is also available. For the latter, the introduction to the GIS states that [the project] 'derived from the English Heritage funded “Big Data” project; a programme for investigating preservation (storage methods), reuse (usability) and dissemination (delivery mechanism) strategies for exceptionally large data files'. This represents a step forward in accessibility of specialist data, but there are a limited number of these datasets. There are also still issues with comprehensiveness and 'sign-posting' through the data cloud, and particularly with being able to extract the environmental archaeology data. For example, few contributors to the ADS Grey Literature Library indicate that sections on, for example, plant remains or animal bones are included in the report, which makes searching for these data difficult. A new version of the OASIS portal, where specialist contributors can enter data, will, hopefully, make it easier for this information to be included in a useful way. This article, however, will not address that problem here. We need to ask, who is looking at the data cloud overall, and why? Are we just mindlessly adding data?

3.2 The research resource: funding

It was stated above that pushing the boundaries of interpretation within the sphere of commercial archaeology is difficult, but we are able to access research funds. Nevertheless, the emphasis of the funding bodies that commercial archaeologists use is different from those that universities employ. It could be said that the emphasis of funding that commercial archaeologists use focuses largely on re-assessing data with the aim of improving the way in which archaeology is investigated. The Aggregate Levy Sustainability Fund (ALSF), administered through Heritage England, was typically used to achieve this aim. For instance, improving management of archaeology on river gravel terraces has been a focus over the past few years, resulting in projects such as the ALSF-funded projects Where Rivers Meet, and Worcestershire Aggregate Resource Assessment (Worcestershire Historic Environment and Archaeology Service/Cotswold Archaeology 2007). Both are found on ADS. The former includes GIS data as well as project reports. Some projects involve creating predictive tools. One of my own, Toolkit for Rapid Assessment of Small Wetland Sites (Pearson 2014), is a tool for identifying and assessing the archaeological potential of small wetlands using GIS and the help of volunteers for ground-truthing. This type of re-analysis has been undertaken mostly by environmental archaeologists based in commercial archaeology, with some joint working with university teams. All this research feeds back into HERs and the briefs for future work.

There have been some university-led projects, collaborating with the commercial sector.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Roman Rural Settlement Project. All records for England and Wales (University of Reading and Archaeology Data Service)

Two examples include The Roman Rural Settlement Project, which covers England and now extends into Wales (Figure 3). It is a large-scale data-mining project, mainly of data from developer-funded excavations, now available on ADS as a 'queryable' database (Allen et al. 2016). More specific is the Plos Pathogens project: Distinct Clones of Yersinia Pestis Caused the Black Death which used archived human remains to investigate the pathogen that transmitted Black Death and the pathways through which it travelled across Europe (Haensch et al. 2010), utilising for example, archived bones from a mass burial pit at Hereford Cathedral (Figure 4).

Figure 4
Figure 4: Geographical position of the five archaeological sites investigated. Green dots indicate the sites. Also indicated are two likely independent infection routes (black and red dotted arrows) for the spread of the Black Death (1347-1353) after Benedictow From Haensch et al. 2010

3.3 The research resource: Museums — what's going in, what's going out?

Storing archives in museums is becoming steadily more difficult. We are stuffing them full to the gunnels year after year, mostly with material from developer-funded excavations and a small, but growing, archive from community projects (Figure 5). However, a project aimed at assessing the value of community-generated research showed that of the 619 responses to a survey sent out to research groups, only 24% of archives generated by community group projects are being deposited with museums (Hedge and Nash 2016). There is, therefore, a continuous stream of material generated by developer-funded projects being archived in museums, but material generated by community projects is under-represented. The use made of the museum archives is also an important issue. Who's dusting off the boxes and lifting the lids? It is questionable. Museum archives are very under-used. There are only a small number of research projects, like those described above, which mine the resource, and some moves to make use of it for community projects.

Figure 5
Figure 5: Museum stores — what's going, what's coming out?

The 'open' sign with a question mark hanging on the museum door has been added to Figure 5, as some museums are not accepting any more material because they are either full or too poorly resourced with staff. Museum stores need to be used to justify keeping them open.

3.3.1 Lifting the box lid

The many fieldwork interventions, from small evaluations and watching briefs to large excavations, result in a considerable quantity of material being deposited in archives. It has either not been looked at (at all!) or has received only brief analysis because budgets are limited and certain priorities at post-excavation have to be established. Moreover, only one type of analysis may have been carried out on a category of material, but other researchers may see potential in the application of different methods. This material is not necessarily unworthy of analysis, and whether it may have potential depends on the question being asked. Suggestions for using the contents of the boxes we keep sending to museums could be as follows:

Researchers in the UK now need to demonstrate the impact of their research to society. These museum archives may provide a means for researchers to make an impact on British archaeological research, and society at large, by building on the results of commercial excavation. At the same time, this provides the physical evidence with which theories may be tested.

However, because space in museums or archive stores is short and funding difficult to secure, there is a greater impetus to rationalise the materials deposited. The deposition of the whole archive is being increasingly questioned. A case for deposition for all parts of the archive may soon have to be made, and it is likely that unless museums receive requests for its use, the right material for a particular research project may not make it to a museum. The worst-case scenario is that the museums or stores may not stay open.

Research institutions may have some reservations about using data and archived material that has not been recovered under their control, according to their own methods and to standards generally accepted by university researchers (these vary according to the material or theme being studied). However, if some researchers feel that the material has not been studied in depth to the degree that they are used to seeing, that it is probably because the data and archive have been recovered under very different circumstances to that recovered from a research-led project. In most cases an appreciable amount of data and material has been recovered, frequently with a limited budget and timescale available. However, it can still have value if a flexible approach is used and measures taken to improve the resource for future use. A cross-sector approach is needed to better understand how best to utilise and maintain the resource (Figure 6). The culmination of the Roman Rural Settlement Project has resulted in publication of proceedings of a meeting held in Reading in September 2016 on Developer-funded Roman Archaeology in Britain - Approaches to the Investigation, Analysis and Dissemination of Work on Roman Rural Settlement in Britain, which does much to open up the debate.

Figure 6
Figure 6: Potential for cross-sector working in archaeology

4. Conclusions

I started by saying that since the 1998 TAG conference proceedings were published in 2001 (Albarella 2001), environmental archaeology in the commercial sector in the UK has seen various changes in methodological approaches. Comprehensive regional research frameworks have been drawn up for England and Wales and funding invested in strategic projects, which review how the archaeological resource should be managed within the planning system and through countryside management. This is a UK-focused view, but those working in other countries where developer-led archaeology takes place may have seen similar changes. Some of these changes reflect the broader ones seen in the research carried out by various specialists, often working in tandem with other university-based archaeologists.

Environmental archaeologists working on developer-funded projects often find it difficult to afford much time for in-depth interpretation of their data, but improvement could be made through CPD and also by engagement in cross-sector projects. Likewise, university-based archaeologists could have much to gain, as data and physical material that has widespread coverage over a landscape can be hard to accumulate through research-funded projects alone, and data in abundance are needed to advance theoretical approaches.

Returning to the question of: '… are we mindlessly adding data from developer-funded sites to the data cloud?', research frameworks and strategic projects help to guide the quality and direction of new work, but these need to be updated. Updating the research frameworks via a 'list of burning questions' at regular intervals is recommended in Campbell et al. (2018) for those working at the 'coal-face' of developer-funded archaeology. Moreover, engaging those working in university-based archaeology and those involved in community archaeology, who are likely to have a different mind-set (but recognising that some move between different sectors), would be valuable. Overall, cross-sector working would have benefits for all, making the archaeological resource more democratic, and would be the best strategy for advancing the value of archaeology in general.


Cite this as: Pearson, E. 2019 Commercial Environmental Archaeology: are we back in the dark ages or is environmental archaeology a potential agent of change?, Internet Archaeology 53.

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