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

Elizabeth Pearson

Worcestershire Historic Environment and Archaeology Service. Email:

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.


B&W Photo of people having dinner and drinking

I remember the 1998 TAG conference on which this 2015 TAG session was based, and the ensuing debates. The discussion about whether environmental archaeologists were overly concerned with nature over culture, and of churning out data but not engaging with theoretical approaches familiar to other archaeologists, still sticks in my mind. I've used the term 'environmental archaeology', simply because a suitable replacement has not appeared in the intervening 15 to 16 years. I have my problems with this label too, but this is not the focus of this article.

The main question for the 2015 conference was '… has anything changed?' My feeling is that for environmental archaeologists working in the commercial field, methodology has diversified, and sub-specialisms have grown (geoarchaeology, for instance), but engaging with new theoretical approaches has proven to be more difficult. There are many reasons why the working environment of the commercial sector isn't conducive to grappling with new theoretical developments. Does that mean we are back in the dark ages?

If that means we are on the back foot in one aspect, then we are on the front foot in others! That we are part of a sector that has been generating 'big data' for decades is an advantage. New approaches to theory need data, and we are getting much better at making a large body of data and grey literature easily accessible. It is a formidable research resource. The material archive is also growing in museums, through which methods and approaches to interpretation can be tested and developed.

The data bank from new fieldwork is continually being used to re-assess how we protect archaeological sites and excavate or investigate new ones. The difference is that this arises from a cohesive and funded approach. Much of this re-assessment has been carried out by those working in the commercial sector, with some joint working with the university sector and community groups.

However, if we are to investigate future sites in ways that address new concepts and furthers research, then a greater degree of joint working between those based in commercial archaeology and the broader research community would be valuable. Theory and data need to be co-dependent.

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