Change

At this time of year, I’d usually be at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference, getting my annual dose of theory. But this year I can’t make it, due to parenting commitments. I’m sorry to miss it, as it sounds like there have been some brilliant sessions. But I’m following from afar, and reflecting on a funny old year. In the Spring I finally got my knee put back together. As a finds archaeologist it amuses me that my left leg is now partly ceramic! I’ve had some time off, seen many good colleagues made redundant, and gone back to work part-time.

And last month I got a few more letters after my name: MCIfA. Member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists. I should be delighted. I am, in a way. It’s nice to be recognised by one’s peers, and I put a lot of work into the application. But it comes with a sense of responsibility, too.

It took a lot of work: collate a portfolio; compile a list of over 200 examples of my reports, papers, lectures, and resources; draw up a statement of competence; and update all my professional development records and plans. But I got it done. Almost immediately, I fell into a complete panic. I went through the CIfA yearbook. I looked at all the MCIfAs. Surely I didn’t belong in their company? And I saw all the people I respect and admire who aren’t at that grade. If they weren’t, what right did I have to presume that I belonged? I almost convinced myself that they would reject me, that I should apologise and withdraw my application.

They didn’t reject me. And it is satisfying that a group of people, who don’t know me, took a look at my work and thought I’d earned those letters.

But professionally, archaeological institutions have been mired in controversy lately. Earlier this year, ripples from across the Atlantic were widely discussed in UK archaeological circles. The Society for American Archaeology badly mishandled a situation in which an archaeologist banned from his university for sexual misconduct was permitted to attend their conference. And then, on this side of the pond, came a weekend in which members of the Society of Antiquaries voted against the ejection of a convicted abuser, and a young researcher received an award for her work on sexual harrassment to a soundtrack of laughter from the audience.

Given that our whole discipline is devoted to recognising change in patterns of human behaviour, we’re remarkably myopic when it comes to ourselves. I’ve seen a good many comment pieces on the working life of an archaeologist, but in truth no-one has hit the nail on the head for the British/Irish workforce quite so well as Stuart Rathbone in this article. It rang painfully true, and still does. Many great people, brilliant in many respects but curiously inept in others. Low rates of union membership and employees with little collective bargaining power. And a set of working conditions that bakes-in poor health and precarity, within which abuse can thrive.

It’s not just in commercial archaeology: museums, planning departments, HERs — anywhere you’ll find archaeologists you’ll find a maze of temporary posts, staff ‘acting-up’, recruitment freezes, overwork, and poor pay. There’s a perception among many of my generation that things are, at least, substantially better than they were 30 years ago. That may be true for some. But for the striking MOLA archaeologists, pay in real terms is 30% less than it was in 1989. In my own local authority, pay across most grades has fallen below 1989 levels once you account for inflation. And that’s before you even factor in the cost of housing, which has leapt by 69% above the rate of inflation in that period.

These situations create the spaces in which the rotten fruit can poison the barrel. Power inequalities and precarity lead to chronic under-reporting of abusive behaviour. If your contracts are measured in weeks, you don’t want to rock the boat. Perpetrators of abuse can move freely between organisations without much scrutiny. Academia was once the promised land, to which one might hope to escape to the promise of a healthy salary and a degree of permanence. But, as the striking university staff of the UCU can testify, conditions for the majority of the peripatetic early career academics who carry so much of the universities’ teaching load are every bit as hand-to-mouth as the rest of the sector.

It gladdens my heart to see many organisations investing in staff. There’s a new breed of small, dynamic outfits who recognise that the work they do can only ever be as good as the people they employ to do it; a workforce of archaeologists with security, stability and professional development will move mountains. But too many still view staff as at best a commodity, and at worst an expensive liability.

It feels, in short, like the time is ripe for a new generation to step up and lead. But to be brutally honest, it’s hard work just keeping afloat. Many of my generation of archaeologists have exerted so much just to tread water that the prospect of a battle for the soul of the profession is daunting. I don’t honestly know how long I can afford to stick around, especially with the prospect of workers’ rights joining the bonfire of the environmental protection regulations which underpin much of today’s archaeology sector. There seems little doubt that the government will pursue economic growth through a feast of deregulation. A rising tide raises all ships, the doctrine goes. But as I skirt the floodwaters of the River Severn on my way to work, it’s not much help if you’re holed below the waterline.

Swans on the swollen Severn

Swans on the swollen Severn

But while I’m here, and now I have those letters after my name, I’ve got a responsibility to do what I can to set the tone and set the course for those that come after. There are many who view organisations like CIfA as too compromised, and will not join. That’s a position I respect. But my view is that the culture of an organisation is set by its membership, and if change is to take root, it has to be championed from within.

Join your union. And if you’re one of those people to whom I look up, and you’ve been putting off your CIfA paperwork, dust it off over Christmas. I don’t know how much longer any of us have got in this game, but while we’re here, let’s look out for each other.

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