“So it Begins” A Personal View of UK Archaeology


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By Reb Ellis

Pottery, bones and (let’s face it, we’ve all had this,) dinosaurs! 

Murder mysteries, esoteric cults, folk wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches, weirdos with whips, all looking at artefacts from all over the world – archaeology as a practice and those who work and volunteer within it conjure a multitude of images which vary massively. 

But as archaeologists, what do we and what does our profession do for society beyond perseveration and investigation – apart from slow down planning, cost money and stock museums? 

Well, we do a hell of a lot, and we are capable of a hell of a lot more, in the view of this says outspoken PhD student Reb Ellis in thePipeLine’s latest Big Read.

Murder mysteries, esoteric cults, folk wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches, weirdos with whips, all looking at artefacts from all over the world,

It was in response to this soup of cultural references that I unknowingly laid the foundations of this article in a twitter thread on the Twitter profile @MattockInHand

[You will know you have found the right one when you see the animation of King Théoden of Rohan poised on the battlements of Helms Deep, awaiting the advance of the orc armies.  The rain has begun to pour, and he utters the immortal words: ‘So it begins’.]

In truth citing King Thèodan was meant with a good deal of sarcasm given the length of the tweet at the time, but now if feels eerily more appropriate. With departmental closures and political machinations firmly placing us as archaeologists under the thumb of forces we don’t control, and quite frankly squeezing out what little remaining hope some of us have of a decent career, trying to remember why some of us entered this profession in the first place is getting harder. 

We feel hemmed in as a core few, making a stand against many armies with various purposes, very much outgunned.  At the time, we were without the knowledge of reinforcements from a metaphorical Gondor or Gandalf riding to our rescue, although now the ‘Dig for Archaeology’ campaign has brought us the first glimmers of much needed hope on the horizon. 

So, with the aim of celebrating our wonderful profession, and with the wish to spark hope, and perhaps along the way inspire others to be brave enough to help move the blocks to positive change, here is that thread turned into a (hopefully) more coherent piece.  As the title suggests, it is a bit of a long read, so now is the time to grab a cuppa. 

Let’s start with those practical elements of what we actually do as archaeologists.


“First and foremost, our role is within planning”

Our jobs are incredibly varied. First and foremost, our role is within planning – it is currently a legal requirement in the UK that any new development is subject to archaeological evaluation under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).  This may lead to nothing more than a watching brief (watching foundations being excavated to make sure nothing surprising and unexpected turns up; we cannot predict everything) or it may result in a full excavation. 

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How much archaeology turns up through these commercial excavations?  Most of it, in fact.

Certainly there is too much to summarise here, but in recent years just in my own county we have seen chariot burials in the East Riding, and the Roman period buildings near Scarborough which may be unique in the Roman Empire.  The similarly unique fitting from Wimpole in Cambridgeshire would have remained in the ground if not for the commercial archaeological unit of professionals working with local metal detectorists – and all these sites are not just important in themselves. They also have a huge impact on understanding the landscapes in which they are situated – a ripple effect of knowledge and reinterpretation. But when it came to projects such as the Olympic Park and the current work being undertaken in the path of HS2, another specific role of archaeologists was brought to light. 

Without the NPPF and other ethically based legislation, we have to ask what would have happened to the remains of tens of thousands of people which had to be moved to make way for this new infrastructure? Who would have recovered them, and how?

Our role can make us caretakers of the dead quite literally, something the human species has, for unknown reasons, considered important for at least 40,000 years. Even if we as a species do not remember how or why we often have an instinct to care for our dead, it is archaeology which facilitates this now more than ever. As archaeologists we ensure that the long dead are treated with dignity. 

Other practical considerations of archaeology pertain to our countryside. 

Green and pleasant lands, Gods Own County, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (ANOBs) – archaeology is part of these fairy tale landscapes which are famous emblems of Britain all over the world.  From prehistoric burial monuments to Roman forts and medieval castles to Victorian Mills, it is not just ecology and natural environment preserved here. These places are important to our identity and they seem to provide a link to the past however conserved, recreated, or even reimagined their appearance is. 


Whether it is the memories of playing in and around these landscapes as children, or the feeling of inherent belonging, archaeologists and historians help preserve those elements which are important to so many of us. 

How they are important, however, differs depending on links which can be both personal and communal.  It is usually a balancing act for archaeologists and others working within these landscapes, and often it is just not possible to be able to please everyone. Our work, therefore, has complex social aspects for the living, let alone representing the perhaps even more complex and even unknowable social organisations of the long dead.

There is also a much smaller and intense role for archaeology in Britain, but one which is by no means any less important.  It is that of the forensic archaeologists who, as the famous TV series has it, gives voice to a silent witness.

In the recovery of relatively recently buried human remains, amongst other roles at a suspected crime scene, it is forensic archaeology which provides the skills and commands the processes, which have developed over a century of excavation practice, and which ensure not a single piece of evidence is missed.

The highly detailed work is non-stop, painstaking and extremely highly pressured.  It has to be so because professional witness testimonies are vital in the courts and must stand up to cross examination.  Using geophysics, forensic archaeologists can also help in the search to find long missing victims, a particularly poignant reminder of which is was in the news recently with the search for another of Fred West’s suspected victims in Gloucestershire.  That search was in the end abortive, but we have no fear of finding evidence to also prove a negative.

But the inevitable truth is that whether we actively embrace historical narratives or actively work against them, like it or not narratives derived from archaeology are a defining factor in our lives from which we cannot escape. Therefore, archaeologists will always be needed within society.

So when there are few new archaeologists rising through the ranks, where funding is cut and workloads doubled in the surviving positions, and where academic departments in our universities are forced to downsize, or close, because archaeology is not as lucrative for universities as other subjects, we face an increasing problem of not enough skilled archaeologists to fill prescribed roles.  The effects of this vary, and some are already very much seen and felt. 


The vital and world-renowned Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is underfunded, and some metal detectorists report a gap of years before finds are returned to them after recording.  One reason for this is that there simply aren’t enough Finds Liaison Officers (FLO’s) to deal with these backlogs, because there isn’t the money to expand the scheme despite the record rise in metal detecting.

Meanwhile, unhealthy workloads out in the commercial sector born of increased development, are often combined with pitifully low pay compared with other graduate professions, and sometimes poor working conditions on sites (particularly for women), leading some folk to leave the profession entirely. 

This results in archaeological jobs of various kinds taking longer to complete, which frustrates metal detectorists, developers, community archaeology leaders and causes even more stress on the system in a continual and problematic cycle.

Not only does this create a toll on archaeologists and those within fields supporting archaeology, but it risks the archaeological record itself.  Metal detectorists are put off from reporting and jobs out in the field are completed as quickly as possible, which means features may not be as fully investigated as they would be within a research excavation

So what about that archaeology degree which got you into the profession? What is it for?

Can it provide anything beyond a career in archaeology itself?There is perhaps a great deal of scepticism, particularly in the current UK Government, as to what that kind of training it can offer which benefits the wider “economy”, and perhaps also an assumption in general that it will focus on skills like being able to identify a hundred different kinds of pottery in as many seconds. 

(Actually, some amazing people do specialise in pottery and could probably do this but we will leave that aside for now).

“Archaeology is what I like to call a chameleon profession.” 

In fact, this perception that an archaeology degree is only about archaeology is just plain wrong. 

Archaeology is what I like to call a chameleon profession. 

Over the decades we archaeologists have seen advances in many fields and have borrowed from them, tailoring and developing them to suit our own methodologies and requirements. These skills are not just based in the hard sciences, such as breaking new ground in genetic and isotopic studies to understand how we have developed as a species, what we ate and where our ancestors grew up and moved in their lifetimes.  But we also have a fantastic grounding in equally relevant social issues, discussions and debates which inform concepts such as identity, gender studies and, as mentioned above, dying, death and memorialisation in society. 

Therefore, we are ideally and fantastically well suited to contribute to a whole range of topics, many of which are particularly relevant in the UK right now. 

What is more, we expect these discussions to happen in a safe, open context which encourages questioning, debate and the acceptance of alternative views and beliefs (within the realms of possibility given available data). 

These discussions can even contribute to developing modern practice in other fields. 

The ‘Continuing Bonds’ project used archaeological case studies to consider death and dying and actually helped contribute to increasing confidence in modern practitioners when talking about death.  This is just one important example of a fantastic, positive impact on society, but there are many more, some of which I’ll come to later on.

However, despite these benefits to society it is also this openness to multi-vocal and multi-cultural approaches which once again enable archaeological and historical research to deliver the uncomfortable sting of reality. 

When the publication of a report exposing the links of various National Trust properties to the profits from slavery came to light, it challenged the idea of a past rural idyll and even led to a Charity Commission investigation initiated by critics of the report who claimed the National Trust had overstepped its remit as a charity and engaged in a political issue. 

The Trust was exonerated fully, but still some say “How dare we ruin their construct of the past by speaking this previously unspoken, evidence based, historical reality?”  The phrasing may differ, but the point is the same.  Often it unfortunately derives from an inability to accept alternative viewpoints may have credibility, especially when they differ to long held beliefs.

But as archaeologists and historians, as impartial scientists and custodians of our shared histories within the UK, we recognise that the study of the past should not, must not, differentiate due to gender, race, colour or creed – though we are still playing catch up in many of these areas, such as women’s studies, as well as struggling to develop the openness and trust needed to encourage people from ethnic minorities to enter the profession. 

We must also accept that with new information and new data also comes new responsibilities to explore it and defend its integrity. 

One of the most exacting of these responsibilities is related to preventing the misuse of archaeological data for political purposes, especially where evidence is lacking and wishful thinking floods into the resulting space. With a huge increase in racism and far-right politics in the UK, much of it in the wake of Brexit, understanding both the capabilities and limitations of data has become more important now than ever.  For example, the suggestion that Cheddar Man, one of the oldest set of human remains from Britain, had dark skin, caused outrage amongst some groups, leading to abuse being levelled at archaeologists (there is a thread by Dr Tess Machling which summarises the situation here). 

This use of archaeology to suit politics is not, however, new.  I thoroughly recommend that you research the role of Gustaf Kossina and his followers in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  The warnings from history are there, and they are clear.

So, let us go back to what else archaeology can provide society. 

I have found over the years that the very process of archaeological investigations can be tools themselves – excavation, surveying, recording. 

The best and perhaps most well-known example of this is Operation Nightingale, which continues a variety of archaeological research investigations and experiments as a means by which to help the recovery injured veterans recovering from the Afghan war and other operations, both physically and mentally

Meanwhile in the early 2010’s, an initiative by the Spectrum Community Health CIC in Castleford, called the Merlin Project helped those within the local drug rehabilitation programme get back into a nine-to-five working routine, teaching workplace relevant skills such as teamworking, communication, as well as practical carpentry in the building of an Iron Age roundhouse.

There are probably many more examples of this kind which have slipped under the radar, which in reality should be celebrated to show just how much potential archaeology has to give to society.

The volume edited by Gabe Moshenka and Sarah Dhanjal entitled: Community Archaeology Theories, Methods and Practice (2011) contains a whole variety of projects illustrating archaeology’s flexibility in delivering meaningful experiences to communities. Meanwhile the journal of Community Archaeology and Heritage Studies also contains a raft of Open Access articles.  Many of these demonstrate firstly how archaeology is perceived differently depending on the makeup of the society within which it is practiced. 

Note too how much excellent archaeological fieldwork and research is carried out in a community context.  Just because there are social aims and objectives does not mean that the quality of the research specific ones, or of the work carried out, should be considered in any sense second best.

An up-and-coming example of this attempt to combine community-based practice with professional standards, is going to be taking place in Brough in Yorkshire this year with the PETUARIA ReVisited project.

This project is not only focused on archaeological questions designed to generate a better understanding the Roman port town of Petuaria itself, having already made huge strides last year in expanding the understanding of late Roman activity of the site.  This year in particular the team have developed a focus on using the opportunity offered by the dig to help support the health and well-being of the participants, whilst acting also as a method by which to increase local pride in the community and place.

What is perhaps different to most similar projects which hope to support physical or mental health is that we will not only keep an audit of health and well-being during the project, but also follow participants for a time after the project ends to really assess how this kind of activity can positively affect people’s lives and for how long. You can find out more about the PETUARIA ReVisited project here

[Courtesy of the PETUARIA ReVisited Project]

“We derive from a wide range of backgrounds, many you might not expect.” 

Given this diversity of activity and approach let us ask then, who are we as archaeologists, who are we as people and what backgrounds do we come from? I know when I mention that I’m an archaeologist, for whatever reason I often get a look of surprise.  This is often due to the relative rarity of that as a job title, despite there being around ten thousand of us working professionally across the UK, but also because I don’t perhaps conform to the ‘typical image’ of an archaeologist, whatever that may be? 

Though it varies massively depending on where in the sector you work, socially we derive from a wide range of backgrounds, many you might not expect. 

I’m a lass from Batley (W. Yorks), with dyspraxia, who never found a mainstream school subject which really ignited any form of passion.  I was never considered particularly bright, and though I got good GCSE scores I did poorly in my A levels. My mum was a secretary, my dad was a breakdown recovery driver and I was the first in my family to go to university. I got into archaeology purely by a fluke, and that fluke was a coming across a community archaeology project at Middleton Park, Leeds.  From there I met life-long friends and great supporters, and I’ve never looked back since.

What might surprise you most of all is that I do not actually specialise in public archaeology! Although I have nearly fifteen years of experience in community archaeology projects of various kinds, I’m actually a Small Finds (figurines, coins, brooches) specialist of the late Iron Age (400BC-100AD, before the Romans arrive).

As professional archaeologists, we often wear many hats.

“We’re not always great at shouting out about the wonderful things we do”

So if we can do all this wonderful stuff, and if archaeology is so great, then why aren’t we funding it to the gills and ensuring that we do not allow our national heritage and archaeology to be destroyed, go unnoticed, and why aren’t we stopping our archaeology and history departments from closing?

It all comes down to the one thing: money.  Even though the archaeological sector contributes billions to the economy in tourism (in non-Covid times), we don’t see even a reasonable amount of that income coming back into the sector to support the status quo, let alone as investment.  This is despite the fact, as I hope I’ve shown, our sector is an integral and vital part of so many practical aspects of society.

Why is support so lax?

Firstly, applications to archaeological courses in universities are dropping. Archaeology is out of fashion.  It is not on people’s radar.  The reasons for this are more complex, but I think it is fair to say that as archaeologists sometimes we’re not always great at shouting out about the wonderful things we do from an academic or community perspective – in fact for many years this kind of justification for research was never really required.  Archaeology “happened”.  That time is now gone, and now there is the need for open reporting and the kind of outward facing communications and accountability now required by funding bodies.

Secondly, too much of our reporting is still behind extortionate paywalls with academic journals and book publishers, who (unintentionally?) price even fellow researchers out of being able to access key texts (especially researchers who do not have easy access to a university library or a university login). 

That said, although we still have a long way to go, the situation is getting better, thanks to the Open Access movement and initiatives such as the Archaeopress Open Archaeology series.  We also have the wonderful Archaeology Data Service which makes available for free a wealth of grey literature reports.

Personally I believe one of the biggest blows to the sustainability of our public image came with the halting of the production of Time Team on Channel Four.


It may not have been perfect in all aspects all of the time, but its continual representation of the profession means we owe it a great deal of gratitude which some may say has not been repaid in acknowledgement. While there have been attempts at replacements, and though there are plans of production resuming through the Patreon initiative, none have yet had the same impact as the original series.

The decision also by the BBC to reposition BBC4 as an archive channel has also abruptly halted a key route for the dissemination of historical and archaeological factual programmes.  Although the BBC does appear to have recommissioned the core “Dig for Britain” strand for broadcast on BBC2.

But it is also clear that the thirst for history, heritage and the thrill specifically of searching for artefacts is very much out there. 

The rise of metal detecting in the last ten years alone (some approximate the number to be as high as 30,000 active detectorists) has led to some fascinating discoveries, but it has also seriously frayed relationships between both archaeologists and detectorists. 

Note I don’t use these terms as chalk and cheese – the misapprehension that these groups of enthusiastic individuals are enemies to the core is one spouted in social media repeatedly, but it does not reflect reality, except for the minority of extremists which do occur on both sides.

As archaeologists we want to make sure the archaeological record is preserved and recorded in a way which provides records for the future.  Thankfully, most detectorists understand this too.  But with a Treasure Act which is woefully unfit for purpose, seeing the sales of nationally important items to private collectors, as well as an underfunded Portable Antiquities Scheme to deal with the workload, we are once again at a point where we hear a ticking time bomb of supply and demand, which could blow up taking the ethical principles of archaeology with them as collateral damage.   

Clearly, therefore, history and archaeology are important to society at a much more fundamental level than whimsey, nostalgia or pleasurable visits on a bank holiday weekend. They are critical to UK notions of identity and heritage, as much as they are critical to several aspects of the economy and of life. They also have a much bigger and more varied potential.

Degrees in archaeology and heritage prepare people for all manner of pursuits with ever-relevant and transferable skills. As archaeologists and historians, and as members, participants and observers of society, our roles are ones of responsibility to not only those generations living now, but also to those who are to come after.

Our history and heritage is a finite resource, which cannot be recovered twice. We are guardians to ensure its use is proper and ethical, and sometimes we have incredibly difficult jobs to do. 

In all honesty, for someone looking to enter academic research due to a passion for both researching and sharing the subject I fell in love with as a teenager, (in the words of Sheldon Cooper of “the Big Bang Theory”, yes, my mother did have me tested), current prospects seem bleak.

If current trends continue, what will suffer, above all, is the very thing we strive to understand and preserve that will outlive us all – the archaeological and historical record. That is not just a crime against those of us living now.  We need to consider what future generations will say, and whether they will say that we, in the position to act right now, did what we could, or even did enough.

So I’ll ask the awkward questions: what do we do next?

How can we, both on the ground and from positions of influence and leadership in the archaeological sector, do better?

What are we asking of our unions, of our institutes, of our community leadership councils?

What can we do better to unite as a cohesive group of professionals in an inclusive way which does not rely on unaffordable (for some) membership fees and affiliations, but on the intention and quality of the work we do?

How can we improve things for each other?  

Because whatever we have been doing for the last five years has not stopped this approaching disaster for our sector, which Covid appears to have only accelerated.

It is not just up to me, writing an article and being loud mouthed (as some would say, no change there then). It isn’t just up to the much-welcomed Dig for Archaeology campaign. 

Most importantly, it is up to you too.

So what are you going to do about it? 

Reb Ellis is a PhD student at the University of Hull (another university who has closed its archaeological programme recently), and is funded by the Heritage Consortium.
She often works with the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
Her community archaeological volunteering roles centre on being Finds and Social Media Officer for the Roman Roads Research Association, as well as giving public talks on finds processing and her PhD subject, the use of figurative animal and humans in the art of the late Iron Age in England and Wales and how it helps to demonstrate how we were never barbarians before the Romans arrived.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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