Why look at archaeological digs?

The archetypical archaeologist is a history enthusiast complete with panama hat, khaki safari suit and microscopic trowel. In fact, the modern archaeological contractor is more likely to be found sporting a high-visibility vest and wearing a hard hat and boots; and although the trowel is still a necessary tool of the trade, construction plant has also become vital.

One reason for the change in kit is that, since the introduction of Planning and Policy Guidance note 16 in 1990, the archaeological process is often a key part of winning planning permission. There is often a requirement that an archaeological assessment be carried out before work starts.

From the point of view of the client, the archaeologist has tended to be seen as, at best, a necessary evil. But, as John Dillon of Wessex Archaeology points out: “The problem is already there; the archaeologist is here to solve it. “

The importance of being early

The overwhelming message from all the archaeological contractors we spoke to was:

“Get the archaeology consultant on board as soon as possible.”

The reason for the rush is to allow the experts to assess the degree of risk involved. As Dillon points out, the impact of archaeology on sites can translate into huge extensions to cost and time. Archaeologists can make cost estimates and carry out preliminary desk-top studies, based on local knowledge and archaeological records, to give some indication of what might be lurking in the subsoil.

Often, however, the degree of risk is less than clients fear. Experienced, well-informed clients understand that the new planning guidelines call not for the preservation of all archaeological remains at all costs, but a representative sample of relevant items. The extent of that sample depends on the location of the project, the amount of previous development and adjacent archaeological assessments or reports. In the City of London, for example, detailed proposals of how the archaeology will be dealt with are required with the planning application.

What’s the worst that can happen?

The involvement of archaeologists in the formative stages of a construction contract may allow a risk assessment to ascertain not only the extent, but also the importance, of any archaeological finds that may exist on the site.

Archaeological projects now take place only if they address valid research questions – meaning that some sites may be looked at in detail, others not at all. Often, the archaeologist’s task will be simply to preserve finds in situ. The presumption here is that it is better to preserve the artefacts for future generations rather than to remove them now, given our imperfect knowledge. One of the first stages of any archaeological involvement on a site is therefore to determine whether any historical questions are at stake, thereby allowing the archaeologist to maximise the relevant information within a given time and budget. In many cases, only 10% of the site may need to be excavated to gather sufficient information to write the archaeological report. There is, however, always the possibility of coming across a significant find and, in rare cases, the area could become a “scheduled ancient monument”.

Without exception, archaeologists would encourage clients to think early, and enable any archaeological involvement to be fully integrated into the planning aspects of the project. Taryn Nixon of the Museum of London Archaeology Service says: “All the experienced clients we have worked with in the past approach the archaeological matters in the right way.” It is only when less experienced clients come across archaeological requirements on a site that they have a tendency to “put it off” – often even if risk assessment highlights that it is a relevant risk.

Markets and labour: Is there an archaeological skills shortage?

Over the past year, there has been significant growth in archaeological involvement on projects throughout the UK. Although London and the South-east has the greatest number of redeveloped sites, the rest of the country is still very active. Taryn Nixon of the Museum of London Archaeology Service says: “In many respects, the archaeologist, being involved so early in the construction cycle, can act as a barometer for activity within the industry as a whole.” If this is the case, the industry can feel confident in the medium term as archaeological contractors are reporting that orders and enquiries are 30% up on last year. There also seems to be a significant increase in the size of projects across the UK. The longer-term remains encouraging, with archaeological contractors already reporting workload extending for the next 18 months to two years. However, there is still capacity in the marketplace, as joint ventures allow demands on capacity to be met. By its nature, archaeological contracting is a very labour-oriented profession. Most archaeological contractors, particularly those in the South-east, are taking on extra staff to meet the increasing demand. The Museum of London Archaeology Service already employs 220 archaeologists along with professionals including surveyors, photographers, conservators and so on. Most contractors work with directly employed labour, any strains on capacity being taken up with joint-venture tenders. According to one of the UK’s largest archaeological contractors: “Over the past few years, there has been a perception among many archaeologists that they were not being paid a salary that was commensurate with their skills, and many have now left the profession.” Although universities are training archaeologists, the construction fraternity has complained that they are not producing students with the right skills to work in the professional archaeological community. There is, however, a steady influx of archaeologists into the industry. As with many firms in the sector, Preconstruction Archaeology – now one of the largest private archaeological groups in the country – has increased archaeological staff numbers by 700% over the past five years, enabling it to tender for significantly larger projects than before.

Winning and pricing archaeological work

Tendering There are a significant number of archaeological contractors in the UK, many of which win most of their work on a preferred-contractor basis. For those that competitively tender, submissions are judged primarily on quality rather than lowest price. The balance between these two considerations is understood to be 70% quality to 30% cost. Although there has been a significant increase in tendering activity, prices have not experienced the same movement. Gary Brown of Preconstruction Archaeology says: “The market is not yet ready to see fee increases.” Similarly, archaeological contractors are not willing to cut their margins or prices as they feel that this would compromise the quality of the service. Cost It is not possible to give precise figures for the cost of archaeology because of the diverse nature of sites and finds. However, as a rule, a skilled archaeologist will dig about 2 m3 per week at the cost of about £600. On top of this will be the cost of site management, processing, recording, photography and so on, which could add another 25-35%. After this comes the post-excavation evaluation, which includes detailed research, conservation and publication of findings to create public records for future scholars. This will typically add another 75% to the budget required. English Heritage, frequently in the role of consultee in the planning process, will often advise on the percentage that should be added to the cost of the works on site for the post-excavation assessment and analysis. However, this is guidance only, and it is up to the archaeologists to make the appropriate case to the planners. Attendance With any archaeological dig on complex urban sites, the archaeologist will require attendance from others, typically the demolition or groundworks contractor. The extent of this can vary, but often includes clearing away of spoil, provision of services, temporary shelters, earthwork support and small tools. Again, the cost of this should not be underestimated and could require a further 30-40% addition to the budget. The archaeological contractor is subject to, and responsible for, health and safety on site. In some instances, it will be the principal contractor under the regulations.

The risks behind archaeological requirements

It is not just the client’s budget that is under threat from historical remains; risks are also carried by the archaeological contractors themselves. Tenders let on a fixed time and price basis are based on the most accurate information available, but the price may be set after less than 5% of the site has been examined – and, as archaeologists point out, few sectors in the construction industry tender on 95% uncertainty. Many archaeological contractors are therefore turning away from fixed-price tenders. Many of the larger clients have recognised this and, although they are not going for fully cost-reimbursable contracts, there are options in between where risks and rewards can be shared. Almost every client wants programme certainty on site, over and above any cost implications. Gary Brown of Preconstruction Archaeology says: “There is no reason why the modern-day archaeologist cannot do a professional job on site within the programmed timescale.” Time frameworks are tight, and as with all trades, archaeologists are constantly monitored by the professional team to ensure progress accords with the project programme. The on-site element is only part of the archaeologist’s work. Typically, the full process involves the careful dismantling of the site (the only stage of the process that actually takes place on site), folowed by the reconstruction of finds and the dissemination of information. The final stage may, in some cases, be as much as three years after excavation, and is often well after the development is completed. Typically, the cost of the works on site equates to 60% of the budget, and a further 40% is spent on post-excavation research and the publication of reports.