UK Archaeology Has a Problem

By Chelsi Slotten

As I’m sure many of you have heard by now, UK archaeology has a problem. Departments at Sheffield, and Chester are under threat of closing and the government wants less “red tape” around construction projects. This is code for removing archaeology requirements before digging. These are alarming trends. Furthermore, major projects are reportedly having problems filling roles, so much so that archaeologists may be added to the Home Offices’ list of “in-need professions.”  If archaeology is such an in-demand role, why are departments shutting?  Why is the government trying to reduce the need for archaeological excavation before construction?  Why are foreigners and earlier career archaeologists having such a hard time getting archaeology jobs? Well, that’s what I’m going to tell you. Buckle up, it’s going to be a wild ride!

Departmental Closures

Many far more informed individuals than I have written, tiktoked (is that a word?), tweeted, and talked about this situation; check out the linked site if you want a better idea of what’s happening in departments.  Tl: dr of the situation, enrollment numbers are dropping so departments don’t want to spend money on them.  There’s also concern over whether there will be demand for archaeologists in the future if the government succeeds in reducing the “red tape” around construction. 

FYI, Archaeology is not “red tape” (I really hate that term). It’s an important part of the construction process that helps communities know where they come from, preserves important history, and can actually save firms money in the long run! It also boosts tourism, which is a huge part of the UK economy. So, trying to reduce legal requirements for archaeology to be conducted before major construction projects is both ethically dubious, and bad business, but I digress.  Back to the business at hand: why is a profession as an archaeologist not as appealing as it used to be.

UK Archaeology Requirements

Let’s start off with my experience. Fair warning, I’m in the midst of the whole “looking for an archaeology job” and my experiences have not improved my opinion of UK archaeology. Let’s just say I understand why people are leaving the field. The following will mostly apply to commercial archaeology in the UK, although there may be some side-eye at other employment paths (i.e. looking at you museums).

Right to Work

This one is pretty reasonable: if you want to work in a country you need to have the right to work there. Fair enough.  But, did you know the UK immigration policy is called the “Hostile Environment”? It’s not named that for nothing. Getting a skilled worker visa to work in the UK is hard and extremely expensive.  The price has risen 800% in the last 16 years. The UK government does not want you here and they will make sure you know that.  There are minimum amounts you need to earn (£25,600 or the going rate in your field, whichever is higher- the industry suggested starting salary is £20,400), a lottery system, many checks, sponsorship to consider etc., but, as mentioned above, archaeologist may soon be on the list of needed jobs that can get someone out of some of this. For the sake of this part, let’s assume you have the right to work in the UK. What’s next?

CSCS Cards

CSCS cards are part of the Construction Skills Certification Scheme. Basically, you have to take a test to prove that you know how to be safe when working on a construction site.  Makes sense as so many archaeology sites are within construction sites. The test costs £22. Wait times for the test are currently several months long due to covid. There are two ways to be eligible to take this test, either through academic training or professional role for which you need your employer’s sponsorship or membership in a professional body. Most firms require you to have this card before they will hire you and you will be paying for at least one of these cards on your own. Let’s talk about the two methods of getting one.

Academically qualified –  There are certain degrees that will allow you to sit the test and archaeology is one of them.  Have a degree in archaeology from an approved (usually UK) institution, pay £22, pass the test, and pass go. Have a degree in anthropology with a specialization in archaeology- you know like most US degrees, doesn’t count. Try the professional route.

Professionally qualified. Will your job sponsor you for a card? Oh wait, you can’t get a job without a current CSCS card. Many firms will pay for you to renew your certificate, but that’s only once you’ve already been employed, so it’s not great if you’re trying to break into the field in the UK. The other option is to have membership at an approved professional body, in this case it’s called CiFA. More about that below.

Chartered Institute of Archaeology (CiFA)

Whether you need CiFA membership to get a CSCS card or not, many commercial firms list memberships as either an essential or a desirable trait, making becoming a member a good idea. There are several tiers of membership, but the lowest accredited membership costs £141 per year. That’s the rate without getting the journal. There is a concessionary rate available which is £28.50 at the lowest but requires you to provide you tax statements or a job seekers allowance. If you’re unemployed and not a citizen, you’re out of luck because you won’t have a tax statement and are not eligible for benefits, so you cannot get a job seekers allowance or documentation that you are unemployed. Many firms will pay your membership dues once you’re a permanent member of staff, but until then, you’re paying yourself.

There is also an ongoing, if mostly quiet, debate that I’ve heard around CiFA.  Their usefulness to academics and managers seems to be generally accepted, but many field archaeologists don’t find membership beneficial, beyond allowing them to get CSCS cards. Their involvement with the CSCS cards helps them gain members and membership dues. I’ve heard both sides of the story and as I am not yet a member, I will refrain from further commentary, but you should be aware those conversations are occurring.

Drivers License

While not strictly linked to archaeology, many archaeologist positions require that you have a valid UK license.  The UK is not like the US when it comes to driving. Many people never get the drivers licenses or if they do, rarely drive. It’s a side effect of having more functional public transportation.  This is all well and good except getting a license is expensive.  One site estimates that the average cost to get a UK license in £1,247. This includes the cost of your provisional license, theory test, and driving lessons. Wait times for the test are currently several months long due to covid.  If you are lucky you might be able to change your nationalities license to a UK license if you’re one of the countries the UK recognizes licenses from. If not, I guess it’s time to pony up some more money.

Downsides of Being an Archaeologist

Archaeology is an amazing and wonderful field.  We talk about that a lot on the podcast. This section is not for that. It’s about all the downsides of being an archaeologist in the UK (some info applies internationally as well).  The things that employers are going to need to deal with if they expect to hire knowledgeable, passionate, skilled staff and have any hope of retaining them.

Compensation

Salaries in UK archaeology are notoriously bad.  CiFA has a whole ranking of what you should get paid based on your level of responsibility. Starting out, they suggest salaries around £20,400. I’ve seen a lot of posts that start out around £18,000.  Many of these positions will require a university degree.  These are the roles that firms are having a hard time filling.  If you happen to have a job requiring the highest level of competency, they suggest a salary of…£30,600.  That’s for a site manager, director, or other high level staff member.  There are fields that pay their entry level staff more than that. Even if you are ok with a low-level starting salary, the opportunity for pay raises if you progress in your career is low because even the very senior people aren’t making that much.  To be fair, I’ve seen some posts with higher salaries for more senior people but they are few and far between.

Travel

Getting to travel is both one of the best and worst parts of the job. You will see amazing places and learn a lot about the UK, but you will give up setting down roots to do it.  While not as hard as some of the US regions, simply due to size, you will spend a lot of time away from home. Maintaining relationships can be a challenge and having a sense of belonging is difficult when your life is often nomadic.  Trying to balance this when you’re new to the country can be especially challenging.

Contract Lengths

Over half of the contracts I’ve seen are for projects lasting anywhere from 6 weeks to 9 months. There is no guarantee of employment after the end of the contract, you may have to move to get another job.  That means you better save what you can of your small salary because you might have to live off it while trying for another job. That contract length may also cause problems for you depending on the type of visa you have. Also, many rentals in England require a 1-year lease which is hard to do when your contract is shorter than that. Not in Scotland though, all rental contracts are month to month and protect the tenant.  More jobs seem to be available in the South of England, particularly around London because so much more construction and major projects happen there. It’s super biased spending, but there we go.

The Work

Archaeology is cool, but very hard physical work. You will be stuck sitting in weird positions for hours every day, lugging supplies to sometimes very remote areas, hiking through beautiful if rocky terrain, and digging. These are highly physical tasks that will take their toll on your body over time. They also can be very fun and a great way to stay in shape!

While you’re doing this it’s also very likely to be raining, it rained on average 170 days in the UK last year. That’s almost 6 months! The amount of rain will vary by location.  When it’s not raining you’re likely to get sunburned. The UV index is quite strong in the UK during the summer months so slather on that sunscreen even if it’s only 15-20 Celsius outside.  Cool weather does not mean no sunburn, just that I’m more likely to forget to put sunscreen on.

Museums

I know I said this was going to be about commercial archaeology, but a lot of archaeologists look for museum jobs. I’ve applied to more positions than I want to admit to.  Most of them have been rejections along the lines of “you were a strong candidate, but we had 300/500/700 applicants and you didn’t make the cut. Please apply again in future”.  I’ve also heard that there are people with 20-30 years of experience applying for entry-level positions.  The museum field in the UK is out of control right now.

Final Thoughts

Archaeology is an amazing field, it’s worth saving but there is a lot of work to do to make the field inclusive and appealing. Asking people to shell out money for a degree, then £1,500 for various licenses, cards, and memberships, so they can make £20,000 a year if they are lucky is a big ask.  Giving people limited scope to progress up a ladder and make more money is a big ask. Archaeology departments in the UK have been asking why they are facing closure or struggling to appeal to students, and commercial firms are asking why they are having such a hard time finding field archaeologists. It’s worth noting the competition for non-field positions is apparently much fiercer, but they have more stability and sometimes better pay so that is not surprising.

As I’ve been searching for jobs, I’ve been talking to people in the field about the barriers I’ve faced as a foreign citizen. The results have been… discouraging. Individuals trying to help might suggest I get any of the above cards or licenses. When I inform them of how difficult that it as a foreigner there is a lot of hand wringing, and people saying we know it’s bad, but we can’t do anything about it. Yes, you can. You can advocate on behalf of your employees, you can talk about reducing structural barriers to entry, you can support potential employees in overcoming these hurdles, you can provide training for skills you want/need. Despite all of this I still want a career in heritage work. However, if people want archaeology as a discipline to survive don’t just look to external threats, but look at what is happening within the field and what you can do to make it more appealing.

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