Commercial archaeology: hi vis but no visibility in the big city?

This post has been written as a response to ‘The Grand Challenges for Archaeology: A Blogging Carnival.’

I’m walking down a street in Covent Garden. It’s the height of summer, the pavements are encrusted with over-heated tourists and well-dressed business people nipping out for an over-priced salad. Street performers vie for the attention of bemused visitors whilst ornate shop windows tantalise with the promise of satisfying those with expensive taste. Men and women float by in beautiful fabrics, their faces perfectly framed by carefully coifed hair.

Then there’s me. I don’t fit this postcard image of London affluence. In fact, I stick out like a neon orange thumb, because that’s the colour I’m wearing. No, it’s not a strange new fashion statement for the office: I’m wearing a hi vis jacket, a white safety helmet and steel-capped boots. My shoes are covered in dirt. There might be dirt on my face because I didn’t have time to check before I left the site I was working on, and I suspect there might be-why else would people be staring?

Today, London’s story is about bright young things in shiny offices being ‘aspirational’ and reinforcing the city’s image of photogenic success through high earnings. A 23-year-old young woman wearing PPE just doesn’t have a place in this story. Walking down an affluent street in central London wearing the gear I need for archaeology, I’m likely to be gawped at by unsuspecting pedestrians. The real irony is that although my hi vis jacket may serve its purpose in making me more visible whether on site or in the street, I also feel irrelevant and socially invisible.

This bitter anecdote may paint me as petty and jealous, but I’m including it as a primer to discuss the two main issues I encounter as a young archaeologist today: the insecurity of commercial archaeology as a career, and the invisibility of commercial archaeology in London itself.

Commercial archaeology: a visible career future?

You don’t become an archaeologist for prestige, and you certainly don’t study archaeology if you expect to make a lot of money. Commercial archaeology is notoriously low-paid as a competitive graduate profession that expects its workers to not only have earnt at least a good undergraduate degree, but to probably also have field experience, and potentially some additional unpaid work experience in the heritage sector as well.

I love archaeology. I almost did an English Literature degree but I thought, for me personally, that studying human material remains would be more challenging and personally rewarding in terms of its practical applications in the field.  Since graduating from my MA, I’ve chosen to routinely apply for commercial archaeology positions and I enjoy the combination of office research and outdoor fieldwork that I’m lucky enough to be offered in my current job. I’m convinced that the low wages in the sector have endured because many commercial archaeologists are able to scrape by not just on their pay but on their own passion for the job. The love of the thing keeps you going-but for how long?

Having a comparatively lower income and living in London can be particularly painful for obvious reasons, though clearly I’m not struggling as much as people in other professions and I’m certainly paid a London living wage. What is more disturbing for a young person such as myself starting out in the professional world is that commercial archaeology offers few opportunities for career progression. One could eventually become a Supervisor or a Project Officer, but the instability of a job which depends entirely upon what work your company is commissioned each year does not guarantee that such positions will be available. Furthermore, fieldwork is very demanding on the body, and is not necessarily a long-term option for everyone. The unforgiving London environment, whether in terms of actual air and soil pollutants, or the high stress commutes and higher commercial overheads, only exacerbates these issues.

Archaeology and visibility in London

Everyone loves treasure and dead bodies because they’re exciting, but not everyone really knows what it means to be a working archaeologist.

It would be blatantly untrue if I claimed that no one is aware of archaeological investigations that are conducted in London, or of the importance of these investigations. Naturally, though, the digs which make the news are those which involve shiny things or skeletons (preferably both). The excavation of approximately 3,000 bodies from the Bedlam burial ground at Liverpool Street last year was well-covered by the media because it was a story of human interest and vast scale.  Of course small watching briefs and more modest excavations aren’t going to get the same kind of attention, but that doesn’t mean they are any less significant. London is a city that is constantly being transformed and commercial archaeology plays a key role in that process by assessing the archaeological potential of many different sites before they are developed, and then carefully recording those remains which are discovered during the process. The discovery of a post-medieval wall may seem rather dull when compared to a great swathe of skeletons, but it’s still an important piece in the historical mosaic of London.

Yes, it’s a dirty job, the kind in which you get dirt under your fingernails and you have to wear unseemly fluorescent jackets. Appearances, though, can be deceiving. Commercial archaeologists may not wear smart suits, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t smart people doing just as intellectual jobs as those working in opulent office blocks.

What does it mean to be visible?

Often, part of being felt to be seen is being heard. In terms of mapping out a viable career future as a young archaeologist, I think one of the most important points to consider is better communication between employees and employers. Commercial archaeology can be a pretty laid-back profession, which is both a blessing and a curse. Rather than just dismissing career instability as ‘part of the job,’ more open discussion of career prospects and opportunities for training should be pursued. Employees, myself included, shouldn’t feel discouraged from raising concerns with employers.

Public archaeology is clearly key in enhancing the general understanding of commercial archaeology’s role in London.  I myself like to think of archaeology forming part of the ‘ethical infrastructure’ of London. Perhaps we don’t bring the city the same kind of disposable income and prestige as bankers and business people, but we do get to see under its skin in a way that few others get the opportunity to. We are also, in a way, stewards of the city’s past and a check on its relentless redevelopment. I would like to see this aspect of commercial archaeology more explicitly championed in London.

Many complain about the heartless rat race of London. If you’re searching for its soul, it may be somewhat counter-intuitive, but I’d ask you not to look up to the heavens and the skyscrapers of the City, but look down to the earth beneath your feet. That’s where you’ll find the soul of London-trust me, I’ve seen it.




  1. as someone who grew up in london i’d say don’t underestimate how much ‘local’ history can mean to people who live there. from the small woods where we used to play football as children and knew (without fully understanding what it meant) that this was once a plague pit, to the ambles around the center, passing through different centuries every few blocks (the discovery of lincoln’s inn fields blew me away) to being told stories of an ‘earlier london’ destroyed by boudica’s tribesmen and now dug up by archaeologists – all of this, and there is so much more, contributed to what you might call a deep civic pride, a feeling of belonging to a town the identity of which was made up of far more than the endless stream of tourists and transient city workers.


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