Over the past 20 years the number of archaeological excavations soared in Ireland. This is almost exclusively because of the building boom. Many people have argued that this was good for archaeology and our understanding of the past. Having worked in the industry I can convinced the opposite is true. The last 20 years have seen unprecedented destruction of archaeological sites across Ireland that were poorly excavated, poorly reported and are now gone forever.

I am not opposed to building on the remains of the past – every society in history has done it but this should be done within reason and properly recorded. In Ireland, the money invested in archaeology was wasted and many of the processes that lead to the current financial mess also changed archaeology into what was effectively a demolition industry. I think this happened primarily for the following 8 reasons. I would be really interested to hear what you think or your experience was.

1.Unenforced and Uneforceable  Legislation.  
Despite theoretically good legislation this was not enforced or applicable to the situation on the ground. According to legalisation construction could only begin when a licensed archaeological director had effectively given a site a clean bill of health. This legislation could function if the directors were independent but problems arose because they worked under extreme pressure from their bosses in archaeological companies and ultimately construction companies and developers(see point 2). The directors worked with the best of intentions but this pressure no doubt impacted on them.

Construction company’s and developers funded the industry and they were ultimately in control. This lead to a situation where archaeological directors who took longer (i.e. those doing the job right ) were put under extreme pressure as this delayed construction. Pressure also was exerted on directors from within the companies they worked for. The archaeology companies primary function was to make money. This profit lead environment lead to enormous pressurise being brought to bare on directors to finish excavations on or before time to enhance profits at the expense of best practice.

2. Construction companies and developers held all the cards.
The vast majority of archaeological excavations were funded by builders and developers. They held all the cards and had no interest in archaeology – their interest was naturally enough, construction. They were only interested in financing excavations in order to destroy the archaeological sites as quickly as possible. Therefore publishing reports of excavations and analysis of these excavations was always relegated to a peripheral part of the process.

The fact that the industry was profit driven lead to a situation where companies saw reports as a drain on resources since they were paid for excavations and not reports. Although the legislation requiring reports to be published is being more rigorously enforced, for years it was largely ignored. In many cases reports were not published or were published to a substandard level and many excavations carried out have little or no value.

3. A cut throat free market operated between the companies .
When excavations were put out to tender archaeological companies competed against each other for the jobs. With no functioning oversight contracts were awarded to the cheapest tender regardless whether the contract was realistic or not. This lead to a race to the bottom where the company with the worst wages (see point 8), conditions, archaeological practice and morals were lightly to win contracts for excavations.

4. Contracts and timetables were drawn up and agreed before excavations began.
As the excavations were usually funded by developers timetables were agreed before excavations began so they could fit into a building schedule. No matter how much testing and research is completed before an excavations begins it is impossible to know how long excavating something will take. More often than not unforeseen archaeological remains  turn up. This would requires a time extension and although they were often granted, they were tokenistic in nature. The excavation deadlines were ultimately set, not by what archaeological material was found, but by pre-agreed timetables and budgets. This lead to situations with excavations “finishing” with material still unexcavated.

5. Heavy Machinery was used all to frequently.
The public often have an the misconception that  archaeology is a profession where the tools of the trade are a toothbrush and fine comb, the reality in Ireland was that mechanical excavators were often the tool of choice. This is appropriate for stripping top soil or other limited cases – it is needless to dig absolutely everything by hand, but there is not an archaeologist who has worked in Ireland who has not seen archaeological material needlessly and in some cases intentionally destroyed by mechanical excavators in order to speed up excavations.

6. Straight up corruption.
Although I never witnesses this first hand I have heard widespread anecdotal evidence companies were paid off to finish excavations early. Given what we know about the level of corruption within the building industry in Ireland coupled with the fact that archaeology could seriously delay building projects it would be naive to think this was not happening.

7. No one spoke up.
Archaeologists working in the field for the major consultancy firms were in an incredibly weak position. A lack of unionisation gave ordinary archaeologists almost no protection. Due to the precarious nature of employment anyone who raised questions about quality of work could easily and were often  not be rehired on the next job.  The people who were in a position to comment primarily university lecturers, rarely did. In reality they often had very little experience or knowledge of what was actually taking place in the field. Those who did know chose the all to familiar Irish path of not rocking the boat. They rarely if ever expressed concerns about the fact that the very sites they wrote about were being destroyed without adequate recording.

8. If you pay peanuts you get monkeys.
Despite the fact massive amounts of money were being made by archaeological consultancy firms, the people doing the digging were paid shocking wages. At the height of the boom, even after several years of experience highly skilled archaeologists were paid less than €500 per week while companies were making vast profits.

On any site there were three of four levels, starting at a general operative often on the minimum wage, above which there were site assistants, supervisors and then finally a director.  On the site, the director was the only person earning what was the average industrial wage or above. The real money was made by company owners and managers who never worked on sites. Some companies had helicopters to ferry company officials from site to site while the people doing the work were paid pitance. Having worked as a site assistant for years in my experience this vast inequality lead to a lack of motivation and and high levels of resentment. This definitely impacted on the quality of the archaeological excavations.

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0 comments on “8 Reasons why the Building Boom was bad for Irish Archaeology

  1. A shovel monkey on

    Sounds pretty familiar. I dug in Ireland around 2002-4. Worked for one company that ended in liquidation, so bad were it’s practices

    • Leigh Barker on

      Jesus Christ Never Again? I think at that time many of us shared that particular bad experience and can say that it was something that arose from a half-baked model of a British archaeological consultancy coming over for a piece of the pie by going into partnership with a smaller established Irish consultancy.

  2. John Tierney on

    The whole piece is derogatory and insulting (monkeys??? payoffs???). It is all anecdotal and contradictory to my own experience in Ireland in the last ten years. Bull about profits and helicopters and suffering quality!!! We saw quality increase throughout the decade. We saw data production skyrocket and publications also. The explosion in archaeological data generated has revolutionised our understanding of Irish archaeology. And all you can say is that we were incompetent, profit driven, unprofessional, corrupt and monkeys.

    • Former Archaeologist on

      I found some interesting stats on a forum post from 2008:

      In 2006, the average industrial/factory wage in Ireland was 32,000 Euro per annum (or 625 Euro per week, according to the CSO). The average public sector wage (to which many archaeologists belonged before privatization) was 880 Euro per week.

      In contrast, the top archaeological site assistant wage that year was 24,000 Euro (or 460 Euro per week). On average, archaeologists were paid 165 Euro a week LESS than anyone working indoors on a factory line.

      Given the rapidly increasing cost of living during the boom years and inflation, excavating archaeologists wages actually fell (in real terms) during the Celtic Tiger – while companies posted significant profits year-in, year-out.

      It’s one thing to talk about pride in the industry and publication rates, etc, but the numbers tell a different story. One where excavating archaeologists were barely paid a living wage and no real value was placed on their skills and their very real dedication.

      You can talk about ‘quality’ all you want, but the individuals at the top of this profession milked the construction boom and turned a worthwhile profession into a financial dead end for 85% for it’s practitioners. Shame on you.

  3. Irish History on

    I opened the piece with “I am convinced the opposite is true” and “I think this happened primarily for the following 8 reasons” so of course its opinion and anecdotal. I don’t claim otherwise.

    Intentionally or otherwise you are misinterpreting the phrase “monkey”. Its a reference to our working conditions. Why would I call myself a monkey if I meant it in the derogatory way you portray it.

    Its a reference to the fact we (I worked as a site assistant for years) were treated abysmally, we were never given contracts, decent pay or proper working conditions. Most sites I worked on never even had drying rooms for boots or gear or adequate wash rooms. Most of us had absolutely no security in our jobs. It would be a lie to say this did not affect our productivity and output. Do you honestly think we were paid fairly or had decent working conditions?

    When you refer to “we” I don’t really know what you mean because all archaeologists were not treated the same. I agree most g.o. (general operatives) Site Assistants and Directors were decent people committed to archaeology but often very disillusioned. The article is not directed at them. It is directed at company hierarchies. I would reiterate I think they were for the most part unprofessional in their close relationship with the construction industry and of course they were profit driven. What else could explain atrocious wages they paid and the way they treated their workers.

    • Leigh Barker on

      I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with many points. Most strongly I agree that there is no “we” in Irish archaeology and that conditions were terrible for many jobs. I’m afraid there is an awful lot of misrepresentation too. Honestly, do you really believe that company directors really owned helicopters? I think there were an awful lot of “site truths” that went along with large numbers of people working together in quite miserable conditions and you really need to be able to separate fact from fiction.

  4. John Tierney on

    Put your name on this article rather than publish it anonymously.

    I am proud to be a field archaeologist and I am proud of what we, collectively, achieved in the last 15 years in Irish archaeology. I was proud to be a digger, a site assistant, supervisor, director and senior archaeologist.

  5. Irish History on

    What are you talking about? If I wanted to post this anonymously I would hardly post it on my own blog. you still have not addressed any of the points I raised about wages pressure from developers use of mechanical diggers in unappropriate situations.
    Fin Dwyer

  6. Anon on

    @John Tierney
    I’m glad you had such a positive experience,many of us didn’t.

    I’m not proud of what we collectively did. We aided the wholesale destruction of our material culture. I saw the skeletons of babies excavated with shovels and graves troweled for by a digger bucket…using this rather curious technique you find the grave by the crushed cranium. I’ve worked on sites where we had to walk 1km over fields to get to a site hut or portaloo, because it was too much bother to put them in near the digging, and the time it took to get there was taken out of our breaks. That was in 2005 and the company was the third of fourth most profitable in the country.

    We also sowed the seeds for our own destruction. If we had of had sense and not sold ourselves to the highest bidder we might have created a more sustainable industry and perhaps some of the 70% of us rotting on the dole might have a better future right now.

  7. Robbie Doyle on

    Plenty of truth in the article. Sure there were digs and areas/objects of archeological significance uncovered but then concrete was invariably poured over the site and it was built on. Not a legacy for those involved to be proud of. Research papers and files in planning applications are poor substitutes to visible & protected sites for future generations.

  8. Mark on

    The National Monument Services are as much to blame as the developers. If proper regulation was carried out during those times we may have seen those reports finished.The standards by with the archaeological material was removed was sometimes disgusting and when you are in a wet damp hole in the middle of a freezing wet Irish winter, a place where you wouldn’t even find a dog, well, you would find an archaeologist. Those conditions were not suitable for recording the archaeological remains and as Fin said, the archaeological companies didn’t give two shits once they were getting paid and the developers, well, they would have backfilled you if they had a chance. I worked for 11 years, as a G.O, site assistant and a supervisor, and if you were to complain or voice your opinion, you were sure not to get re-hired. Not all companies were the same, though, some were very good and cared about what we were digging. However, when you have time constraints from archaeological company and developer, we did the best we could. Some people couldn’t careless, but I would like to think the majority of us did. I don’t think that any sites really were going to be visible and protected structures for future generations that I worked on. I like to know the others?

    Toilets never cleaned for weeks.
    No toilet roll
    No running water
    No drying room
    Girls pissing in the bushes
    Men pissing in the bushes
    Not enough shovels, wheelbarrows, brushes etc…

    Would I do it all over again! Yes, if I was younger! But I would have pushed for a union!

    We tried to get a union up and running in yes, I said it, Carrickmines, but because it cost 12 pounds a month and most people were only ever passing through, they thought nothing of it.. No one was interested. We couldn’t get numbers, no voice and no help! Meetings about the unions ended up in piss ups! Archaeologists in general, or ‘diggers’ pass by like ships in the night.. Now just a faint light on the horizon.

    To round it off! I miss those days:-)

  9. Pauline on

    Sounds like a lot of upset archaeologists…

    In fairness to your kind, the stance of many archaeologist in Ireland over the M3 Tara thing was a credit to the standard of archaeologist’s integrity in Ireland, even if they weren’t the ones to make a buck out of it.
    As for the ones that did .. it’s hard to put your culture above your children’s food ;(

    It seems to me that you need to create not a union per say but a register of ethical Irish archaeologist then we can campaign that no digs/excavations can be done without including a registered Irish archaeologists.

    Get someone like Conor Newman, George Eogan to be part of it and you have a familiar trustable names to many Irish people.

    This is way when they talk about the best archaeological practices, we can ask the right question. Was it certified by this organisation?