We've all sat in front of Time Team fondly imagining the life of an archaeologist, haven't we? Perhaps a leisurely breakfast of freshly brewed coffee from a tin cup before donning those Thirties khaki trousers and heading off for a jolly day with some men in beards discovering the odd mummy or two before a hearty tea.
It's not quite how it always pans out (no pun intended), says Roland Smith. "The reality is that we operate professionally as 'businesses' with a need for all the other skills required in achieving commercial as well as archaeological success." He adds, "Time Team has been a fantastic success and has contributed significantly to the current popularity of archaeology. It has a place but it does not reflect the day-to-day reality of archaeological practice for most professionals."
Smith is resources director with Wessex Archaeology, one of the largest archaeological practices in the UK. He says, "I have had a full career from 'digger', site supervisor, project director to manager and consultant. I am now responsible for the recruitment and professional development within the company." But, he adds, "You can never take away from archaeologists the sheer delight they have when making unexpected and exciting discoveries."
Smith got into the field when he took a year out after his A- levels in the late Seventies to work on an archaeological excavation. He graduated from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, in 1982 and never looked back. He says: "Being an archaeologist seemed to require an ideal combination of practical skills with analysis and research, with the ultimate goal of furthering society's knowledge. Also, as I have got older, the purpose of understanding our collective past has increased in importance. We need to know where we come from to be able to plan where we want to go to!"
Quite apart from the paperwork, one of the major downsides is pay. Low pay and the need to work away from home for long periods can result in low morale, says Lynne Fouracre. She is a consultant at AOC Archaeology Group in Edinburgh. Like many others, she worked as an unqualified field archaeologist before doing a BA in archaeology and prehistory at the University of Sheffield and an MSC in geoarchaeology at the University of Reading. Despite the pitfalls, she says, the main appeal for her is "the opportunity to work in the outdoors in a profession where interest rather than financial gain is the priority."
She adds: "There is plenty of university training available but permanent jobs are few and far between. Practical training is probably the area in which training is most …