Editorial

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


'Retired but active' is the rather facetious verdict that us over-seventies attract, but one thing is certain: active or not, our minds turn increasingly to the next generation. The most important thing for any profession is to ensure that new young talent has access to a career and that the career has a structure in which creativity is rewarded. In Britain, we have done next to nothing in this regard--and it would be difficult to say who has been the more feckless--the directors of large companies or the heads of archaeology departments in universities.

The new lecturers are drawn in principle from the cohort of doctoral students, implying that the PhD is intended to provide an apprenticeship. Accordingly it has been streamlined: instead of spending twenty years on an enormous topic, the student spends three years on something more manageable, a course or programme likely to provide a useful experience and destined for expeditious completion. Strangely however, the required output remains the same: a book-length treatise. Articles are not encouraged as they hold up the delivery of the ill-digested lump. This is odd on two counts: first, students are made to write a book before they have written an article, and second, the articles, not the book, are what their prospective employer actually requires. Given this prescription, the newly appointed lecturer is expected to hit the ground running, with four peer-reviewed and citable articles in the knapsack, not one unpublished, unobtainable tome. Indeed, humanities staff have been heard to say that (in their department) you would need a minimum of four publications even to get an interview.

And another thing. If the PhD is an apprenticeship, why does it include no formal training in fieldwork--our method of recovering primary data? Quite apart from the fact that the world is already full of academics who don't know how to dig (but think they do), not every doctoral student is destined for a job in a university. The commercial sector, as archaeology's largest employer, needs their talents too--but it would help if they were trained. Six months in the field, out of 36 months in a library, strikes me as a minimum (leaving 30 months to write four articles).

Meanwhile what of the students who are not doing PhDs, but want to be archaeologists; do they fare any better? No they don't. It has become ever more difficult for promising young people to gain access to the profession. The old way was simple enough: you volunteered and received training in exchange for your labour. Now you pay to be trained or indeed, in some reprehensible cases, pay not to be trained. So what are you paying for?: to buy an experience without making any commitment to it, known in other walks of life as prostitution. 'Community' archaeology does become ethical if the project has its own rationale and funding, and community members are fully integrated and given progressive training for a token sum that includes the keenest but does not exclude the poorest. This means a commitment on their part for a minimum of three weeks. Otherwise it becomes a different kind of slavery--volunteers shackled by chains of condescension.

The reason that our tyros are pushed through these narrow turnstiles is firstly because universities don't have the resources (or often the knowledge) to train students in the field, and secondly because the commercial sector likes to pretend that it is contrary to the regulations of their industry to take volunteers, which anyway results in unfair competition, exploited labour, and so forth. On the contrary, the commercial sector can very often employ trainees in circumstances that disadvantage no-one, are perfectly consistent with health and safety and actually deliver better archaeology. Consider the case of large flat sites that require excavation in area. The effective method, as we have known for decades, requires definition of a horizon by lines of trowellers, viewed from a tower. …

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