To Chris Faine, "bringing the past to life" sounds like a "dreadful" cliché. Nevertheless, it's what he does every day as a specialist in animal bones at Oxford Archaeology East, a company that provides archaeological services to the construction industry. While digging in Huntingdon, a village near Cambridge, U.K., a few years ago, Faine found bones from what he calls a "terribly tiny sheep with bad teeth." Faine and his colleagues pictured "a flock of ratty little sheep, wading around in this muddy field where they got prone to disease." These findings, which Faine reported in 2005, painted Saxon Huntingdon as a region fighting endlessly against floods from a tributary of the River Ouse. Faine says that's the best part of the job: "when you come to a conclusion that really does help our understanding of the site."

Photo (top) An excavation at Dimmock's Cote in Wicken, U.K., in 2008 found an unusual Iron Age burial.

As a boy, Faine, who is now 30, liked to look at bones and pieces of pottery, but he didn't consider it a career until he switched from languages to archaeology at King's College London. He went on to earn a master's degree in archaeology at the University of Bristol, then took a series of temporary jobs at commercial archaeology digs at Hadrian's Wall in northern England, in Gloucester, and all over the country. "At entry level, you go where the work is," Faine says. Eventually, he grew tired of the job insecurity and worked for about 2 years doing "a variety of very odd jobs. I worked for a building firm. I was a postman for a bit, [and] I worked on a landfill site."

Fixed positions with good salaries can be difficult to find, and now is a particularly bad time for commercial archaeology, because the construction industry--which provides most of the revenue for commercial archaeology--is at a standstill. But like Faine, some of those who get a taste of the work can't easily leave it behind. Faine's experience working outside the field led him to realize that he "did actually want to be in archaeology, regardless of job security."

Digging in


Oxford Archaeology East

Chris Faine (left) and Alasdair Brooks (right) describe their work at the launch event for Oxford Archaeology East, held near Cambridge in October.

Commercial archaeology exists because the construction industry is required by U.K. law to pay for the analysis of physical remains destroyed during development. This includes everything from building remains to pottery, coins, bones, and garbage. Oxford Archaeology East was created when Cambridgeshire County Council's Archaeological Field Unit merged with Oxford Archaeology, a commercial group. Of the 2650 archaeologists registered in the United Kingdom in2007, 1122 were employed by the private sector.

A commercial archaeology career typically starts with education, followed by temporary digging jobs. To increase his chances of securing a better job, Faine decided to retrain and find a specialty, because "it's wise to have an extra string in your bow," he says. He did a second master's degree in human and animal osteology--bone anatomy--at Bournemouth University. His dissertation was about dental health in early medieval Wales: "I looked at the teeth of skeletons found in an old cemetery," he recalls. Today, his main job is digging out, measuring, and interpreting animal bones. Measuring tons of bones can be tedious, Faine says, but "you can tell the species, the size of the animal, the size of the population, what they are eating, if they were healthy, or what they used the animals for."

Becoming a specialist, as Faine did, can be a helpful step in career terms. "If you have a skill that is high in demand, then undoubtedly you would find more premium on your services," says Paul Spoerry, manager of Oxford Archaeology East. A report published last year by the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA) identified areas where shortages exist: surveying historical buildings, conservation, and environmental archaeology. This last category includes the study of natural sources of archaeological evidence such as pollen--and bones.

Alasdair Brooks, one of Faine's colleagues at Oxford Archaeology East, specializes in ceramics from the late postmedieval period (the 18th and 19th centuries). Originally from England, Brooks studied archaeology at St Mary's College of Maryland in the United States. After a year working in a commercial company in New York state, he moved back to England and graduated with an M.A. from the University of York. Since earning his master's degree, he has done research in Australia, earned a Ph.D. from the University of York, and worked for a commercial archaeology company in Washington, D.C., and a museum in Virginia.


Oxford Archaeology East

The construction industry is doing poorly, so job opportunities for archaeologists have dwindled. However, local and national laws requiring archaeological evaluation and monitoring of all building sites mean that there will always be a demand for commercial archaeology.

This broad experience puts Brooks in a position to address the differences between the field's academic and commercial branches. "One of the big differences is that you tend to have more time in academic archaeology because there aren't the pressures of work within [a] specific time frame to a specific budget," says Brooks, who is now the finds and environmental officer at Oxford Archaeology East. In academia, once the fieldwork is done, "there is far more scope afterwards to spend time to write the reports and look at the results." In commercial work, "even report writing has to be funded as a part of a specific project."

Despite these commercial pressures, Brooks believes that commercial archaeology is compatible with research; indeed, he sees one important advantage: "You don't have to apply for funds every 2 or 3 years." Brooks and his colleagues do publish their findings. Routine results are published in the local journal The Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society; results of regional importance are published as monographs in the peer-reviewed series East Anglian Archaeology. The most important findings are submitted to national journals.

Searching for gold

Archaeology, Brooks says, is "unusual" in that "the academic sector pays more than the commercial sector." According to the IfA report, entry-level salaries are about £19,000 annually, and the typical salary for a commercial archaeologist is below the national average. In other parts of Europe, commercial salaries are a bit above the average. In either case, "archaeology is not a well-paid career option. It's never going to make you rich, but it will make you rich in other ways," Spoerry says.

Work done by Oxford Archaeology East at Broughton Manor Farm near Milton Keynes, U.K., in 2006 and 2007 found an important Roman cremation cemetery, with many of the burials accompanied by goods such as pottery

Why are salaries low in the commercial sector? Kenneth Aitchison, head of projects and professional development at IfA, cites two factors: a tradition of volunteerism and a culture of competition by cost instead of quality. IfA is tackling the problem by setting a range of minimum salaries that must be followed by companies registered as IfA associates. Over the next 5 years, IfA hopes to raise the standard salaries by a cumulative 13% above inflation.

Salaries are not the only worry commercial archaeologists face. Unemployment is another. The sector takes about 93% of its revenue from development contracts, Aitchison says, so commercial archaeology is highly dependent on trends in the construction industry. During a construction boom, work is plentiful and archaeologists find many opportunities. A recent initiative to build a motorway network in the Republic of Ireland led to more archaeology jobs than the country could cope with; about 45% of the archaeology professionals working in Ireland during the project came from outside the country, Aitchison says.

Today, the construction industry is doing poorly, so opportunities for archaeologists have dwindled. Aitchison suggests that now is a good time to retool by investing in professional development. New skills and specialties will increase earning power and "make graduates more employable," he says. "Commercial archaeology will change and survive" the current economic crisis, he says, because local and national laws requiring archaeological evaluation and monitoring of all building sites mean that there will be always a demand for the services the industry provides.

Why enter a field with such uncertain career prospects? "If you like being out in the open air and if you have ability and interest for science-based work," Spoerry says, "then archaeology can be a great thing to do because it does put you in contact with new things all the time." Faine agrees: "The money is not brilliant, and sometimes the job security isn't there, but I wouldn't do anything else. I couldn't just sit in an office."

Photos courtesy of Oxford Archaeology East

Sara Coelho is an intern in Science's Cambridge, U.K., office.

Sara Coelho is a freelance writer based in Bath in the United Kingdom.
10.1126/science.caredit.a0900007