Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology

2014 Edition
| Editors: Claire Smith

Environmental Archaeology in the Commercial Context

  • James Morris
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-0465-2_2127


Environmental archaeology is the study of past human environments, using earth and life sciences to examine the archaeological record. Like many areas of archaeological science, environmental archaeology developed in the 1960s and 1970s as North American and western European archaeologists embraced ecological principles in their work, with the analysis of environmental remains now recognized as an important constituent of archaeological investigations. Environmental archaeology covers a wide range of topics often based on the subdivisions within earth and life sciences, with archaeobotanists, geoarchaeologists, osteoarchaeologists, paleoentomologists, palynologists, and zooarchaeologists all existing within the wider sphere of environmental archaeology. As commercial archaeological organizations have developed in certain countries in response to historic environment legislation, a market for environmental archaeological work has developed, with resulting growth and expansion of the discipline, creation of new datasets, and emergence of new problems.


Environmental archaeology is a subdiscipline of archaeology, involving the study of environmental remains – for example, pollen, seeds, insects, and animal bone – recovered during archaeological excavation to elucidate a wide range of archaeological topics and themes. Like other archaeological subdisciplines, environmental archaeology has expanded and developed through the commercialization of archaeology in certain countries. This has resulted in a market for environmental archaeological analysis, in which a large proportion of environmental archaeologists are now employed.

Key Issues

Environmental archaeology, like other subdisciplines, is greatly affected by changes and trends that affect archaeology in general. One such trend has been the commercialization of archaeology in certain countries, which has occurred due to public pressure regarding the protection of archaeological heritage, resulting in government legislation. Within Europe this has essentially developed into two different approaches: a “socialist” model in which it is the central or local government’s responsibility to protect and excavate threatened archaeological heritage and a “capitalist” model in which it is left to a free market to carry out excavations and heritage work (Willems & van den Dries 2007; Kristiansen 2009). The first model could be seen to operate in France and Denmark, for example, whereas the United Kingdom and the United States of America operate a free market model, although Carver (2007) has noted there are degrees of variation, with “unregulated,” “regulated,” and “deregulated” practices. Environmental archaeology, therefore, takes place within these larger systems of archaeological practice.

In the “free market” countries, this has led to a rise in the number of archaeological and, consequentially, the number of environmental archaeological positions. This has been well studied in the United Kingdom with the number of archaeologists rising from 1,614 in 1979 to 4,425 by 1998, and peaking at 6,865 in 2007 (Aitchison & Edwards 2008). This corresponded with the creation of a market-driven developer-funded structure through government legislation, the Town and Country Planning Act and associated guidance, primarily Planning Policy Guidance 16 (PPG16) (Department of the Environment 1990), resulting in commercial archaeological organizations accounting for 89 % of archaeological investigations between 1990 and 1999 (Darvill & Russell 2002). Although data is limited to a small number of surveys, there appears to have been a corresponding rise in the number of environmental archaeologists, for example, at least 50 commercially active zooarchaeologists were identified in a 2009 survey of the United Kingdom (Morris 2010), the majority based either within commercial organizations or as self-employed freelance specialists.

Countries with a “market-driven” commercial archaeology structure have further developed an internal market for environmental archaeological analysis, with the development of self-employed freelance specialists. Commercial organizations without an in-house specialist may therefore place work out for tender, with different specialists bidding for a specific piece of work. However, reciprocal relationships will often be formed between organizations and individual specialists. Within the United Kingdom freelance specialists are now important agents in the creation of new datasets. Morris’s (2010) survey of zooarchaeologists indicates that a minimum of 506 zooarchaeological projects resulting from commercial developments were undertaken within the United Kingdom in 2009, with freelance specialists accounting for 30 % of the projects and commercial in-house specialists 64 %. In comparison, university-based specialists conducted only 5 % of the projects.

One of the problematic factors associated with the increase in commercial environmental work is a lack of dissemination, which is an issue affecting archaeology as a whole. Within the United Kingdom reports are usually produced by commercial units to allow their client (often a developer) to discharge a planning condition. These are unpublished and are often referred to as “grey literature.” Bradley (2006) and Fulford (2011) have shown how this literature has great potential for expanding archaeological knowledge but requires synthesis. Organizations such as the Archaeology Data Service in the United Kingdom and Digital Antiquity in the United States have started to disseminate such information. However, the environmental archaeology sections in many “gray literature” reports have often been summarized with the detailed datasets only available from specific archives or the original author. In part this is a specific problem with market-driven archaeology where the emphasis is often on pricing and documentation rather than research quality and interpretation (Kristiansen 2009).

The rise in the amount of environmental archaeological work has also resulted in an emphasis on assessment rather than complete analysis. In the United Kingdom, this developed from English Heritage’s guidelines “Management of Archaeological Projects 2” which was superseded by Management of Research Projects in the Historic Environment (MoRPHE) (English Heritage 2006). The principles of assessment are for an assemblage to be quickly scanned by the specialist to ascertain the potential for further work, based on the local, regional, and national significance of the assemblage. This often results in assemblages of a perceived “lower” significance not being fully analyzed or only part of an assemblage being subject to further work. The emphasis on assessment within a commercially tender-driven background could also result in poor-quality work being undertaken by inexperienced environmental archaeologists. However, this problem has been recognized by a number of quasi-governmental bodies and specialist associations. Within the United Kingdom, for example, English Heritage has released a number of guidance notes covering aspects of environmental archaeology for specialists and archaeologists who commission specialist work (English Heritage 2011), and it has also supported the setting up of working groups to support individuals within a commercial context (e.g., the Professional Zooarchaeology Group). The Association of Environmental Archaeologists, International Council of Archaeozoologists, and British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology have also all published guidance notes to their members; however, there is still little or no peer review of commercial environmental archaeological reports in most countries. The development of guidance documents and procedure has resulted in a certain standardization of aspects of environmental archaeology, such as sample sizes and specialist procedures, by commercial organizations. Although this could be argued to stifle creativity within projects, it may in the long term be conducive to data synthesis.

In summary, environmental archaeology as a subdiscipline within archaeology is subjected to the same outside forces that affect archaeology as a whole. The commercialization of archaeological practices in some countries has resulted in a market for environmental archaeological work, resulting in an increase in new datasets, greater employment opportunities, and an expansion of the discipline. However, in such a situation, archaeology and environmental archaeology are not immune to general economic trends; therefore, a downturn in economic conditions in a country where archaeological work is governed by “capitalist” free market principles often results in a downturn in environmental archaeological work and a loss of positions and subsequently skills. However, countries where the state maintains control appear to be less affected (Aitchison 2009). The separation of processes within a commercial context can also make the integration of archaeological results from different material specialists harder to achieve, although this is an issue that effects all environmental archaeologists. Finally, within a free market system often based on price, standards must be considered to be an issue: organizations are working to maintain and improve standards of environmental archaeology, but in a market economy, this is also reliant on environmental archaeologists continuing to raise the profile and importance of such work to the consumer (other archaeologists and archaeological organizations).



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Forensic and Investigative SciencesUniversity of Central LancashirePrestonUK