December 2017 marks a very personal milestone which has prompted some personal reflection on my part. On the 15th December 1987 I started my first full-time archaeological post as a supervisor for the Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit (GMAU). I’d had archaeological work before, as a paid digger and supervisor on a number of excavations whilst I was a post-graduate. However, this marked the moment that I entered the profession. Since then I have been fortunate enough to be in continual employment, so that means that December 2017 marks for me 30 years as a professional archaeologist.
The profession has changed dramatically in that time. Back in 1987 there were just 2000 full-time archaeologists in the UK. In 2017 there are around 5900. Back in 1987 there were diverse paths into the profession and most full-time archaeologists did not have a degree. Now a degree is the norm and alternative entries are limited, although that may be about to change. Although developer-funded archaeology was emerging in the 1980s we were still three years away from the adoption of the polluter-pays principle for archaeology and heritage in the planning system. Most archaeological employment was underpinned by the Manpower Services Commission (MSC), rather than construction-related developer-funding. Both though relied on short-term contracts ranging from weeks to a year – sadly a feature still prominent in archaeological employment in 2017.
It was through an MSC-funded scheme that I was employed in archaeology: a one-year contract as part of the Salford Heritage Project run by GMAU. My first weekly pay packet (it was indeed handed over as cash in a small brown envelope with one of those cellophane rectangular windows with my name written on it) was worth £97.50 net. That is £157.10 gross weekly (£8169 pa), and somewhat below the national weekly average of £181.70 (c. £9448 – according to the National Office of Statistics) for 1987. Sadly the archaeology profession remains one where the wages for most professionals barely reach the national average.
I can still remember my first day. After passing on my details to the university finance office (GMAU was based in the Archaeology Department at Manchester University) I was briefly introduced to the then director, Phil Mayes, who had interviewed me for my new post a few weeks earlier. I was given a grand tour of GMAU’s nine archaeology projects spread across Greater Manchester; from Broadbottom and Castlefield, to Castleshaw, Salford, and Wigan. My chauffer was Robina McNeil, GMAU’s senior archaeologist and someone who became a lifelong friend until her untimely death in 2007. I was taken to a range of sites, some of which would become familiar touchstones during the following decades; Broadbottom Mills in Tameside, Castleshaw Roman fort (and a first sighting of my colleague and friend Norman Redhead), Warburton Churchyard in Trafford, and Industrial and Roman Castlefield. It was a whirlwind day that now seems like a half-remembered dream but in hindsight one that foretold many of the themes I would research in later years.
The one site I didn’t visit was the site that I was to be in charge of from the following January – the Iron Age and Roman dig at Great Woolden Hall in Salford. This was also a site I would use as one of the key case studies in my PhD. 22 years later I returned to Salford, this time as head of archaeology at the University of Salford, with a feeling that my archaeology career might have come almost full circle.
And the secret to my longevity? Partly stubbornness (I’d long ago decided to stick to a base in North West England) and partly luck (22 years working on the Tameside Archaeology Project, a further 20 on the Warburton Archaeological Survey, excavating at Great Woolden, and the encouragement and support of some great colleagues). But above all, having an understanding spouse with a secure job who earned a lot more than me in those crucial early years.