Page last updated at 00:10 GMT, Friday, 20 February 2009

Recession leaves history in past

Daniel Thomas
BBC News, Bristol

Professor Mark Horton
Professor Horton fears about a quarter of jobs in archaeology will be lost
"It's been the most difficult three to four months of my career," archaeologist Roland Smith said.

And he is not the only archaeologist to feel the knock-on effects of the cutbacks in the construction industry.

Mr Smith, resources director at Wessex Archaeology in Salisbury, Wiltshire, said his firm has laid off 60 archaeologists since orders "fell off a cliff" last November.

But he feels the business and the industry should have seen it coming.

"One could have predicted the level of development taking place over the last three to four years wasn't sustainable," he said.

"But most of us working in archaeology are inextricably linked to construction."

Under current legislation any developer planning to build anything in a potentially sensitive area where there might be recorded remains, is required to have the land checked out by an archaeologist.

The law is understood to be responsible for a more than threefold increase in the number of working archaeologists, to 6,865 in the UK.

Skills shortage

More than half of these work in the private sector and rely on the construction trade.

Therefore, when construction contracts dry up, there is no money for their services.

At least 345 have lost their jobs in the UK, according to a report for the Institute for Archaeologists and the Federation of Archaeological Managers and Employers.

In the long term the nation suffers because we're losing people who are creating our nation's story
Mike Pitts, editor, British Archaeology Magazine
Professor Mark Horton of Bristol University has predicted about a quarter will find themselves unemployed before the recession is over.

It has been dubbed a "canary" trade, one which - like the canaries warning of dangerous gas in mining history - die at the first sign of trouble in the air.

"It's catastrophic," said the professor.

"Most of those people will have to find jobs somewhere else. There will be a real skills shortage, and a real problem when excavations begin again."

Professor Horton was part of a team on a dig which took place near the dry dock where ss Great Britain sits in Bristol.

National loss

"We excavated there, where there's a new building going up, on the site of Brunel's original engine factory," he said.

"We found the first ever use in the world of Portland Cement - that very item for the construction industry, ironically."

Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazine, said archaeology is not a highly paid profession, but attracts fanatical devotees.

"No one becomes an archaeologist because they want to get rich.

"They become archaeologists because they want to be archaeologists. To lose their job is a really serious personal blow.

"In the long-term the nation suffers because we're losing people who are very, very cheap and who are creating our nation's story."

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