Continuing our series of old posts (to mark our 10th year in business), ones we feel were good, prescient or elicited some good conversation or debate, this post was first published in July 2008. Posted at the height of the Tara controversy, it was a bit snarky and did elicit some discussion. We also,  in our blogging naivety, edited and removed some comments. Now they’re deep in some email archive. I’ve appended the remaining comments at the end of the post. The nature of the archaeology industry has changed somewhat since and I don’t think that we could be accused of being corrupt or cajoling anymore (but given the opportunity I’m sure our core principles could be once again undermined).

I was going to introduce this blog post with the following, somewhat facetious, opener:

While we were busy brewing beer in UCD, in deep conversation with our very good pal ‘Don’ Rumsfeld, it seems that field archaeologists were exposed as the corrupt and evil rabble that they are, in thrall to our evil paymasters, the National Roads Authority (NRA). Despite the vociferous denials of the NRA that they merely copy-edited archaeologists reports on the M3 motorway and that they in no way changed the interpretations, no-one is buying their SMERSH-like manipulations. It’s clear that they misled the field archaeologists into thinking that archaeological testing in advance of construction of a road is merely flirting with the proposed route – that when the archaeologists find a site the road will be gracefully moved aside – that the whole route selection and EIS process is merely a prelude to the real negotiations for the road, and that roads are merely to facilitate the discovery of archaeology.

But, in the interest of public relations (and in the forlorn hope that the Jim Corr conspiracy theorists who think its all the work of Opus Dei or the Knights Templar wouldn’t come and troll) we decided against it. Instead this is how we’ll start:

While we were busy brewing beer at WAC, it appears that Irish commercial archaeology, the new enemy of the people, was being decried and derided in all the national media. Tuesday’s Irish Times (thankfully the IT has removed it’s paywall – now paywalled again -Dec) carried an opinion piece by Maggie Ronayne pointing to her recent lengthy paper (‘The State We’re in on the Eve of World Archaeological Congress (WAC) 6: Archaeology in Ireland vs Corporate Takeover’) in the Journal of Public Archaeology (pdf document) from which all the coverage stems. Headlined ‘Archaeology needs to recover its core principles and ethics’, her argument is that Irish archaeology, currently in the throes of growing commercialisation, is  being ill served by corrupt semi-state/technocrat archaeologists, conspiring with under-scrutinised consultants (read company owners) to undermine and cajole their staff (“those on temporary contracts don’t come forward; they fear being sacked or bullied out of their profession”) into underplaying the significance or importance of the archaeological resource encountered on national road schemes (and presumably other developments) to ensure that the proposed development(s) proceed as required by Government.

Although there are many good points in her original piece in Public Archaeology, she kind of lost us with her scattergun approach and her claim that

this is an inevitable expression of expansion by multinational corporations, often part of the ‘spreading democracy’ which, updating a famous phrase, can be characterised as a US-led ‘war by other means…’

and that we continue to ‘suffer from nationalism’ (my emphasis – I wonder can you get a cream for that?), and she even squeezes Halliburton into it all.

In the IT she stresses that

academic archaeologists’ autonomy is crucial. Without it there is little control by independent professionals of the erosion of standards and values by the private sector.

Indeed she seems to call for the reversal of the ‘privatisation’ of archaeology.

Far from being the corrupt polluted sphere of the cowboy and the charlatan, standards in modern Irish commercial archaeology are second to none. The growth in the sector has led to many changes in the practice of archaeology and much improved standards and methodologies have been devised and applied by Consultant Archaeologists throughout the country. Our legislation is among the most draconian in the world with a well scrutinised licensing system leading to many major developers and developers representatives employing their own project archaeologists.

There is no doubt that mistakes are made, and continue to be made. As the institute of Archaeologists of Ireland stated recently,

though there is always room for improvement – as in any scientific discipline – Irish professional archaeologists, institutions, companies and researchers are recognized for their very high standards on an international level.

The current review by the Minister is a reflection of concerns with regards to elements of the legislation and hopefully will result in consolidation of the various laws, and ensure even better protection for the archaeological resource.

There are few professions in Ireland which have changed as dramatically as that of archaeology. In a very short period of time the field has developed from the insular world of academia to the broader world of the professional and the world of business and politics. In some ways, archaeology has always been a field in transition, from its earliest beginnings in the country as a hobby to the gentry, to the highly regarded academic discipline it became and into todays professional arena. And, ironically, today, change, the subject of our study, is the very thing which drives that study. There is no doubt that this rapid change has presented problems. Not least is the fact that field archaeologists encounter and must deal with new and diverse value systems and situations where the agenda of the institutions and representatives of this sphere are somewhat at odds with the philosophy and value system of the old academic arena.

The rapid growth and development of field archaeology over the past 10-15 years in Ireland merits vigorous debate and discussion and particularly in the area of professional ethics, and Ms. Ronayne must be congratulated for drawing attention to the issue.  As Joukowsky says

as archaeology changes and pervades new arenas, old politics and opinions no longer function effectively, and we must be able, as individuals and as a collective, to understand and act effectively in new situations..

This space – where the diverse and discordant value systems of the academic archaeologist and that of business and politics clash – is where the greatest dilemmas and challenges occur for the modern field archaeologist. There are unfortunately no easy answers. It is in this sphere, where economic development and ‘progress’ come into conflict with the cultural resource, that the interpretation of the legislation and the rule of law becomes a factor, but the law is always going to be a compromise to some degree between the conservation of the archaeological resource and interests of economic development.

In this context the testimony of Maggie Ronayne’s sister Jo is at best a misunderstanding of the procedure and nature of ‘development led’/’rescue’ archaeology and at worst a deliberate misrepresentation of same. As the NRA state in their press statement in response to the original article:

The licence holder is also reported as stating that – ” ‘I didn’t realise that the testing and my reports would be used to facilitate rather than stop the project going ahead. Or that they don’t let you write the truth in the reports or give you enough time to do a proper job,’ she wrote.” However, the original method statement for these archaeological works, for which she was licensed, makes clear the purpose and intention of the excavations.

These comments reveal a lack of understanding of the purpose of the archaeological investigations. The work concerned was part of the mitigation measures in respect of archaeology included in the approved Environmental Impact Statement for the M3 scheme; it had no bearing on whether or not construction of the motorway could proceed. The decision in that regard was made by An Bord Pleanála some time previously (August, 2003) in line with statutory road scheme approval procedures.

Jo’s perceptions indicate a misconception of the role of the archaeologist in the testing phase of mitigation. At this stage of a development the archaeologists role is clearly to assess the extent and nature of the archaeological resource which will be impacted upon by a proposed development. The route of the road at this point had been established through proper procedure and in the context of a relative weighting given to archaeology alongside weightings given to biodiversity, ecology, impact on human beings, visual impact, economic impact etc. This is not to say that we (Moore Group) would necessarily agree with final route selection for the M3. However, the planning procedure and its flaws (corruption etc.) represent a question for the wider community and for society, not the individual consulting archaeologist (we’d venture to suggest that, in future, in certain special cases, such as Tara, the cultural heritage be given a higher weighting than other elements in the EIS process).

In the dirty world of contract archaeology with its profit-oriented business ethic, Ms. Ronayne sees conspiracy and corruption. Profit, however is not evil, shouldn’t be a bad word. Put at its simplest, it is nothing more than a return on investment after expenses, and the justification for it is nothing less than the right of the business person/entrepeneur to pursue their own happiness (and that of their staff) through their own hard work, risktaking and ultimate success. Maggie Ronayne and others will tell us that by exercising our own economic self-interest and as a group with others in our profession, we represent a coercive threat to the cultural heritage as a whole.  This is patently not the case.

Joukowsky points to the fact that our field, as a science, is not purely objective, that we are all influenced in our interpretation by our life experience, background, our value systems and societal expectations and mores. We are simply explaining a past we know little about based on our own pre-defined expectations and cultural constructs, the nature of the questions we would like to be answered and the values and standards of society as a whole. Take the various interpretations of Fulachta Fiadh as an example. Billy and Declan have interpreted the sites as possible breweries, a notion rooted in their own life experience. Others favour more genteel functions such as saunas or graceful cooking, notions which may be pre-determined by their own values and life experience, and still others see them variously as metal working sites, tanning sites or butchering sites (and even birthing pools!).

It is this diversity of opinion, this range of expectations, which is at the nub of the problem. How do we as a profession determine a unified value system when we are such a widely disparate community?

I’ve appended below excerpts from statements from WAC which are relevant to some of the other specific issues raised by Maggie Ronayne either in her IT piece or in the original Public Archaeology paper:

WAC On Archaeology and the Military/War.

“There was a lot of debate around the issue of whether archaeologists should provide advice and expertise to the military on archaeological and cultural heritage matters,” said Professor Smith.

“There is a strong view by some members that a refusal by archaeologists and others to work with the military would send a message that war with Iran is hugely unpopular amongst cultural heritage professionals,” said Professor Smith. “The view here is that providing advice and expertise to the military during the war planning against Iran would offer cultural credibility and respectability to the military action.”

“Other members take the opposite stance that it is their responsibility as cultural heritage specialists to attempt to mitigate the damage done to cultural heritage wherever there is conflict as this cultural heritage could be an essential building block in the peace process,” said Professor Smith.

A resolution suggesting that no archaeologists or cultural heritage specialists assist the military in planning to protect the cultural heritage was passed by the Plenary session of the WAC-6 Congress for consideration by the World Archaeological Congress Assembly, Council and Executive but was not approved as a formal statement of the position of the organisation as a whole.

“This debate highlights how strongly people feel about any impeding military engagement with Iran,” said Professor Smith.

Since 2003 the World Archaeological Congress has had a Task Force on Archaeologists and War with an explicit remit to investigate the ethics implications of working with the military.

In order to address these issues from a global perspective the World Archaeological Congress will be holding an Inter-Congress with the theme “Archaeologists, Ethics and Armed Conflict.” This is likely to be held in the Hague in 2010.

WAC on Sponsorship by certain organisations:

“The World Archaeological Congress has members in some 90 to 100  countries. Because our membership incorporates a wide range of  political and cultural backgrounds, no sponsors would be acceptable  to every single member,” said Executive member Jon Price.

“If all members were given a veto on our funding sources the World Archaeological Congress would find itself unable to continue bringing  together archaeologists, anthropologists and Indigenous peoples from  around the world.

WAC on Tara and the M3

The full statement is available on Eachtra’s website here.

“Prior to the holding of the Sixth World Archaeological Congress here in Ireland, we sent two senior representatives to look at the issue of the motorway, ” said Professor Claire Smith. “They found that all the archaeological work had been done to the highest professional  standards.”

The hosting of the Congress at University College Dublin facilitated the holding of a Tara stakeholders’ panel. During this forum a number of competing and often contradictory claims were made and the World Archaeological Congress has now commissioned a report on the Tara discussions.

The World Archaeological Congress stressed that its report would not interfere with the legal and consultative planning process already  completed in Ireland. “We do not question the validity of the  planning process undertaken in Ireland. Our purpose is to learn  lessons for the future and for other countries with issues  surrounding development archaeology,” said Professor Smith.


Joukowsky, M.S., 1991. Ethics in Archaeology: An American Perspective. From Berytus, Vol. XXXIX.

Ronayne, M., 2008. The State We’re in on the Eve of World Archaeological Congress (WAC) 6: Archaeology in Ireland vs Corporate Takeover, pp. 114–129. Public archaeology, Vol. 7, No. 2.


  1. Southiesham says:

    In addition to Jo’s lack of understanding of the planning process, she seems to also have little understanding or knowlege of the responsibilities and legal powers of a licence holder.

    A director cannot be prevented from “writ[ing] the truth” in a report. The director is responsible, under law, for the content of an archaeological report and if for one moment she felt she was been prevented from accurately reporting what she found, a very simple phone call to the DoEHLG or National Museum would sort things out very, very quickly.

    The only point this article made, to my mind, is that there are people running excavations who shouldn’t be, and are allowing themselves to be bullied by the client. A challenge all consultants face; and if you are not up to it, then perhaps you should consider alternative career options.

  2. condescending patronising typical of you.

    Part of comment removed. Reason: Named individual.

    ….archaeologist are not immune to corruption.

  3. pauline says:

    A huge part of the problem was that inexperienced archaeologists were used for what is a hugely complex and important site.

    However when Conor Newman work was used to dismiss the western route that was selected through public consultation and ticked all the right boxes, he objected that it was used incorrectly. His objections were dismissed.

    The archaeologist who created the report was now in the Discovery Programme and could not give evidence. No satisfactory reason was given to why other than Conor Newman’s work this route was dismissed.

    Sites like these should only be evaluated by experienced and respected archaeologists in the area.

    Was it corrupt? Lets leave that to Sherlock Holmes, when all other possibilities are dismissed the simplest is usually the answer.

  4. declan says:

    Thanks for your comment Pauline.


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