In a change to my originally intended blog post on open area excavations (see next month for that) I thought I would detail my experience as a commercial archaeologist during the Covid-19 lockdown. During the lockdown, most folks have been stuck inside, isolated from friends and family, working from home or furloughed unless in vitally important (key worker) roles such as hospital, food factory or supermarket workers. Things in construction happened differently; that is to say, nothing really changed. So, as a non-key worker who continued to work on site with and around others, here is an example of how we managed good practice (or did the best we could to stay safe whilst having to work).
I work for a small satellite office of one of the bigger archaeological companies – I’m not naming names but you can probably figure out which one without too much effort. Back in March we could see the virus looming on the horizon and I had a lot of post-ex work to do so about a week before lockdown started I packed up all my files and my work laptop and took all my gear home (managing one cheeky motorbike ride before I did). So, when lockdown actually happened I had already been working at home (and cursing IT) for about a week, so the immediate lockdown didn’t change much for me.
Our first official orders were that everyone out on site was pulled in immediately, so everyone was at home for at least a week, then those who were finishing off sites headed out for a few days under strict conditions to tidy up and make sites safe. I did two weeks of working on my post-ex at home before I was called on to head back out to site. You see the country was on lockdown, pubs closed, shops closed, businesses closed, but not construction. HS2 – the major UK rail infrastructure project, never shut down (to the best of my knowledge), nor did some of the large development sites (although some did shut down and to them I’m sure a lot of archaeologists and other workers are grateful). Our problem is that if construction doesn’t stop, we as archaeologists can’t stop as we have to clear and record the site either before or during work (see my previous commercial archaeology 101 blog entries for details on how it all works). If we don’t, either the development is stopped or, (more likely), they continue anyway, and we lose the archaeology forever.
Now I will hold my hands up and admit I was lucky with the site I was sent to – others have not had the same generally positive experience that I have so I’ll stress again that this was my experience. I was sent to a watching brief, so I was the only archaeologist on site performing observations on trenches being excavated for a new thermal water heating system, (or something of the like) in the grounds of a stately home.
My job was immediately made much easier by the fact that there were no longer tourists in the grounds of said stately home. The site access was heavily controlled with only specified people allowed to operate the gate. There was ample parking (I was using my own vehicle and keeping it clean), with plenty of space and there was a maximum of eight on site, although more regularly five and of these I was only regularly working with three. So, we had a small closed group of people and plenty of space. The 2m rule was instigated at all times and we had separate welfare – theirs was a cabin, mine was my car and the public toilets in the ground of the stately home (these were opened exclusively for me). I had my own bottle of hand sanitiser, disinfectant and soap provided by the office, and a shiny new set of COVID-19 RAMS, (Risk Assessment and Method Statement), alongside my normal RAMS and two daily briefing sheets to be filled in and copied to our office H&S officer every day (more paperwork, YAY). The COVID-19 daily brief was to ensure that my facilities were clean, we could maintain distance, no one on-site was ill, my vehicle was clean and disinfected, that no one besides me had used my tools, and a few other things.
From this point we managed to carry on as a fairly normal watching brief, the guys dug the trench, I kept an eyeball out for interesting stuff, (there were brick culverts. Lots and lots of brick culverts) so I was kept busy. I cannot praise my groundworkers enough, these guys were great. They asked what I was looking for and got really good at spotting the changes in geology and cleaning brickwork, and at all times they were brilliant at keeping at least 2m apart and moving their kit out of the way, letting me move my kit and giving me the time and space that I needed to undertake archaeological recording. In fact, as the site is completed I can probably do a name drop. Leggate Plant, thanks lads! You know who you are, thank you for making me feel safe in these strange times!
So, I was quite content actually going out to site in the middle of a pandemic as my H&S was really good and those I was with were really good too. We had one incident about three and a half weeks into the job when one of the pipe laying guys (not the team I was working with, these guys were following us up the pipe about a week behind so I didn’t know anyone besides their supervisor) turned up and within minutes told the site manager that he was running a fever and had a nasty cough. The site manager (rightly) gave him one hell of a telling off and sent him to go sit in the car whilst he called his managers for advice and got the lads to give the cabin a thorough scrub whilst increasing site distance for the day to 3m. The site was stood down for the following day (lucky as it rained like hell that day) and we returned the day after. It later turned out that this guy was just hungover and was not sick with COVID-19 but how were we to know? Our only real problem with working together was that keeping a 2m distance from everyone on site is A) much more stressful than it sounds and b) easy to forget after a few days when auto-pilot brain wants to take over. We all got very good at reminding each other and making a real point of standing there saying ‘that ain’t 2 meters that’s 1.9,’ or ‘3 meters, bit anti-social today ain’t you?’ (we can still have some fun, sometimes making light of the situation is the best way).
All in all then my site experience so far has been quite good, but, I only had to be responsible for myself. Heading up a larger site will be much more of a challenge. Now my team are mostly sensible, and they are taking this seriously, but even the best laid plans can go wrong. Humans naturally gravitate towards one another when talking and before you know it you can be stood right beside the person you are taking to. Or maybe we need to lift something heavy like a cremation urn. There is no way of keeping a 2m distance and doing that. And sure we can all have our own shovel, but we only have one site camera and one GPS unit, and one site file, into which all the completed records go, so there will be multiple people touching certain objects – this is something that we can’t change quickly. Though we can disinfect stuff.
But what about even larger sites, development sites with 100’s of people. There is a hashtag on twitter #shutthesites that has been highlighting the cramped cafeteria’s and busy sites throughout the pandemic and there have been a lot of construction workers who have been afraid to go to work with good reason. Some of my collages have reported terrible site conditions on development sites where they have arrived at packed car parks, there’s been no social distancing on site at all until they reach the archaeological area when they can breathe a bit and it’s just them, but even with staggered break times they cannot use the cafeteria or welfare as there are simply too many on site for it to be safe. Fortunately, all our work at the moment is voluntary, so we are not being forced back on site. Although, as government legislation changes by the day, who knows how long that will last.
It would be interesting to hear more experiences of archaeology in lockdown whether on site, working at home or on furlough – please do feel free to share your experiences in the comments below or on Facebook and stay safe on your sites.
S. M. Porter
Professional archaeologist and author, S. M. Porter loves history, adventure and digging in the mud. Her career is in ruins - just where she wanted it to be.