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Archaeology & Construction in 2014: Early Warnings of A Potential Recovery?

The archaeological profession in both the UK and Ireland has been severely impacted in recent years by recession. This is unsurprising given how closely the fortunes of commercial archaeology are tied to the construction sector- a fall in construction levels led to an equally pronounced decline in archaeological employment. This resulted in an 80% decrease in the number of archaeologists employed in Ireland between 2007 and 2013, with a 30% decrease among the profession in the UK over the same period. However, just as the commercial archaeological profession is adversely impacted by contractions in the construction sector, so to can it act as barometer for potential upturns in construction activity. Archaeological work is by necessity frontloaded, with work such as EIAs, watching briefs and excavations usually taking place before major construction work commences. As a result, the level of archaeological activity serves as a relatively reliable ‘early warning’ system for peaks and troughs in construction sector activity.

In Ireland the Construction Industry has been witnessing an increase in activity over the past 12 months (up 4.1% in Quarter 2), with a sharp rise in new orders from August. In the UK it is a similar story, most notable in Northern Ireland, where there has been a 38% rise in the value of project starts in the year to date. Across the UK as a whole new orders for Construction were 3.8% higher in Q2 than Q1, with notable increases in infrastructure (20.8%), private commercial (9.6%) and public new housing (7.3%). In addition to this the UK Construction sector is facing the prospect of significant project startups, such as HS2. How then does the archaeological picture compare?

Although no comparable commercial archaeological figures are available, there has been anecdotal evidence of a rise in archaeological activity across the UK and Ireland in the last number of months. What we can do in Rubicon is look at our own figures. Rubicon surpassed our entire tender inquiry total for the Jan-Dec 2013 period in early August of 2014. Archaeological tender inquiries often operate in peaks and troughs dependent on cycles such as Government spending programmes and budgetary cutoff dates. It is useful therefore to assess the percentage increase in inquiries by quarter across 2013 and 2014:

Quarter Comparison

% Increase

Q1 2013 v Q1 2014


Q2 2013 v Q2 2014


Q3 2013 v Q3 2014

35% (excluding September)

Q4 2013 v Q4 2014


1. Percentage Increase in Quarterly Tender Opportunities 2013-1014

Q1 is traditionally a slower period for tender inquiries following the Christmas break, so the 100% 2014 Q1 increase comes off a relatively low base. However, all told the increase across 2014 is marked, and appears to be consistent and holding. It should also be noted that the rise we are witnessing (in Rubicon at least) is comparable across the UK and Irish markets. Q3 has been the most active of the periods to date with by far the largest number of tender inquiries in 2014. This is the case even though figures for the Q3 month of September are not yet finalised; all told the percentage of tender inquires in July and August 2014 is up 38% on Q1 and Q2 2014, which themselves were already showing increased tender activity.

All in all this suggests that the growth in Construction Sector work is due to continue apace at least over the coming months, with another sharp increase potentially on the horizon. If the trend in Q3 is replicated into Q4, it may also allow the Archaeological Sector in both the UK and Ireland to begin to recover from what has been a particularly devastating recession.