Britain must dig deeper to save its archaeology

We are fascinated by the finds, from royal bones to antique gold, but the profession may go under

From Richard III, the king under the car park, to the Roman skulls and Venetian gold uncovered by London's Crossrail, British archaeologists have continued to unearth historic finds. But while the UK Festival of Archaeology opened yesterday with an extensive nationwide programme, the profession is finding itself under siege. A funding crisis has left it feeling undervalued, understaffed and reliant on volunteers.

Although the recession cut the number of working archaeologists by a third, the economy is recovering, and experts now fear that there will not be enough trained archaeologists to meet the demand of developers. As a result, they are warning that further archaeological riches may be lost to the nation for ever.

"These are one-off opportunities and, once you have lost a site, you have lost it for ever – you never get that knowledge back," says Mike Heyworth, director of the Council for British Archaeology.

Poor job prospects and even poorer pay is exacerbating the problem. "Many archaeologists don't make enough to pay taxes," said Doug Rocks-Macqueen, a consultant for Landward Research Ltd. "The average archaeologist only lasts about five years [after training] before they get a permanent job – which is hard to do – or leave the profession."

Indeed, while 94 per cent of archaeologists have a degree, and 40 per cent have a masters or PhD, entry-level positions pay only £17,000 a year, and most of these are temporary.

Lisa Westcott Wilkins, former editor of Current Archaeology magazine, says: "Why would you want a career in archaeology when everybody knows there is very little security, you move around a lot and it pays really, really badly compared with similarly trained professions?"

As a result, some universities are experiencing fewer applicants, and less government support. While there are still five applications for every opening, funding is directed towards universities with high-achieving A-level students. At present, only around 150 archaeology students across the UK meet this criteria, leaving archaeology departments increasingly under threat. Birmingham University's Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity closed in late 2012 and there are fears that other departments will follow suit.

"Universities also have to make harder decisions about whether it is possible to maintain these smaller departments," says Dr Heyworth.

Local councils and charitable funds such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and English Heritage have also reduced their funding. Glenn Foard, a world-renowned archaeologist, said the success of large-scale surveys is now dependent on volunteers. His project to locate the site of the Battle of Bosworth, commissioned by Leicestershire County Council required more than 20 volunteers.

"The objects we recovered from Bosworth ranged from the boar badge of Richard III to artillery rounds fired by the guns on the day, to a boy scout's badges lost in the 1950s," said Dr Foard, who is shortlisted for tomorrow's 2014 British Archaeology Awards. "We could not have found the battlefield, and surveyed it when we found it, if we had not had this volunteer input," he said.

David Jacques, of the University of Buckingham, is working at the Vespasian's Camp site on Salisbury Plain – described as the "cradle of Stonehenge" – with more than 31,000 pieces of worked flint and over 1,000 bones. Before his university began funding the project in 2013, he had to exist on a £2,000 annual grant from Avebury town council and donations from locals and academics.

Ms Westcott Wilkins, managing director at DigVentures, the world's first crowdfunded and crowdsourced archaeological team, says that grants and charitable donations are not the answer, and that archaeologists must find new funding paradigms if they want financial security.

"We didn't want to be reliant on handouts from charities," she said. "With crowdfunding, people are purchasing benefits – a place on our team, exclusive news from the digs and, in some cases, the opportunity to come along on the digs and learn from our professional archaeologists.

"Our grant money is not going to run out in three years, we are sustainable."

This year, DigVentures also plans to roll out a "Digital Dig" project at Leiston Abbey in Suffolk. This will involve using iPads to record data and send findings to the Cloud. "I hope it's going to lead to a whole new way for the public to be involved in archaeology," she said.

"Archaeologists have to catch up in using different technology, because, if we don't, people are going to completely lose track of what we do."