free archaeology: volunteering, training and crowdfunding

When Emily Johnson (@ejarchaeology) said that she was ‘contemplating blogging about the problematic subject of volunteers in arch[aeology] and heritage’, she generated (the archaeological equivalent of) a Twitter(-only) storm (which has been hashtagged #freearchaeology). Emily was worried that it might ‘ruffle to[o] many feathers‘. Lucy Shipley (@lshipley805) too made a ‘[c]onfession: [she was] frightened to even post this blog’, she ‘didn’t want to be accused of… not wanting to do hard work to get rewards, of being lazy’. Thankfully, the dole has made me fatalistic.

[Now cross-posted on (un)free archaeology.]

22 Responses to “free archaeology: volunteering, training and crowdfunding”

  1. Thanks so much for this post! Excellent summary of what has been said!


  2. This is brilliant, and I’m loving this whole argument in general. I think part of the problem in archaeology is the sometimes blurred division between archaeology-as-profession and archaeology-as-hobby, and the consequent confusion around the value of (alienated) archaeological labour and the value of archaeological experiences (commodities). See my short and wildly reductionist paper:

    It would be interesting to get some input from trade-unionists in the various parts of the archaeology sector to find out if anyone has tried tracing the impacts of volunteerism on driving down wages, replacing paid positions etc.

    Personally I don’t think archaeology is regressing to the gentleman-amateur model – the (long, slow) rise in volunteering and internships are part of a much wider economic phenomenon across a whole range of sectors including arts/culture, politics, publishing, etc. etc. It is hard to feel sorry for comfortably-off middle-class kids working for free while being supported by Bank of Daddy, especially when they’re the most visible face of a declining job market, but they are a symptom of the problem not the problem, and exploitation is exploitation.

    Final thought – should we make a clearer distinction between unpaid work placements undertaken as part of a degree or diploma course on the one hand, and unpaid internships in general on the other, or are they both equally problematic?


    • I don’t think the profession is regressing to Victorian gentleman amateurism, exactly, and I don’t think all parts of the profession will/would; but parts of it are becoming increasingly exclusive, perhaps oligarchical? (It is the same in lots of other professions, too. Hopefully, I didn’t lose that bit in the frantic cutting-and-pasting and it still exists in one of the follow-up posts.) Hell, even I am in a relatively comfortable position! I’m able to entertain the thought of getting back into the profession because I’m officially a skilled professional; if I didn’t have a PhD, they would’ve cattle-prodded me into Poundland years ago.

      I do agree that exploitation is exploitation. Just as (almost all of) the “most secure” parts of the profession would more accurately be seen as the least insecure, so (almost all of) the “luckiest” people in the profession should be reconceived as the least unlucky. We need solidarity across the profession, and every tier – unemployed, unpaid, underemployed, underpaid – needs to recognise that the levels above them are exploited allies.

      I think we can and should make a distinction between unpaid student placements and unpaid intern work (or however we string the words together) – especially before we complete our importation of the American internship culture. For example, I wasn’t exploited when I did my MA placement; but I’d never done archive cataloguing before, I only did it briefly, and I did it for a charity.



  3. Hi Sam,

    Just a few points in relation to your closing remarks on crowdfunding archaeology and a little background to help put these 140 character twitter missives into context!

    There are three main sectors in British archaeology: commercial, academic and community. Given that all three are supported by different business and procurement models, it isn’t helpful to roll the three into a catch all bucket to build a ‘pros’ verses ‘cons’ argument. There are clearly some excavations where volunteers would add value, and others where the inclusion of volunteers would represent a downgrading of professional competencies. It depends on which of these three sectors we are talking about.

    The DigVentures crowdfunding and crowdsourcing model – presented at various seminars and lectures in 2012 as ‘social contract archaeology’ – is a creative departure from business as usual, and may one day grow into it’s own sector (like the French revolution, it’s too early to tell!). It doesn’t take work away from archaeologists – but rather provides work and income for archaeologists, entering into a social contract with as wide a group of stakeholders as possible. You can review this approach in more detail with slides and paper published here:

    I have some sympathy with colleagues who misinterpret the aims and objectives of this approach, just because it’s new.

    The neoliberal transformation of the public sector and the on-going global economic crisis has led to reductions in funding for cultural institutions and scientific research, with serious impacts on archaeology in many countries. This has created a climate of fear, where change is treated with suspicion – and crowdfunding has been seen by some as a threat. David Cameron’s flagship policy when he came to power was something called the ‘big society’ – a vague amalgam of philanthropy and volunteering that has been seen by some as a fig leaf to hide his party’s ambition to renege on the post-war settlement.

    Rather than see crowdfunding and crowdsourcing as a threat – we need to look at some of the people in other sectors using crowdfunding to get things done. The occupy movement, artists, fringe productions – people unlikely to get supported by traditional funding agencies, but very likely to have a meaningful and challenging point to articulate. This is the Internet doing what it does best, working as a disintermediary – cutting out the middlemen, and undermining traditional distribution channels.

    Seeing what works for others, and then adopting and adapting – that’s the name of the game in these difficult and challenging times.This is how we are positioning archaeology, and when subject to a rigorous regulatory environment (and all DigVentures sites are excavated under Ministerial Scheduled Monument Consent – the highest level of heritage protection in the UK) it is our belief that this is a win win win.

    Partnership working at its best: Good for the archaeologists. Good for the community. And most importantly, good for the archaeology.

    All the best,



    • Hi Brendon!

      Firefox ate my original post, so this won’t be as considered or eloquent.

      It is much nicer to talk things over in more than 140-character bursts. I really do appreciate what you’re doing and am only concerned about the future of the profession (which is very obviously neither your fault nor within your control).

      As I tried to make clear in this post, I know and appreciate that you’re a professional outfit who do professional work. But just because you hold yourselves to high standards, it doesn’t mean that others will hold themselves (or be held) to equally high standards. And even if they want to, the insecurity of self-funding/crowd-funding make it difficult to ensure.

      Flag Fen, for example, is a great site, and it’s great that it has been and will be excavated and preserved professionally (especially with direct or indirect public involvement). But if even Flag Fen is dependent upon crowdfunding, what hope do other sites have? If even Flag Fen is dependent upon crowdfunding, how can archaeologists not see it as a threat? (I’m long out of the profession, I don’t even know where my trowel is (all I remember is that it’s mummified in library tape), I don’t have a dog in this fight.)

      I really do fucking hate Twitter (for anything more than news-sharing and insulting Sussex Uni and Dalston hipsters). I’ve enjoyed this one exchange more than all of our others put together.

      Best wishes,



  4. Sam,

    Just wanted to weigh in and agree with Gabe about the dangers of blurring… My call for examples in the original Twitter discussion was an attempt to make the problem we’re discussing a bit more tangible. I know that Twitter can quickly turn a gripe into a global conspiracy and I was very worried when the conversation started to suggest that you have to volunteer to be an archaeologist, therefore only rich people can be archaeologists, therefore archaeological interpretation is skewed towards what rich people think… Luckily the conversation didn’t quite get there, but in 10 years as a professional archaeologist I’ve only met a handful of people who could survive a missed pay-cheque. Incidentally, I’d very much like to know which archaeological units are costing low by using unpaid labour. I’m pretty sure it’s illegal so I doubt it actually happens.

    Of course all of the problems we’re discussing are real ones for the individuals concerned, but although I strongly agree with the underlying principles of the discussion I’m finding it hard to actually engage with it without more specific instances of people being required to volunteer or of certain amounts of voluntary experience being asked for on a job application form. I’m sure they exist so please do send me some.



    • Cheers.

      I think with units the problem may be more a case of unpaid overtime, etc. (but obviously I haven’t dug for a commercial unit for eleven years). If I remember correctly (and clearly, after eleven years, I might not…), you had to have three months’ digging experience to be taken on as a trainee. Could it have been six, or would that have been the minimum requirement for a full wage? (Administrative error and desperation got me in.) Especially if you have to do six-to-eight weeks’ digging as part of your degree, twelve might present some barrier, but not an insurmountable one.

      Can you hazard a reckon as to what proportion of your colleagues went straight into digging or got through university before it became expensive? It’s possible that, along with the rising costs of education, etc., the new cohort of archaeologists are facing new problems. It may be that their problem, such as it is, is other archaeologists’ unemployment. Whenever there’s a vacancy, there’s a pool of experienced archaeological labour down at the job centre.

      I think the problem with requirements of unpaid labour is more in white-collar work in museums, galleries, libraries, archives… I’d be reluctant to point out a few adverts, because I think just about every job advert I’ve ever seen required (significant) experience, and I’ve only ever looked at starting/junior positions. I’ll try to clarify and show that distinction in the follow-ups, etc.


  5. I don’t think the issue is with contract archaeological organisations, not least because of H & S, CSCS cards etc, and if they are RAO they can’t use volunteers in place of paid workers.. I’m sure any company doing this would soon be condemned by colleagues on BAJR and elsewhere..
    I think the growth of internship and volunteerism for career development is in, as you say, the museums, archives, stately homes side of things. That distinction is important – and certainly at UCL I’ve seen a lot of MA students ‘interning’ for anything from a few days or weeks to months at a time to ‘add value’ to their CV, above and beyond the requirements of their courses – we had a few work with us at the TDP, and all came from North America, where this seemed to be a key part of their career plans. It would be interesting, as I said on Twitter, to work out what happens to the people that do these ‘career developing’ internships/volunteering, and see if there is any impact on their job prospects. I can’t recall seeing any jobs recently that specifically ask for volunteer experience in certain areas, but I guess you need the edge now when so many people are applying for so few jobs?


  6. I think archaeologists have a love hate relationship with volunteering. I know that when I was an undergrad I volunteered on every project that I could just to gain experience. But it is problematic. Such a practice would not be tolerated in any other profession. What if I went into a bank and told the mortgage loan officer that “I’ve always been interested in mortgages and I would love to volunteer in my spare time to learn the profession. Will Sundays work?” I’m sure I would be escorted out of the building by security … after being finger printed and photographed first, I’m sure.

    With that being said, I think that volunteering does have a few positives. For one it allows people from certain sectors of society to experience archaeology first hand and perhaps even allows them to consider a career in archaeology. For instance, I work for the U.S. Army at Fort Drum and we have soldiers volunteer with us. These volunteers come almost exclusively from the Warriors in Transition Unit (WTU), which is made up of combat veterans that have been injured in the performance of their duties while at war. The two volunteers that I currently work with both experienced traumatic injuries while in Afghanistan. While I’m not a psychiatrist, the work that they do for us is therapeutic. They find that they can be useful in a team setting and can apply many of the skills sets that they have already developed. Furthermore, they find that their interests in archaeology and history is something that they have in common with the rest of the Cultural Resources staff which provides a sense of camaraderie that they had only previously experienced with their combat units. The British Army has a very extended soldier archaeology program known as Operation Nightingale. This program has been a resounding success and they have found that 90 to 95% of the participants (all with PTSD) have responded positively, many going on to enroll in college in order to major in archaeology.

    While I understand and agree with many of the arguments against using volunteers I also believe that volunteering does have its place in archaeology.


  7. Hi Brits. Nice to meet up with you this evening. I am an American archaeologist, and my first excavation work was done in 1976 on what we then called a “paid dig.” A paid dig here is an archaeological excavation where all or nearly all of the fieldworkers are paid a regular hourly wage. Way back in 1976, I was paid the federal minmum wage (~ $3.00 per hour) to shovel or trowel out in the blistering sun all day in near 100-degree heat and 95% humidity. It was one of the most difficult summers I have ever spent. After that excruciating summer so long ago, I developed a philosophy that has served me well for the last 40 years. Indeed, I would suspect that some of my fellow sufferers that summer probably developed the same philosophy. Stated in a nutshell, that philosophy is quite simply:

    “No payee. No workee.”

    To the best of my recollection, we had no full-time unpaid workers that summer. An occasional volunteer would show up for a day or just a few days, but it was either for personal recreation or a cross-cultural exchange. For example, one of our crew members who had been an exchange student in Japan had a couple of Nipponese summer visitors at his home, and he let them tag along as volunteer crew members for a few days just to give them a cultural enrichment experience elbow-to-elbow with other Americans in the hot sun. However, these occasional flirtations with volunteers did not cost jobs. The level of paid work was sufficient to accomplish the job.

    One of the principal problems here in the United States (in certain geographic locations) is the absence of sufficient funding to hire workers confronting rather massive archaeological missions. For example, the Tennessee Division of Archaeology (TDOA) has a main office in Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville is located in an area where private sector construction projects frequently and quite unexpectedly encounter new (and sometimes quite major) archaeological sites. TDOA does not have the program budget or staff that would allow rescue excavations on a large site, and federal and state funding is often totally unavailable for such archaeological work because the construction project is not federally funded or licensed. In such cases, they often turn to a local citizen archaeological society whose members are willing to excavate for free on weekends. They do this because the members love archaeology, enjoy the fellowship, learn new things, and think the work is fun to do. It is not clear to me that any exploitation is involved because if these volunteers were not available, the bulldozers would simply plow through the site and destroy all of the archaeological context that might otherwise be recorded. Been there. Seen that. No trained professional archaeologist is being thrown out of work, and no well-funded organization or government agency is getting their work down for free on the sly. The money is simply just not there—and one must either ask for volunteer help or bow to the blade of the bulldozer.

    We also have something of a Massachusetts Puritan work ethic that is firmly embedded in American culture, especially here in the American South, meaning that many of us do not like the idea of using volunteers when we actually have enough budget money to pay people for doing archaeological work, preferably people with training and field experience in American archaeology. We just feel that it is not morally right to work a person to death in the hot sun for free when we damn well know that we have enough money in the budget to pay them. If I were exploiting volunteers in the various ways that have been decried in the foregoing responses, I must admit that I would have a hard time sleeping at night and showing up at church on Sunday morning. This is not to imply that American archaeologists in general are saintly in this regard. A number of bad apples can be found in any tub, but I would like to think that most of us still have a sensitive and active conscience. While we might let someone work for free to gain some experience they desperately want or just to try it out for the sake of fun, if that person has a real knack for field archaeology and does outstanding work, I think most right-minded American archaeologists would immediately set their mind gears rolling on how to find a way to either pay that person or help them get a paid job soon. For those American archaeologists who do not think like that (the bad apples in the tub), all I have to say is: “Shame on you!!!!”

    Finally, just in case you are wondering, I do not think practicing archaeologists at any level are paid sufficiently for the university training, level of effort, sore muscles, and sunburn that come with most jobs. I say that as a person who is more likely to be managing archaeological efforts and hiring CRM firms than one who is working under a blazing hot sun all day with a shovel. If millions of American doctors of medicine, without violating the Sherman anti-trust laws [quite independently, and without conspiracy (wink, wink)] miraculously manage to charge each patient $150 for an office visit, surely to goodness we can figure out a way to get archaeologists fairly paid for the skilled work they do.

    You folks are welcome to come on over and visit at my blog, which is called Archaeology in Tennessee. It makes not attempt to be intellectually rigorous or put on professional “airs” to impress people. You know:

    “See me? I’m balancing up on this archaeological high wire with my umbrella and tooter horn. Watch this backwards flip. Pretty slick, huh?? How about some tenure? How about a better job?”

    American archaeology has had way too much of this bullshit for decades. We need to find a way to put aside this worthless garbage and become basic, loving, down-to-earth people with more than just a dangling shred of humanity left in us. The URL for my blog is:

    All are welcome!!!



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