free archaeology: job insecurity and the need for an archaeological minimum wage

AB Heritage’s blog post on free archaeology triggered a parallel discussion of the causes of (and potential solutions to) a business model that forces much of the workforce to endure unpaid not-working, being-available. Following the section on austerity, complicity and exploitation, and the section on precarious excavation and generational crisis, here I want to look at how and why archaeology is underpaid and insecure. It’s particularly important now, because even the national minimum wage is under threat.

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


11 Responses to “free archaeology: job insecurity and the need for an archaeological minimum wage”

  1. Great piece, just a slight observation on your numbers- commercial work, typically (as an average) is highest in the fall and beginning of winter, not the summer (with great variation between companies) at least in the UK. What most likely explains the high occurrence of temp archs (or the impression of them) is that if you look at the 2007-8 data most excavator jobs employ people with very little experience. The typical digger last 2-4 years (not necessarily employed all during that time) before getting a permanent job or quitting the profession(some last the morning). The same for supervisors, field officers, etc. who may have permanent or the 1, 2, 3 year contracts. There is massive turnover at the bottom and many people leave the profession before ever making it to a permanent contract. The high percentage of permanent positions is the result of survival bias as opposed to season variation.

    The new numbers are going to show a 30-40% loss in archaeology jobs over the last 5 years (numbers still being checked because that represents such a huge loss). I think it is not so much an issue of temp vs. permanent jobs as it is job vs. no job which is much worse. Pay is actually not bad for archaeologists at the top, you just have to beat your way through 10? 20? 30? 50? 100? 200? other aspiring archaeologists to get to them (a bit depressing if you think about it).

  2. Developers have lots of money—bathing in it—very near drowning in it. Why dost thou not get paid well? Thou dost not get paid well because thou assumeth that thy developer showereth rather than batheth—and thou asketh not for thy fair share of what thy developer can afford. Thou sitteth on thy butt and crieth aloud rather than demand thy worth be paid.

    Just sayin’.

    Price fixing may be illegal here in the USA and in the UK. But tell me something, if that is the case, why does nearly every general practioner medical doctor from Seattle to Miami and Augusta to San Diego have approxiimately the same charge rate per patient visit (allowing some minor variation because of local economic characteristics). Riddle me that Batmen? And if they can do it—why is it that archaeologists cannot do the same?

    One last thought. I think part of the problem is that people (both academics and CRM business owners) have allowed CRM archaeology to labeled as an “industry” rather than as a profession. This was a fatal slit to the throat from the moment it was allowed to “catch on” in business, academic, and public discourse. No one here in the United States—and I do mean no one—speaks of the medical industry, the legal industry, the counseling psychology industry, or even the engineering industry. Here in the United States, the word “industry” has always been used to refer to relatively poor, uneducated, or barely educated grunts who slave each day under miserable working conditions outdoors or in factories. For you Brits, think 1830s Welsh coal miner, and you have immediately mastered the American view of the word “industry.” How on Earth did we allow that to happen and become seemingly inextricable from modern culture. Riddle me that Batmen?

    In a clearly related vein, why have professional archaeologists in academia and elsewhere allowed CRM archaeologists to be thought of as what we in the USA refer to as “blue collar workers” rather than as “white collar workers.” After all, if you think about it, archaeologists spend far more time in the laboratory, museum, or office than they do excavating in the field. Why have some archaeologists allowed other archaeologists to define them OVERALL solely by the fact that they spend a small portion of each year standing on bare dirt holding a shovel and a trowel. If your daughter were raped, would you allow your friends and associates to define her whole future life and her being as a person solely by that rape incident? That is precisely what archaeologists have done to other archaeologists. I do not know of a single person outside of archaeology here in the United States that generally views archaeologists as “blue collar workers” other than some archaeologists. People in general think of archaeologists as highly educated people associated with academia, museums, and other clearly white collar contexts. This “dig bum” crap is something that some archaeologists have done either to themselves or to other archaeologists for reasons that are not terribly clear to me. Riddle me that UK Batmen?

    I will close by saying that I am a white collar archaeologist who other people inside of archaeology and outside of archaeology actually think of as a white collar archaeologist. Almost all of my work time with archaeology is spent in a very nice office in front of a computer with diploma frames hanging over my desk. I am very well paid and have generous fringe benefits. However, I will admit that archaeology is not the only kind of work that I do. My career includes being an environmental protection specialist (clean water, environmental impact assessment, RTE species, hazardous waste management, environmental cleanup, etc.) and working as a technical editor.

    That being said, I have a tremendous amount of personal sympathy and empathy for the “fix” CRM archaeologists find themselves in now. Things need to change for the better, and I support that wholeheartedly. It might help to begin change by thinking of CRM archaeologists as a specifically defined persecuted group, such as an ethnic or racial minority group. Functionally, I think that has become the case. I have read the complaints for years now, complaints no one ever does anything about, and CRM archaeologists have effectively become the new enslaved n-word. I think one way to deal with this is to demand that academic and managing archaeologists quit using the term “CRM industry,” which is a form of semantic persecution that is used to label a whole class of educated people as low-life grunts so it is easier to exploit them.

    • I do feel like archaeologists could and should do more; but at the same time, I would like to think that, if it were as simple as we’re making it sound, they would’ve done something by now. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that those with the vertical and horizontal negotiating power – the senior archaeologists who could agree minimum wages amongst themselves and charge the developers enough to cover it – are too comfortable and not concerned enough to do it…

  3. Hey. I am a child of the 1960s. This is the liberal way we learned to think and talk in those days. If the above statement by me raised the hairs on your neck in anger, I can assure you that it would have never happened if you had read it over a cup of orange tea at a corner night club in 1967. Instead, you would have said, “Hey ma-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-n. You’ve got the groove. That’s absolutely right!!!”

    • šŸ™‚ (Hopefully obviously) only anger at the situation(s) archaeologists and heritage workers find themselves in. Surely, in a corner night club in 1967, you could find something better than tea to calm your nerves…

  4. I just thought that my use of the term “n-word” might outrage some people today. However, back in the 1970s and early 1980s, it was very common here in the United States to hear archaeological field technicians refer to themselves, often while working on site, as “digroes.” Been there. Heard that. It speaks volumes about CRM workers and their sense of badly damaged self-worth.

    • Well, I think it’s a clearly inappropriate analogy. Poorly-paid and insecure professionals are clearly neither slaves nor oppressed minorities. They’re not even in as bad a situation as undocumented Mexican day-labourers. So archaeologists’ sincere perception of themselves as “digroes”, etc. would be an insulting reduction of the historical experience of African Americans. But I assume it’s a knowingly over-the-top term. And at least they’re identifying with disadvantaged communities rather than denigrating them.


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