free archaeology: volunteering, training and crowdfunding

Posted: 02/04/2013 in free archaeology, Research
Tags: , , , , , ,

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.

Obviously, free archaeology isn’t immediately relevant to the trade in conflict antiquities or the destruction of cultural property, but it does have a direct impact on the profession, and thereby on scholarly research and public understanding, so I’ve written three at least four five posts.

There’s: first, this (increasingly long) post on volunteering, training and crowdfunding (which brings together a lot of the original Twitter chat); second, a(n equally long) post on the distinct work crises in archaeology and heritage; third, a note on an exhibition of the archaeology of exploited labour; fourth, a post on unpaid internships (which focuses on the legality of that form of free archaeology); and fifth, a post on unemployment and precarity (which focuses on the consequences of forced flexibility).

Speaking out (or not)

Lucy said that ‘[a]ny protest that limits [her] chances of eventual paid employment in heritage/archaeology/academe is one that [she’s] too cowardly to join’; but in fact she did speak out. I don’t think that everyone who isn’t recklessly self-destructive is cowardly.

I feel relatively free in writing this (or at least this much), partly because I haven’t been exploited as a volunteer; I’ve refused to perform exploitative “voluntary” work. I’m confident that, if someone for whom I’ve (not) done unpaid work recognises themselves here, they’ll know that I know that they’re blameless; they’ll also recognise which other people are the targets of my negative comments.

That said, there are aspects of paid work that I am not free to discuss (yet). I, friends and acquaintances have endured peculiar, somehow-financially-indentured white-collar labour. And I, friends and acquaintances have witnessed the fixed corners of the job market, which are partially fixed through networks that are established or consolidated with unpaid labour (that have nothing to do with head-hunting experts for niche work, or relying upon trusted colleagues at short notice or in risky business). But they’re subjects for another day and a far more vitriolic post.

Jim Dixon said that the discussion ‘could do with a few examples‘, so I’ll try to provide some (whether or not they’re explicitly identified).


Reinforcement of (bad) luck

Rob Lennox and Sheena Payne-Lunn were not alone in identifying elitism, and seeing the ‘danger of archaeology becoming elitist if [it’s] reliant on unpaid experience’. Poppy Starkie ‘[f]requently see[s] things advertised expecting [a] big time commitment for no pay‘.

Emily explained how voluntary work is a difficult subject: employers expect a ‘huge amount of experience (both voluntary and paid)’. Very often, even if you’re qualified, ‘it is impossible to gain experience in a paid position until you have really rather substantial voluntary experience’; ‘lack of experience hinders [people] significantly’. ‘So who does have the experience?…. Those who can afford to work for free, are able to do so.’

Lucy explained the system of ‘working for no pay, and looking happy while you do it. Also known as volunteering’, because, ‘[n]o matter how much you dress it up in shiny “Big Society, heritage for all” rhetoric, this [extended volunteer/intern work] is work without pay and without prospects. It’s open only to those who can afford to take time out from working.’

Cara Jones found that ‘helping out on weekends with community archaeology projects helped get my paid #pubarch job. #winwin’. But the perception of unpaid work in general as a win-win deal is false. The myth of escape is just that – a myth, or at best a legend, born of survivorship bias. There is a franker way of phrasing it: ‘Volunteering got me [AB Heritage’s Hannah Simpson (@hs_abheritage)] a job. I volunteered during uni when living costs were low, now I’m settled & well paid. #workedforme‘. The fact that it works for a few people does not mean that it works.

[Great Firewall-vaulting Brenna Hassett’s place makes a great effort to make volunteer positions as flexible as possible, to make it as easy as possible for people to volunteer as well as work; and it really is great when a community exists around a shared place.

The problem is not (necessarily) that institutions don’t try. Sometimes, institutions simply don’t have money; sometimes, institutions choose to do more than they can afford, so use their money to pay for unavoidable (fixed) costs, and use volunteers to minimise avoidable (staff) costs; and sometimes organisations actively exploit free labour.]

Professionalism and data standards

Emily wondered whether ‘heritage practice is becoming de-specialised because there are those without qualifications who are willing to work for free’, and Hannah believed that ‘[l]oss of specialism ultimately costs the sector a chance of professionalism in the public eye’. Colleen Morgan ‘worr[ied] about data standards from grad[uate] student/student digs‘; she judged that the ‘craft of archaeology suffers through the deemphasizing of excavation methodology and our data suffers as well’.

Years ago, Kenneth Aitchison had concluded:

Excavating a site is an unrepeatable experiment; once it is gone, it is gone and if we must do this then we have to do it to the absolute best of our capabilities. I think that means restricting the opportunity to carry out destructive work to specialists who are both capable and principled.

That doesn’t preclude the participation of volunteers, but it does preclude volunteers forming the backbone of the profession.

An entire profession dependent upon unpaid labour

Cara pointed out that free archaeology ‘isn’t just about fieldwork’. She mentioned the investment of time and money in conferences; Lorna Richardson (and everyone who’s ever seen it in operation) observed that ‘the whole academic publication system is plastered together by volunteer work’.

While writing this, I heard that Harvard University’s Classics Department had asked thousands of its graduates to ‘volunteer as online mentors and discussion group managers‘ on a massive open online course (MOOC). From excavation to publication to education, the functioning of this already underpaid and insecure profession is dependent upon unpaid labour at every stage.

During my first period of medium-term unemployment (in 2010-2011), I tried to volunteer at a major museum network in a large city, but it was ‘not optimistic’ (and in the end couldn’t find anything), because it was getting ‘around 20 requests per month’ and could rarely find positions for its existing backlog. During the second period (in 2011-2012), I tried to volunteer at a major museum in a very large city, but it was ‘bursting’ with volunteers already; so there were no more roles to fill, and the staff didn’t have the time to supervise any more people anyway.

There are so many volunteers that not only is it difficult to become a junior, an apprentice or an intern, it’s even difficult to become a volunteer!

Austerity, complicity and exploitation

Robert Connolly believes that ‘we have an obligation to make these [volunteering] opportunities available to those who pay our salaries through their tax dollars‘ and hopes that, thereby, ‘the “public” will become more appreciative of… and better fund that presentation and preservation‘.

The Thames Discovery Programme stated: ‘Volunteering is the backbone of archaeology across the discipline be it through academia, community archaeology or research’. Indeed, Polly Heffer pointed out that, because of the limits on funding, the Thames Discovery Programme’s ‘important work… would not be done without them [volunteers]‘.

Contract archaeologist Joseph Reeves countered that, although unpaid archaeological labour ‘might be cool in academia’, ‘commercial arch[aeology]…. is the backbone of the discipline‘. ‘Professionalism is [the] backbone, not PMs [project managers] bidding too low for work [because] they know someone will do #FreeArchaeology’ (whether they are volunteers helping out or staff doing unpaid overtime). Dig Ventures, too, found that professionals being ‘expected to work for free‘ was the ‘dark side‘ of the ‘”heritage is for everyone” attitude’.

I think/hope that they were talking at cross-purposes, or at least that their arguments can be reconciled. Professionalism is essential to archaeology; and volunteering is essential to underfunded archaeology; so British archaeology is kept upright by a dual backbone of professionals and volunteers. Carefully done, professional and volunteer work can be mutually beneficial and mutually satisfactory.

Regardless, as Jennie Bancroft (@JennieBancroft) pointed out, ‘[t]ourism is one of the largest industries in the UK…. 8.6% of the GDP…. The top five leading visitor attractions are all museums and galleries…. It is ludicrous to expect so many people to work for free in such a lucrative industry.’

It is an overwhelmingly white, middle-class occupation, at risk of ‘regressing backwards towards the days of the “gentleman amateur“‘. Volunteer/amateur involvement has the potential to widen participation; but it seems like the conditions that enable amateur involvement generally continue to reinforce archaeology’s traditionally white, middle-class audience. It requires an ‘ability to ride out long periods of casual or voluntary work [which in turn] requires wealthy parents or huge determination and “connections”‘, which may actually drive the market down and suppress wages.

Choosing not to work for a pittance

Elsewhere, Dominic Perring has ‘suspect[ed] (and hope[d]) that this [current functioning of commercial archaeology] is not sustainable…. If our clients cannot afford to pay more then this may mean that we will have to be more selective about what we do’. Sarah May pointed out that unpaid archaeological labour was ‘a great way to get the community to take archaeology for granted and view it only as a hobby, not a core service’. More than that, it’s a great way to enable the government to pretend that a core service can be provided without much paid labour.

If we replace ourselves – or, more bluntly, since the people who do the replacing themselves remain in place, if we replace our coworkers – with volunteers, we get the job done, but at what cost? Even if they work in far-from-ideal conditions, it’s relatively easy for people paid to do archaeology to say that others need to do it for free, or even that it’s good that others do it for free.

Training, field schools, apprenticeships and crowdfunding

One of the most striking elements of the current system is the (sometimes accidental, sometimes deliberate) confusion between archaeological volunteering and archaeological training. And (to my mind) absolutely the most troubling aspect is the shift, not merely from being-paid-to-work to not-being-paid-to-work, but actually from being-paid-to-work to paying-to-work.


Lucy contemplated whether, instead of investing time and money in postgraduate study, someone would be better off ‘spend[ing] that time working for free- equivalent to archaeo-apprenticeship?’ Yet, like internships (generally), apprenticeships should be paid; unlike internships, even within the cultural heritage sector, apprenticeships are paid. Despite some very grim chapters in its history (in the form of perpetuated slavery and indentured labour), apprenticeship now appears to be ideal.

Training, trainees and field schools

Journalist Sara E. Polsky, a Harvard graduate who participated in excavations during her degree (as a ‘volunteer archaeologist overseas’), published the ‘details on archaeological volunteering‘; but it focused on field schools, and functioned as a guide for people who had ‘paid to work’ (or would do so).

Since organisations invest in training new staff, Rob Hedge asked, ‘if volunteers are well-trained is it justifiable to view [the training] as payment ‘in kind’‘? (He wasn’t being careless or callous; he simultaneously cautioned that it was difficult to measure the costs and benefits of training, so ‘[e]mployers must be wary of [an] imbalance leading to exploitation‘.) As Phil Mills said, (at least on-the-job, work-as-you-learn) ‘trainee positions should be paid‘.


Crowdfunding is the financing of activities, such as heritage and science, through individuals’ contributions. The crowdfunded archaeology (and crowdfunding platform) company Dig Ventures ‘just [put] it out there, crowdfunding is a new way to fund digs. Pays the professionals and teaches ppl who would… otherwise volunteer. Pretty good for both sides‘. It certainly can be. Archaeology Live’s Arran Johnson explained that it was self-funding and that many of its trainees and placement students had moved into work.

Nonetheless, while it pays some of the archaeologists, it clearly doesn’t pay all of them. It’s great that the archaeology will get done. It’s great that some archaeologists will get paid. And the Dig Ventures team are professional. But I fear it’s not a sustainable or scalable model for archaeology. Any movement towards self-funded or crowd-funded archaeology makes not just the archaeological profession, but even the archaeological record itself, precarious.

Self-funded/crowdfunded archaeology functions because people pay to do the work of archaeologists; and if people with money pay to do the work of archaeologists, there will not be jobs for archaeologists to do for money. It hides the crisis in cultural heritage preservation and thereby contributes to the long-term precarity of the profession and its work.

[Originally posted on conflict antiquities]

  1. […] cross-posted on (un)free archaeology.] Obviously, free archaeology isn’t immediately relevant to the trade in conflict […]

  2. […] may be worth reining in (or at the very least focusing) the apocalyptic tone of the first post [on volunteering, training and crowdfunding]. Beyond poverty and precarity (which unite the profession), there are (at least) two distinct […]

  3. […] 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 […]

  4. […] I’ve touched on universities’ hopes to exploit their graduates to mentor their students through online courses without pay, and to conduct unpaid research internships (or “non-stipendiary fellowships“). PhD […]

  5. […] Training and Crowdfunding, was directly informed by the tweets, blog posts and blog comments of more than twenty cultural heritage students and workers within the first week of the […]

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