Confessions of an archaeology volunteer

I confess: I am an archaeology volunteer and, after some of what I’ve encountered recently about volunteers in archaeology, ‘confess’ feels like the right verb.

But should it? After all, according to the standards set out by the Institute for Archaeologists, archaeologists and volunteers each have a contribution to make to the discipline.

It seems to me that, although the driver is the reduction in the number of paid jobs in archaeology, several things are being conflated in some discussions at the moment.

The obvious difference between archaeologists and volunteers, is that archaeologists expect to be paid for the (variably) skilled and professional archaeological work that they do. Volunteers don’t expect to be paid for the (variably) skilled and professional work that they do.

Things get complicated as archaeologists volunteer on particularly interesting digs, or to keep skills and CVs fresh when they can’t find paid work. Professionals also volunteer useful non-archaeological skills (such as the media relations I’m usually paid to do – activities that some archaeologists consider deserving of a special circle of hell).

The perma-intern situation (where a succession of young graduates or students are employed to do a proper job for no pay on the premise it will help their entry into paid work) is problematic and well set out elsewhere. It’s not clear that this is a huge problem in archaeology in the UK; if it is then of course archaeologists do need to team up with those trying to get internships better regulated.

But a job-market isn’t a fixed thing to be parceled out to a limited number of people. Although there probably is a corresponding increase in the number of volunteers engaged in some of the activities that used to be done in the paid roles, it’s not as simple as professionals out-volunteers in.

The money that archaeologists expect to be paid comes mainly from the public via taxes, or from commercial firms on ‘rescue’ digs. This is not a fixed amount and, where there is less money, there will be fewer paid archaeologists.

With local authority funding cuts, the likelihood is that, whether or not there are volunteers, archaeologists’ hours and jobs will go. I’d go as far as to say they’ll go whether or not the local authority is meeting its legal obligations. So, to get a specific job back you need to be able to show that it will cost more to not have an archaeologist, than to have one, and that there will be an almighty stink if the legal obligations are not met (and a bigger one than, say, the education or social care obligations competing for money from the same pot?).

What’s the answer to getting more archaeology jobs? Basically we need the people who pay archaeologists to think that archaeology is worth paying for. That means convincing the voting public, local councillors, the government (fat chance at present), and big business – showing what archaeology is and why it’s fascinating. Get this right, and people will queue round the block. And again. And again. If archaeology needs more archaeologists, the conversations and campaigns need to focus on needing more archaeologists, not on volunteers.

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