#FreeArchaeology: The Dark Side of Volunteering in Archaeology

This article is about…doing archaeology for free. It is a subject that a lot of people are reluctant to approach in archaeology, however, I am sticking my oar in. And I genuinely think that this is a topic that ought to be approached more often and more openly.


In my blog post (click here), my primary concern was that students of archaeology are losing out on job opportunities. Not only are they graduating with a nice, hefty pile of debt, but they have just spent 3+ years of their life studying a subject they are passionate about. There are, I believe, two main reasons for this trend, and both are to do with the volunteer culture in archaeology and heritage. Either a truly huge amount of voluntary experience is required, or the posts that they ought to be taking up are unpaid because there are people who can afford to do the thing that they are most passionate about in the world for free. And think about it this way, if you’re an under-funded employee, the person willing to work for free is always preferable. That certainly doesn’t seem very fair to me.

As well as publishing my blog post, I started a hashtag on Twitter ([#FreeArchaeology](click here) and somewhat unintentionally caused a bit of a twitterstorm. Archaeologists and heritage specialists who follow me, and their followers in turn, joined in the conversation with great enthusiasm. Initially I asked ‘What are your concerns about volunteer culture in arch. and heritage?’. Some of the responses were quite evocative. A lot of people were concerned that, despite the huge growth of Public Archaeology in recent years, heritage and archaeology would become elitist and only for those who could afford to do it for free. Another huge worry was for the volunteers – at what point could their hard work start to be called exploitation? Some were worried that archaeology would lose its professionalism and the quality of the data we collect on excavations would be unintentionally compromised due of the lack of training some volunteers may have. And of course, almost everyone involved in the discussion agreed that this problem was due to the terrible lack of funding available to the heritage and culture sector in Britain.

So it immediately became obvious that this was an important subject for a lot of practicing archaeologists, but I think one thing we ought to take from this little peak in discussion is that we need to get more people talking about their experiences of volunteering in archaeology and heritage. We need to talk to the volunteers and find out what they have to say on the subject – do they feel exploited? Do they know about the feelings of resentment that some archaeologists and heritage practitioners harbour for volunteerism? My guess is that a lot of them don’t.

I’ll end with that frustrating statement that most of my writing nowadays seems to end in: One thing that is obvious is, that more research is required, and what we now need to do is stop talking about these issues and start trying to actively do something to improve the situation.

More from Emily Johnson

#FreeArchaeology: The Dark Side of Volunteering in Archaeology

This article is about…doing archaeology for free. It is a subject that...
Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *