McDonalds = Archaeology Profession?

Posted on April 30, 2013


Sam Hardy has an excellent piece on  free archaeology: job insecurity and the need for an archaeological minimum wage. I have been meaning to build off of it for some time now but have been very busy so this is a bit delayed. First, go read Sam’s post- it covers so much and is very good. His discussion grew out of the #freearchaeology discussion on twitter in which many new graduates complained about the culture of free archaeology i.e. one has to volunteer ‘for free’ to hope to get a job in archaeology. Obviously if you don’t have money to support you while you volunteer than #freearchaeology is very hard to do. To quote Hannah Simpson-

‘’I’m fortunate enough to have gained interesting and well paid employment, but it is clear that many new archaeologists leave university full of expectation, only to find a very challenging route to employment.  Unfortunately, there appears to be an initial ‘brain drain’ effect in operation, whereby talented potential archaeologists can find it difficult to obtain meaningful paid post-university employment and quickly slip out of the sector”.

Unfortunately, I actually see this occurring before people even leave university. I did a community dig this Saturday and 3 of the archaeologists who helped out are already planning not to go into archaeology. One, is starting to sell ales, another talks of pressing olive oil, and the third is not sure but knows it won’t be archaeology. These are three excellent archaeologists who will not be going into the profession and they have yet to even leave university.

Sam covers a huge range of problems facing archaeology and some of the proposed solutions (again, read it). In my personal opinion, many of the proposed solutions will not work because they don’t take into account the reality of archaeology employment over ‘expectations’. Archaeology as a profession is basically a McDonalds like profession. It is a hierarchy in which most of the work is done by entry level staff who conduct a very limited range of work. There are a few managers who get paid a little bit more to over see these workers and than there is corporate folks who make decent wages (sound familiar?). Lots of people have and will work for McDonalds but very few actually make a career out of it. More importantly, almost no one who works at McDonalds expects to. How many people do you know who have worked at McDonalds (or McDonalds like store) have plans to become lifers? (not a knock on McDonalds or similar just plans and expectations of workforce)

Archaeology is the same and always has been a hierarchy. From the Victorians till present day there have been archaeologists and the diggers (with various levels of hierarchy in-between). Go to some digs in other countries, students are there but also there are local workers (who probably do more and better work than the students). The difference between now and the Victorians are expectations. We (professional archaeologists) require degrees from our workers. Does McDonalds? Not yet (with degree inflation maybe in 50 years). A degree is 3-6 years (depends on the country) and lots of money (depends on the school) of someone’s life- DAMN RIGHT YOU HAVE EXPECTATIONS. Emily says it best, “many new archaeologists leave university full of expectation”. Unfortunately, the expectations do not meet the reality and what is essentially a killing field. Ill trained workers thrown into a insecure employment with little training and almost no direction.

It gets worse too. Those who survive and gain permanent employment one would think would have both sympathy and empathy for there follow archaeologists in the trenches (figuratively and literally). Nope, for some reason people don’t work that way. In fact, it is quite the opposite and much more like the movie Django Unchained. In the movie Samuel Jackson’s character, a “house negro”, is a real pr^#$*% to Django, a “field negro”. This is because he made it out the fields and is thus better than those still in the fields. People who survive the trenches actually look down on those who don’t for the very simple reason, “I did it, why can’t you”. Surviving killing fields actually leaves a person with very little empathy for those still in them. Now, that statement is insulting to some archaeologists and I don’t want to stereotype. So please don’t take it as me saying you have no empathy, just that some who make it out don’t (trust me I have had many conversations with archaeologists with no empathy).

It gets even worse. We talk of the archaeology profession as those it was one field, its NOT. Look at the wages from the most recent Profiling the Profession (unpublished- be out in May)

UK Archaeology- wages in pounds

Salary distribution by individual role Field investigation and research services Historic environment advice and information services Museum and visitor / user services
Lowest 10% earn less than 16392 22283 18993
Lower 25% earn less than 18016 25000 20322.5
Median 22964.5 29500 26000
Upper 25% earn more than 27000 34500 31825.5
Highest 10% earn more than 32987 39000 38955.5
Average (mean) 23236.14 30622.44 28457.68
Educational and academic research services Administrative support
19500 13000
48000 14000
40000 28000
33500 22375
54000 42513
39744.03 23185.08

There is a huge difference in pay between academics and commercial archaeologists. EVEN full time permanent employed archaeologists in the commercial sector make very little compared to archaeologists in different areas. The open secret is that many archaeologists do not experience the same poor pay as everyone else. This also means that they are not going to go out on a limb to help either. When was the last time you heard of a academic putting their 40 or 60k pound salary (or $70-100k for the US) salary on the line for a field tech? When have you ever heard of it? We may share the word archaeologists but we have very different needs and goals.

That is the world of archaeology, a hierarchy built upon inequality. In such a world I don’t think some of the solutions proposed will improve the situation. Until the skills of a field tech are valued, higher wages will not stop the insecure nature of entry level work. Higher wages won’t turn working at McDonalds into a career so I doubt it will do the same for archaeology. However, changing the system might. I think we need a radical re-imagination of how archaeology is conducted and supported. It needs to be beyond the current ideas of limiting entrants (we already do that) or higher requirements (requiring a degree does not improve the quality of work, it just raises expectation). What exactly would the that entail? I don’t know but I am looking at all the options.