#freearchaeology- Devil’s Advocate, an intro

Posted on August 12, 2013


Sam has been running a serious of amazing posts on the topic of #freearchaeology (well a few months ago, it has taken me a few months to get this out). Seriously, he should get a Pulitzer for all the research and work he has done on the topic. Check out some of his posts:

free archaeology in Turkey: the archaeology graduate without a future

Have you done free archaeology (or irrelevant labour) on workfare? Do you know someone who has? Out the ‘employers’!

free archaeology: institutionalised exploitation in the museum sector

free archaeology: precarisation, privatisation, austerity and workfare in the Big Society

free archaeology: drawing the line between work experience and work; identifying structural disadvantage and exclusion

free archaeology: ensuring that your workers don’t get minimum wage – not-necessarily-illegal unpaid voluntary work

free archaeology: simply illegal unpaid internships

Sam has highlighted some particularly underhanded practices, like using interns to be personal assistants, and the legality of using volunteers (spoiler- many organizations are breaking the law in the UK). First, I would like to say that some of the instances Sam highlights are truly despicable uses of volunteers. In fact, they are truly despicable acts even in the person was a paid employee. NO ONE should be someone’s personal assistant unless they were specifically hired to do so.

That being said I would like to add a different perspective to the debate of #freearchaeology (again, meant to post this months ago, so this is a little late). Please stay with me as I am not justifying #freearchaeology but simply adding a different view that I think also highlights the problems with the system.

This is the perspective of most organizations and employers: If we could hire you we would!

Most organizations are not using volunteers because they want to save money so they can bank more profits. Saving money is the reason why but the intent is not to screw people for their own gain (though this does happen and I can think of a few examples). The simply truth is that museums and archaeologists have too much to look after and not enough money. Whole organizations are built around the work of volunteers and would fail without them. Work done by volunteers is not done to save money but done because without volunteers the work would never get done.

Why would we want to hire you instead of get free work? The reason is simple- volunteers %$(#^ing suck!

I say this like how Tommy Lee Jones, in Men in Black. differentiates between a person and people:

J: Why the big secret? People are smart, they can handle it.
K: A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.

A volunteer is a godsend. They are a living breathing modern day saint who selfishly donates their own time to make the world a better place. Volunteers are vain fickle unreliable creators who will let you down every time.  

Let me use some examples to highlight this. A few years ago I was the assistant director at an organization that ran volunteer community events. We had one large one day event each year, Spring Storm, in which we got hundreds of volunteers to participate in giant one day community service day. For this event we had 1100 people sign up and less than 700 show up. That is a 40% no show rate every year to this event. Several months ago I ran a dig for university students over a weekend. I got a grant to rent a van and pay for petrol so that the whole event was free for students. It was #freearchaeology that cost nothing, a rarity as most #freearchaeology costs people something, transport, accommodation, etc. On the first day, 2 out of 10 don’t show up and on the second day only half show up.

This was a 100% free training event. Training in archaeology, free. Trainer, volunteered time, free to participants. Travel to site, free. It was the best we could do to reduce the problems of #freearchaeology, short of paying the students to be trained. Not only did many of them not show up but they also took the places of other people who wanted to participate but couldn’t because we did not have enough room in the van for them.

IF I was employing people chances are there would have been a 99% attendance rate. You can’t fire volunteers but you sure can fire your employees. LOTS of people don’t show up to work and get fired for it. However, in my experience, and I am willing to bet in most people’s, employees are much more reliable than volunteers.

#freearchaeology is not a situation that volunteers or employers want to be in.  I have additional thoughts on #freearchaeology, employment in archaeology, etc. but I will save them for later. For this post, I simple want to get across the point that we, all of us -volunteers and organizations-, are in a situation that no one wants to be in.