#freearchaeology- Maybe it’s not everyone else, maybe it’s you

Posted on August 20, 2013


When my wife was younger, like 10, she complained to my mother-in-law that people did not like her. To which my mother (I really don’t add the in-law to often) responded, “Maybe it’s not everyone else, maybe it’s you”. My wife took that to heart and changed her ways. In my opinion, the #freearchaeology debate is missing two things, hard data (of which i try to provide some) and a bit of hard discussions about uncomfortable topics around job prospects. That story above is a reality that I have not seen discussed in #freearchaeology and that is the simple truth- maybe there is a reason no one is hiring you.

To be clear this is not a snipe at anyone in particular. I have never conducted archaeology with any of the people writing about #freearchaeology in person, as far as I know. I can not comment on their abilities or personalities. I can say with some strong confidence that I know several people I have worked with that have not been asked back and there was a reason for that. Some were lazy, some assholes, some …. well you get the idea. The point I am making is that no matter how much #freearchaeology one conducts, or not, they will never have a job in archaeology. We have to accept that fact that some people are unemployable, though some do still slip through the cracks.

Moreover, we need to accept that #freearchaeology is actually a pretty bad way to try and get a job.  This comment left by Jeffery Baker on my last post really drives home the point-

“As someone who has worked in both academia and CRM (and done hiring in CRM), several comments. First, when I’m looking at resume’s, my first criteria is location. I work in the western U.S., and when I’ve posted jobs on shovelbums, half the applicants are located east of the Mississippi. I don’t care how much experience you have, I’m very reluctant to hire someone who will have to travel three or four days just to get to the project area. After that I start looking at experience, and volunteer experience ranks below field schools on the experience level. Unless, I know the person who was in charge of the volunteer experience. I’m aware of too many volunteer “opportunities” in which the volunteer might help screen artifacts, but often aren’t allowed to do any actual digging.

Too often students are given the advice to volunteer with no real direction and end up dusting finds shelves. Most employers realize that this version of #freearchaeology is not a particularly valuable asset, as Jeff points out. However, that does not mean that all #freearchaeology is a waste and I will give my most recent job as an example. A friend told me my current employer needed some diggers. So I called up the PM and got the job with no CV, no interview (as much as you get with a digger position), nothing other than, “hey, I would like to work” (a little more than that but not much). I had dug with the PM at an excavation at his uncles house and worked for him before so he knew my skills and experience. Next, I got the two other guys on my crew their jobs by giving their names to the PM. I know both of them from #freearchaeology we had conducted together and vouched for them (neither had any commercial experience). A situation that is very similar to what Jeffery describes. Sarah May has rightly raised objections to this sort of networking on one of my past posts-

“this situation is corrosive for archaeology. If you hire who you know, rather than advertising, not only are you unjustly excluding good candidates, you are depriving yourself of good candidates – archaeology is at serious risk of becoming an old boys club again. Which is a matter of concern not just for archaeologists but for the publics we serve.

We need to encourage a healthy, transparent and socially/economically accessible career path to make sure that we don’t become a hobby and a plaything of the rich again.”

I have to say I completely agree with her. However, I don’t think it applies to most entry level work in archaeology, certainly not in CRM which is the majority of work. The thing is, that sort of old boys (and girls) club is what keeps the bad apples out. I said there are plenty of people who won’t get or keep a job in archaeology and that is because word spreads fast. Archaeology is small enough that people ask around and it is only a matter of time before you are drummed out. Moreover, recommendations are rarely made based on friendship over skill at the shovelbum level. Why? Because you have to work with that person. When they don’t show up to work or work slow who is going to be digging those extra test pits? Yeah- some people might recommend a “nice” guy or gal once or twice but they won’t keep doing it. The guys I recommend deserve the job and I said so in my recommendation. One of the guys is a junior at university (3rd year Scottish university)  which the PO mentioned he had never seen at that company, they don’t hire non-graduates. I told the PM that he was better than 95% of diggers in my recommendation. Why? Because he is and I can only think of one or two people- with years of experience I would ever choose over him. That recommendation and another from a mutual friend got the best person the job.

The system is not perfect, and open to abuse, but the fact is that there are ways to ensure some people never get work in archaeology, no matter how much #freearchaeology they do. So when people talk about the problems of #freearchaeology and not getting a job I think we need to ask is it everyone else or not?

I also mentioned hard data as being something missing. A very sad reality is that even if it is not you there are simply not enough archaeology jobs around for everyone who wants them. Here is the scores on the doors for British Archaeology from the upcoming (seems like upcoming for a while now) Profiling the Profession. Not official results but close enough:


number of professional archaeologists working in UK









































Yep- there are fewer jobs now than ten years ago. Now here is the reported turnover (people leaving an organisation)


archaeologists employed

none (all of our current staff were working for us)



some (up to 10% )



moderate (up to 25% )



considerable (over 25%)






and this is what the organizations believe (as in they think but don’t know) happen to those leaving.


arch, employed

all left the profession



most left the profession



even split between leaving the profession and finding work in archaeology



most found alternative employment within archaeology



all found alternative employment within archaeology






How many new graduates are there each year with archaeology degrees? 2000-2400 (PP will explain why the exact number is not know). Here is a bit from the report-

“Organisations reported between 235 to 470 postholders changing each year.  Only an estimated 15% of those leaving those positions leave the whole field of archaeology, meaning most positions are filled by current archaeologists. If these numbers are representative of the whole sector than from 70 to 140 positions are available to new entrants. As shown in this report the massive losses in the total number of jobs mean that over the five years before 2012-13 very few positions were created that were then filled by new entrants through the expansion of the workforce. This means if more than 10% of students plan on pursuing a career in archaeology than supply will outstrip demand. Assuming that those obtaining a postgraduate degree in archaeology would be more interested in pursuing a career in archaeology, then potentially, there are more than enough postgraduates to fill all newly vacated archaeology positions every year.”

The number of postgraduates in one category of archaeology degrees is 750+ each year. That is postgraduates, not including undergraduates. Unless, the number of archaeology jobs jumps greatly or the number of people leaving the field increases dramatically there are more post graduate degree granted each year than there are new open positions by almost 10 to 1, maybe 7 to 1 in the best case scenario.

The simple fact is you can do #freearchaeology all you want but unless it is targeted and done right you are not going to improve your chances of getting a job. I will finish with the rest of Jeffery’s quote-

“If you are interested in doing archaeology, odds are you will end up doing CRM work. Start meeting people as an undergrad, and get experience before starting a grad program. If I have resumes from two different people I’m thinking of hiring, and one has a bachelor’s degree and a field school or two under their belt, and, the other one an M.A. with 3 or 4 years of field school under their belt, I’ll hire the person with the B.A./B.S. The person with the B.A./B.S. will not come onto the job thinking they know everything there is to know about archaeology.

If you have an M.A. and are looking for a job with no real experience (field school is not real experience), in your job letter and the interview, you need to make it clear that you are willing to learn new ways of doing archaeology.”