Do we really have a way of integrating amateur help into field archaeology these days? At the Archaeology 2008 conference, university professors and leaders of archaeology’s commercial sector vied with each other to show they were deeply professional and amateur-friendly. And there was some success — but it was plain enough that the gaps were still widening.
The Archaeology 2008 event was inspiring, informative and a great party. Not the least of the pleasures for an old digging dog was bumping into people I had last seen as teenagers in jeans on a site 30 years ago. Since then, they had travelled to many countries, got married, had children and crafted a career in medicine or journalism or retail. But they had not forgotten the thrill of archaeological involvement — though they might be forgiven for thinking it had forgotten them. Do we really have a way of integrating amateur help into field archaeology these days? At the conference, university professors and leaders of archaeology’s commercial sector vied with each other to show they were deeply professional and amateur-friendly. And there was some success — but it was plain enough that the gaps were still widening.
Take the professors first. Once upon a time, university fieldwork was virtually run by students — they were the workforce. School leavers were welcome too, as were volunteers of every kind. This was not just free labour — it was labour with added value. Things are different now. The pressure for change did not come from the need to raise the standard of digging (although this was needed), but from university staff themselves, who needed their summers back in order to produce their quota of new publications at the same rate as other disciplines. Determined not to give up field schools entirely, at York we moved ours into term, which in some ways is better — but it does not offer those special opportunities that came with working with a director on a research project. Where is that to come from?
The bulk of fieldwork carried out currently in the UK is in the hands of the commercial sector. Their work is (still) governed by competitive tender. There is no ‘British Standard’ or quality control: companies compete to see who can do the job most cheaply, so everything that is not compulsory has to go. The first casualty has been research — companies funded through PPG16 are not obliged to produce a research result (although they often do). The second casualty has been local participation. Volunteers are not good value for money. A member of the professional team has to take the time off to train them, and they don’t usually stay long enough to earn their keep. Thus volunteers are a net liability, not a net asset — unless, of course, they already know how to dig.
Let’s think a moment how we might square the circle. Commercial archaeology lacks research input; amateurs lack the opportunity to participate. Perhaps the one can compensate the other. There are, all over Britain, people who know intimate things about abbeys, aristocrats, pottery and pill boxes. Above all, they know the local area in which the winner of a commercial tender maybe a stranger. All that is necessary is to gently recruit their services. And here the local archaeological societies could do more to match those who can give help with those who need it. Of course people like watching television just as they like reading Current Archaeology — it keeps them in touch. But they like active involvement more. If commercial projects were to include expertise from a local group in their project designs, surely added value could be claimed? Developers paying for the archaeological work might well feel that the value lies in more than just some added research. To have the support of a local group can oil the wheels of development in other ways.
In my opinion, the death of the local archaeology society has been greatly exaggerated. The half dozen or so that are kind enough to ask me to speak each year are invariably burgeoning, lively, inquisitive, and, yes, there are often plenty of young people in the room. Here in the village hall or the borrowed lecture room are real people — friends, supporters and potentially participants in the same archaeology that academics and commercial directors also like to do.
Is there a way to integrate amateur help into field archaeology?
If yes, how; if no, why not? Add your comments below, and you can vote in the poll to the right.