Should we be punishing the folks that do #freearchaeology?


I vacillate between anger and sadness for the people that do compliance heritage conservation or cultural resource management work for free. I understand we all need a way to break into the market. We all want to find jobs doing archaeology or architectural history or ethnography. I also recognize that we don’t all go about finding a job in the same way. Most of us, somehow, get a break from an employer that is willing to take a chance on an unproven job candidate (like Dr. Donna Yates did). Some of us used networking to our advantage and find work through an acquaintance. Others, including me, learn how to write a strong CV and cover letter.

I’ve heard of an extremely small number of individuals that have landed jobs by volunteering at a site or museum. Those stories are few and far between. I mean, what’s the employer’s motivation to hire someone that is willing to do the same work for free? Why buy the cow…?

I’ve come to the conclusion that doing #freearchaeology is not a viable way to land a job. Any company that asks for a certain amount of free archaeology as a requirement for hiring is not a company you want to work for. And, it’s not the poor folks that do free archaeology who are at fault. They just want to follow their dreams. The scummy companies that use free archaeology for their own gain are the real problem.

The question is how do we punish the companies that profit from free labor?

Don’t get me wrong. There is always a time and place for free archaeology. I think there should be ample opportunities for archaeological volunteering. Local governments, universities, and non-profits should allow volunteers a chance to get their hands dirty and take a turn doing some digging at privately owned or state-owned sites. Volunteers should also have a chance to do all of the other elements of archaeology including writing (Gasp! I really just said that. Don’t worry. Volunteers aren’t typically going to outdo us “lifers” at archaeological writing. It takes many years and thousands of dollars in college fees to create something as boring and unread as the typical archaeology article). I’ve heard some compelling arguments for free archaeology (Doug Rocks-MacQueen has written one of the best arguments endorsing free archaeology that I’ve heard).

The problem is the companies that make money from free labor. Even more insidious is when companies make newbies think they MUST volunteer in order to get a job (Sam Hardy covers the corrupt situation for museum studies graduates in the U.K. in his recent post “Stop pretending there are jobs when there aren’t”).

You don’t have to volunteer to get a job. In fact, unless you’re a high schooler or younger, you really have no business volunteering anymore (unless you already have a job and really want to) because your paid experience is what is going to get you a job with the good firms. Plus, your free skilled labor is what these lowballing, inept companies are banking on. Without ripping you off, they can’t pay their mortgages.

Punishing the ‘Evil Doers’

I have a 3-year-old son. He’s active and inquisitive about the world around him. I also think he’s partially deaf because (I think) he doesn’t listen to his parents nearly enough. My wife and I use two main methods to address his bad behavior: we give him timeouts and we preemptively reward him for doing good stuff. Both methods are effective enough for a toddler and I think they would do much to punish the companies that make a living from free archaeology.

Giving companies timeouts– I’m most familiar with the United States, where #freearchaeology for compliance projects is rare (it really only happens when a company totally fu*ks up a budget and is in jeopardy of getting sued over a project). While free archaeology is rare for CRM companies, there is a rampant culture of lowballing over here that threatens the careers of all professional archaeologists in the country (check out a relevant conversation on the Archaeology Careerist’s Network).

We can give lowballers and companies that use volunteers a timeout by encouraging the sandbagging their reports at the SHPO and spreading the true word about their company to clients and other archaeologist. This will do much to make them work hard to raise the quality of their reports.

I use the term “sandbagging” in the same way it’s used when referring to the action Google takes toward websites that try and manipulate their algorithms to get high rankings on search engines. If you try to game Google to get your website to the top without having much/decent content, the search engine will just make it look like your website doesn’t even exist by not listing it in the search results. If you add content and show Google you’re legit, your website will show up in searches in about a month or so. If you don’t, it’s as if your website doesn’t really exist.

Archaeology is a small field and all of us are only a few degrees of separation apart. SHPO employees review enough reports to be able to determine, at a glance, if a report is going to be good or crappy. If a company is known to lowball their budgets or use volunteers to complete projects their end product will not be as good as a company that employs quality, skilled archaeologists. SHPOs have a variety of means to hinder the compliance efforts of the slackers that don’t do good work. They can question several aspects of a report. In some states, there are professional requirements for archaeological supervisors and principal investigators. In these places they can ask to verify the qualifications of the field directors before completing a review. They can also ask for a report to be bulked up or improved if the resulting work is not up to current standards or as good as the work done by other companies. Worst case scenario: SHPO can ask for a project to be done over again.

Other government agencies should also take efforts to not use the “best value” (i.e. second cheapest bid) and instead choose clients based on references from their customers and other archaeologists that know the contract applicants. But, that’s another story all together.

Crappy reports should be bounced back to the authors to be done over. SHPOs can make addressing comments onerous or easy and they can make sure lowballers create a product that is acceptable for the reviewing agency. The goal is to improve the quality of CRM compliance. This gives companies incentive to do a good job and use quality employees. Doing otherwise will mean lost profits, issuing a change order, and slowing down a client’s project. Theoretically, poor performing companies will quickly have problems landing contracts.

Toward a preemptive reward system– The easiest way to reward good companies is also another way to punish bad ones. I recommend the creation of an Angie’s List/ Rate My Professors for CRM companies and other entities that hire archaeologists. CRM company clients that are looking for a suitable company in a given geographic region can check the Angie’s List features in order to determine who to work with. Unlike Angie’s List, this CRM review website should be available for free (I’m not sure we have enough customers to create a paid service like Angie’s List, at least in the beginning).

While a CRM company’s reputation based on its customer’s experiences is good to know, this will not help other archaeologists know if they want to work there. That’s why employees, current and previous, should be encouraged to write a review of their experiences along the lines of Rate My Professor. That way, other techs and CRMers will have an idea of the work culture of a given company based on the experiences of others that have already been there and done that. Reviews by clients will be transparent while former employees’ reviews can be either anonymous or transparent.

The resulting website will eventually provide a somewhat comprehensive snapshot of all the CRM companies in the country. Lowballers and folks that use #freearchaeology will be encouraged to improve their companies and treat their employees better, not only because the SHPO might sandbag their report but because all these mistreated employees will create a glaring black eye for their company’s reputation. Good companies will be able to hire the cream of the crop while the best applicants will avoid crappy companies.

I believe that our career goals should include making things better for those that follow us. We should all aspire to make as many good jobs as possible, endeavor to create the best products we can, and strive to do increasingly better archaeology. These goals all depend on cultivating skilled CRM professionals. This is not possible if all the smart people don’t think they can have a fruitful career doing archaeology. My ideas may be purely alturistic, but at least its a start.

Most archaeoloigsts want to help others, including other aspiring archaeologists. Recently, Chris Webster proposed the creation of Field Tech Incorporated — a company dedicated to helping quality, skilled archaeological technicians stay employed while also keeping their benefits. This is an awesome idea, but it does little to change the nature of the field itself. If we are going to make archaeology a viable career choice, we’ve got to figure out a way to eliminate #freearchaeology and create archaeology jobs for as many people that want them.

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