Lasers at Stonehenge
Editor Mike Pitts
Lets find modern ways to support volunterring
A new survey shows people are unhappy that archaeology has become too 'professional'. But, asks George Lambrick, are volunteer opportunities really so bad?
Like many archaeologists I began as a volunteer on digs, smitten by the physical and intellectual challenge of discovery. It is not so easy to do that today. The CBA recently reviewed public participation in archaeology (see Update), and revealed that many people blame the professionalisation of the discipline for the change.
Archaeology has certainly become more segregated. Use of volunteers on developer-funded work is decried as leading to unfair competition between operators-a questionable argument. Over the last 15 years archaeological units have had little time or resources to spare from the effort needed to turn themselves into true businesses. They compete for work while also having to rein in poorly controlled costs and trying to raise standards-not just in archaeology, but even more in management.
Not just about digging
Universities and museums have been subject to target-driven pressure to embrace business ethics, cut costs, deliver more for less, and concentrate on core services rather than 'peripheral' support of external activities. Academic archaeologists now nurture far more students, whose need for practical experience is less easily met by working on professional 'rescue' projects or well-run amateur excavations. In adult education, courses now have to provide qualifications and pay their way, tending to stifle what used to be a relatively informal and cost-effective way for enthusiasts to get involved.
So it is not surprising that professionalisation is blamed for a decline in volunteers. But is this true? A significant proportion of the growing number of professional archaeologists do still devote time to helping voluntary groups. While archaeology has become more professional, there has been an unprecedented growth in public interest. The government has never been keener to promote volunteering. There are now many grants to support participation, including the smaller, more accessible Heritage Lottery schemes. Yet the CBA's own (very modest) Challenge Funding scheme and the Heritage Lottery's more generous Local Heritage Initiative are both under-subscribed by archaeologists.
A commonly held view, reflected in the CBA's survey, is that many local archaeological societies run sedentary events unattractive to young, active people. Yet the Local Heritage Initiative and the televised Big Dig have shown there are many people outside the established networks keen to be involved. This is also the experience of archaeological groups who have made the effort to promote active participation.
As examples cited by respondents to the CBA's review show, there is already an enormous wealth and variety of voluntary involvement. This is confirmed by the initiatives supported by grant schemes and the work seen at National Archaeology Days and Scottish Archaeological Month. Taking part in archaeology is not just about digging, any more than it is just about lectures and publications. Field surveys, building recording, landscape history, museum work, experimental archaeology, site conservation, reconstruction, re-enactment, working with young people and local campaigning all make valuable contributions that benefit the public. And many groups have established very successful excavation programmes, often incorporating training.
So are the perceived barriers to participation illusory? Yes, and no. There are plenty of opportunities to start projects (including excavation and other field programmes), with grants available for equipment and professional guidance. The difference is that nowadays more effort is needed to develop these projects: volunteering is no longer automatically part-and-parcel of how archaeology is done.
Archaeology is not just an indulgence in exploring the past. Because it requires an extraordinary range of intellectual, physical and team-working skills, archaeology can be an excellent (and enjoyable) medium for self-development and social interaction-involving people of all ages, abilities and social backgrounds. It often makes a real contribution to community interest, public knowledge and enjoyment of the heritage.
If the public benefits of voluntary participation are to be developed, archaeologists in NGOs, universities, museums, government, professional units, specialist and local voluntary groups all need to be involved. We must find modern ways to support volunteering, engage with public enthusiasm and collaborate in stimulating people's imaginations and knowledge of the opportunities available-and learn from the many initiatives that are already showing the way.
George Lambrick is Director of the CBA
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005