Craft in Archaeology: Who Digs? Craft & Non-specialist labor in archaeology

This is the fourth installment in a series of blog posts focusing on craft in archaeology. Here’s a link to the call for submissions. The posts will explore craft in archaeology from the perspective of field practices, analytical and interpretative frameworks, and social impacts on the discipline. The posts will appear every Thursday for as long as we get contributions and compiled into a e-book by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

Colleen Morgan, EUROTAST Marie Curie Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Archaeology, University of York
Daniel Eddisford, PhD Researcher, Department of Archaeology, Durham University

Excavation animates archaeology. It is the public face of archaeology, we interpret at the trowel’s edge (Hodder 1997), and an apocryphal golden trowel symbolizes the highest recognition of archaeological professionalism (Flannery 1982). Digging is the most evocative archaeological practice, yet it is the most undervalued mode of archaeological knowledge production, least cultivated skill with fewest monetary rewards, and is considered so inconsequential that non-specialist labor is regularly employed to uncover our most critical data sets. Shanks and McGuire (1996) re-position archaeology as a craft, identifying divisions within archaeological labor, and propose a return to a master/apprentice-based model of enskillment. Yet the proposed “master” and “apprentice” are never defined beyond an amorphous teacher/student relationship that is contrasted with a problematic “factory model” of contract archaeology that emphasizes efficiency. Shanks and McGuire decry the routinization of archaeological methodology, but we would argue that the concept of mastery is inextricably bound to repetition. Further, the addition of non-specialist labor to archaeological excavation considerably increases the complexity of an apprentice to master progression.

Non-specialist labor has been employed throughout the history of archaeology. A non-specialist labor force can be students, volunteers, or “workmen” who are directed by an archaeologist. Though communities have long participated in archaeological excavations as hired labor or as volunteers, more recently non-specialist stakeholder labor has been implicated as a form of community archaeology. The full ramifications of non-specialist labor in the context of archaeological craft cannot be explored in this space. Yet, as commercial archaeological companies in the UK are increasingly encouraged to undertake projects that employ non-specialist volunteer labor, we are intrigued by the collision of what Shanks and McGuire characterize as the “factory model” of archaeology with community archaeology. 

Some of the considerations of community archaeology for commercial companies involve estimating the relative value of volunteer vs. professional labor. This value is both tangible, in the time and cost of excavating a site, and intangible, in terms of the benefits it brings to the community. In the current planning policy guidelines for heritage practice in the UK, “The process of investigating and recording, such as dismantling a building, or excavating a site, can be of public interest in its own right and the discovery of new knowledge and understanding about their locality’s history is valued by local communities. Community groups may be able to help” (English Heritage 2012:40). This value of understanding local history must be balanced by the ability for the archaeologists to investigate the site.

Alone, an archaeologist can excavate and document a cubic meter of deposits each day on site, with caveats in place for the complexity of the stratigraphic remains and other requirements for finds preservation and sampling. When non-specialist labor is involved, this equation is considerably altered. We provide the following observations and would welcome additional insights from other, more quantitative analyses. The ratio of 3:1 volunteers or students per archaeologist allows time for supervision and instruction while allowing the archaeologist to carry on with excavation. Accordingly, this slows progress on the site to about ⅓ the normal speed. These students and volunteers take about three weeks to train in basic methods and recording to achieve a state where they no longer slow the archaeologist down. This estimation highlights the inefficient pace of community archaeology projects, yet cannot provide exact conclusions about the fidelity of the archaeological data that is produced from these projects. This may not matter if the goal of the project is for community involvement rather than archaeological investigation or mitigation ahead of a development project.

To conclude, this is a partial, necessarily incomplete picture of the complex patterns of specialization and labor in archaeology. Nearly two decades ago, Shanks and McGuire argued for an apprentice model as opposed to a factory model, invoking the Arts and Crafts movement’s opposition to mass production (1996:77). Sadly this shift has not occurred. Contract archaeology has become even more fragmentary, with short-term contracts as the norm. A greater emphasis on volunteerism in archaeology reduces the perceived value of trained archaeologists. Craftsmen archaeologists still exist, but they are teaching volunteers rather than a new generation of apprentices. This threatens to turn archaeology into a hobby rather than a craft. Instead of moving from a factory model to a craft-based model, we are moving toward a hobby-based model. In this model there is even less room for the cultivation of master archaeologists.

English Heritage (2012) PPS5 Planning for the Historic Environment: Historic Environment Planning Practice Guide,

Flannery, K. V. (1982). The Golden Marshalltown: A parable for the archeology of the 1980s. American Anthropologist, (84), 265-278.

Hodder, I. (1997). Always Momentary, Fluid and Flexible: Towards a Reflexive Excavation Methodology. Antiquity, (71), 691–700.

Shanks, M., & McGuire, R. H. (1996). The Craft of Archaeology. American Antiquity, (61.1), 75-88.

One Comment

  1. The concluding paragraph, in particular, is brilliant and spot on in my opinion.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s