Photo: My boots in the Straight of Georgia
Let me preface this by saying you should never be doing work for free. You put in the time, effort, knowledge, and skills than you should definitely be compensated. We all have bills to pay and mouths to feed. None of this unpaid internship business. That being said, for an undergraduate student or recent graduate, volunteering can be extremely beneficial to getting your start in archaeology. Not only does it offer the rewarding feeling of being a good person, but it opens a lot of doors for you to start building your career.
First of all, it’s a fantastic way to start building contacts. Networking is important to career-building, archaeology included. You get a chance to meet archaeologists who may have a lot of useful advice or tips for you. You’ll also get some exposure to a lot of different types of archaeology that you might not have considered before. For example while I have focused my career on Canadian archaeology, more specifically that of the Northwest Coast, one of my volunteer gigs was in a palaeoanthropology lab where I had a chance to work with artifacts from Tanzania that were tens of thousands of years old! Trust me when I say that 50,000+ year old stone flakes from Africa look just like 5000 year old stone flakes from BC.
Secondly, volunteering is a great way to show off yourself. While you’ve got a chance here to meet other researchers and learn from them, you also want to start showing off your skills and knowledge. Showcasing yourself can often lead to employment (yes, for real money). How do I know this? Because it happened to me! I volunteered for a week and a couple of months later I was offered a job. Same thing happened to a friend of mine who is now working part time (he also works in CRM with me) in the palaeontology laboratory at the Canadian Museum of Nature.
Thirdly, and perhaps the most important of all, volunteering gives you the ultimate chance to learn about archaeology from archaeologists. Classrooms never taught me how to set up a unit, record a profile, or map a site. They also didn’t teach me about what kind of gear I should have or how to generally stay alive in the woods. Where I work, bears, cougars, wolves, coyotes, and elk (yes, elk can be nasty) are real threats. My textbooks certainly didn’t warn me about those! This is where field schools become super crucial. Yes, they’re expensive and you have to pay to participate instead of being paid for your work. But they’re the best teaching environment you can get for archaeology. Especially since they’re offered in nearly every part of the world, there’s a little bit of something for everyone.
Remember, you should never be doing any work or research without being compensated. I always recommend volunteering as a way to get started, but make sure you’re not being taken advantage of for free research. If you’re offering to volunteer for a company as a way to get experience, make sure you limit yourself to a set amount of time. Maybe a week at most, or maybe 1 day a week for a few months (i.e. while you’re in school and supposed to be studying, maybe you can find room in your schedule one day a week). Other great opportunities will arise in school with professors who have their own laboratories, or manage laboratories (I spent time volunteering in the physical anthropology lab at U of Alberta, helping the lab manager with updating the collection database, while also volunteering with a professor in her own personal laboratory with all her artifacts from Tanzania). Keep an eye open for offerings from the archaeology lab as well, some labs run special 1-day events for the public, like mock excavations, that always need a team of volunteers for. Many places across Canada have regional archaeological associations you can optionally join (being an archaeologist in Canada does not require a membership to any organization or association, but there are benefits to joining), as does Canada as a whole (Canadian Archaeological Association), and those organiztion’s websites are another fantastic tool to finding volunteer experience.
Volunteering = good. Too much volunteering = bad. Avoid spending too lengthy an amount of time volunteering because you’re likely being taken advantage of for research and work you should be compensated for. HOWEVER, a little volunteering here or there can go a long way and is fantastic to helping you get a start in archaeology. You have a chance to network and meet new people, a chance to show off your skills and knowledge to those who could offer you employment, and a chance to learn way more about archaeology than a classroom could ever teach you. Talk to profs, email CRM companies, and keep your eyes on archaeological associations for volunteer opportunities that can help you build yourself up for a great career.