Thursday, 12 January 2017

Archaeology volunteering v.2.0

( Over the last few months I've read an awful lot about volunteering in the archaeological sector. A lot of it has been interesting, but almost all of it has been written from an archaeologists perspective. It has also dealt with what you might call 'traditional' volunteering. Old school volunteering. A type of volunteering that is becoming increasingly far from the norm. A lot of it has, quite rightly, emphasised just how important volunteers are. How we can't do without them. How they add value to projects, and fill the gaps left by funding cuts and deficits. However, what many people don't seem to grasp is that perhaps the single most important thing volunteers can bring to any project is far less tangible. It isn't something easily measurable, and certainly not something that you can put a cash value on. And this elusive benefit is - Advocacy. The enthusiasm to talk about, and promote, the project within social groups that even the best PR machine or social media campaign may find hard to reach. The ability to create the goodwill and enthusiasm to ensure the project is a success - and the success of future projects too. Promoting your projects in unconventional, but far reaching ways. And so I asked some of our volunteers to write short guest blog posts on what THEY value about volunteering. The first is Jess, one of the more vocal volunteers for the NMGS - and I 'may' have edited out some of the swearing...)

Hello, my name is Jess and I’m an alcoholic. Sorry, wrong notes. My name is Jess and I am a volunteer for the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey. If you’re reading this, then you probably already know a fair bit about the survey, and what it’s aiming to achieve, so you can skip to the third paragraph, well done, you’ve saved yourself some time. If you don’t know about it, then read this bit: volunteers for the survey are responsible for an amazing and entirely new corpus of data relating to the understanding of medieval churches, religion, magic, belief, and the lives of the ordinary people in those times. Very simply, volunteers are attempting to go out to each little treasure of Norfolk’s medieval churches, shining light across the walls and recording the centuries old inscriptions left there, both photographically and on basic recording forms, detailing where each inscription is to be found within the churches.

It’s quite an undertaking. Hundreds of thousands of hours spent by people with little or no background in archaeology quietly undertaking a revolution in research and understanding. Hundreds of thousand of hours spent in chilly, damp churches, squinting at peeling lime wash, brushing aside cobwebs, smiling politely at other visitors as who try to nervously ignore the person with their nose pressed to the base of a font, wielding a £3 LED torch.

Yep, that’s what the marvellous, dedicated, and inspiring NMGS volunteers do. Visit churches, take photos, submit surveys. That’s it, that’s what being a volunteer is, no room for anything else, that’s what we contribute. My name is Jess and I’m a volunteer.

Except that I don’t own a camera, can’t take a raking light photo to save my life, and I have not, in my three years of being involved in the project, surveyed one church. I’ve never even made a single entry on a photo record sheet, still less actually held one (I don’t have a printer, which might explain that one). And yet, as far as I’m concerned, I am a volunteer, and I do contribute, in my own way. How? Erm. Well, I just sort of do… stuff. Usually sitting on my living room floor, ancient and creaking laptop on the coffee table in front of me, occasionally on my phone in the pub, sometimes I even do stuff in my fully 3D incarnation at Norwich Cathedral. Yebbut, what do I actually do?

I read, I write. I creatively google things. I enthuse to the point of banging on about medieval graffiti to the point where people start pleading with me to shut up. I spend an entire weekend trawling antique dealer websites to look for furniture that may or may not feature apotropaic markings. I am happily whored out by my mum to give tours of the graffiti at the cathedral to her friends (I always start these tours shy and halting, stumbling over my words, and quivering with nerves. By the end I have to stuff my tongue back into my mouth with both hands and need to be sat on to stop me racing off down the aisle again) I may also sometimes have a hand in being a spectacularly sweary first reader of certain articles, book chapters, etc, and provide my own rather personal form of feedback to the writer. Just be grateful you’re not the recipient of emails headed ‘that powercrazed fuckwit bunny’ or, possibly worse, ‘oh dear…’.

That’s what I do. For free, gratis, nada, nothing other than the promise of lemon drizzle cake that has yet to materialise two and half years later, not that I’m counting or anything, MATTHEW CHAMPION*. So I suppose the obvious question is why? Why have notebooks stuffed with lists of churches, notes in margins, a phone crammed with photos, and a head full of inconsequent ional information that may or may not be of use at some point in the future? Why would someone give up so much of their time to volunteering to a project, to something that is, whilst groundbreaking and important, relatively niche, even allowing for the specialisms of archaeology? We-elll… it’s simple really. I fell in love with medieval graffiti, head over heels, gazing at walls. It just bypassed any pretence at rationality I may gamely attempt, and connected. And when you feel that connection to something, then you want to explain it, you want people to understand, you want to grab people and squeal ‘Look at THAT! Isn’t it mindblowing???’ Essentially, you want to do what you can to help, too. And that’s where volunteering comes in.

I don’t have the skills, knowledge, or talent to be a traditional volunteer. My addition to the database of medieval graffiti is pretty much nil (Except for the DAYS she spent building a Google map of all the currently known graffiti churches in the UK - Ed). I’ve got no previous experience of history, archaeology, research or academia, so there’s no hope of me helping out there, either. But I do contribute in my own idiosyncratic way, I think (bloody hope so, anyway, or all of this is a waste of time). By bringing medieval graffiti to a wider audience who wouldn’t perhaps have heard of it before they read an article I write, or by a chance remark at a parent teacher evening that gets me invited in to talk to schoolchildren. Or perhaps by emailing a photo of an old bed, or getting inventively sweary about a first draft, or gabbling away to strangers in Norwich Castle.
I don’t fit the model of what a community archaeology volunteer should be. And yet, I know my contribution is valued, unconventional as it is. And because it’s valued, because I feel that I am helping, I want to do more, I want to continue to help, I am encouraged to do more. Any project that uses volunteers needs to think of them as individuals, not as one bland, faceless homogenous mass, to not assume that ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to volunteering, and that theories of how to appeal to more people are a relatively superficial way of engaging. Treat volunteers as individuals, play to their strengths, and you’ll end up with a group of fiercely loyal, enthusiastic, passionate people who will do their best to support your work. Oh, and you might end up with me too. Sorry about that.

*(I would point out, in my defence, that since the establishment of this agreement, Norwich cathedral refectory appears to have increasingly limited its production of lemon drizzle cake. Many, many alternatives have been offered. Many of these have involved chocolate in VAST quantities. None have apparently been acceptable. So if anyone knows of a good lemon drizzle cake mail order company - I'd be very grateful... Ed)


  1. Really interesting and spirited read - and the treating people as individuals is absolutely spot on .

  2. Thank you :-) And I suppose by being so passionate about treating volunteers as individuals, I may have proved how well this approach works...