Free Archaeology – Whitewashing the Fence

We just started reading Tom Sawyer with our eight year old and I am once again reminded of what a wonderful, complicated, conflicted book it is.

Chapter 2 describes the canny way that Tom gets out of the chore of whitewashing his aunt’s fence, by convincing the other children that it is a great treat. They line up to pay him for the privilege. He gains the insight that “Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do and play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do”

I have long been reminded of this episode when thinking about the changing role of volunteers in heritage. For sometime Emily Johnson ( and Sam Hardy ( have been discussing the dangers of the current situation under the label ‘free archaeology’. They (and others) have pointed out the way that the use of unpaid labour in archaeology and heritage excludes people who cannot afford to work for free.

Heritage already has a considerable problem with diversity. The people creating and curating our pasts tend to be overwhelmingly white and middle class. If heritage is to be transformative, supporting the development of resilient thriving communities, it needs to draw from a wider body of experience. We need to let more people whitewash the fence, which means acknowledging to to be work and paying people to do it.

But reading the book again has reminded me of some other interesting aspects of the episode relevant to heritage. Firstly, the way that he establishes the activity as desirable is by making access to it restricted. “In order to make a man or boy covert a thing it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain”. Tom does this by suggesting that the skill involved is great and an authority has chosen him especially “Aunt Polly’s awful particular about this fence — right here on the street, you know — but if it was the back fence, i wouldn’t mind and SHE wouldn’t. Yes, she’s awful particular about this fence; it’s got to be done very careful”

This argument is at the core of professionalisation of archaeology and heritage in the UK since the 1970’s. The material we work with is rare and our skills are complex. Not just anyone can do it. Of course there are elements of truth to this. One of the reasons heritage professionals should be paid as professionals is because they have invested a lot of time and money into acquiring skills. And we do work with material that is valued by the community, partly because of our efforts in defining it as valuable.

But we need to be aware that this argument also feeds the idea that our labour is a privilege rather than a contribution. We also need to be careful not to use ‘the back fence’ for volunteer projects. Volunteers should be given the support to work on the right material for that community – regardless of how precious it may seem.

The sting in the tail of the story comes in Chapter 4. Tom takes the treasures he has collected from other children for the privilege of whitewashing the fence and uses them to buy ‘tickets’ given as evidence of having memorised biblical verses from children who don’t value them as much as they value the marbles Tom now has. He gains enough tickets this way to be awarded a Bible as a reward for his scholarship in front of even more august authorities than Aunt Polly, including the girl he wants to impress.

Even when heritage professionals engage volunteers with the best intentions, and give them all the credit that is their due, we still receive the majority of the praise. Publications are in our name, the knowledge produced gives us more cultural capital than the volunteers.

I don’t know how this can be resolved. There are circumstances where engaging volunteers can be a useful way of helping communities strengthen their heritage. But we should be aware of the wider effects, lest we be exposed, as Tom was. “Let us draw the curtain of Charity over the rest of the scene”

All quotes from Mark Twain 1876 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer


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