In praise of volunteers

My excavations, including Khok Phanom Di, have yielded well over 1,000 human graves, and often the dead were interred with multiple mortuary offerings from fine pottery vessels to thousands of ornaments in gold, silver, bronze, iron, carnelian, glass, shell, and agate.

Back in 1984, I was planning to excavate a site that I knew would be very deep and demanding, and I was well aware that it would take a long time, and need a lot of commitment and money. It is known as Khok Phanom Di – literally meaning, in a mixture of Thai and Khmer, ‘mound mound good’. I had visited the site in 1981, after completing a season at the Bronze and Iron Age site of Ban Na Di (‘village good rice field’) in North-east Thailand. My colleagues Amphan and Somsuda from the Fine Arts Department and I drove out from Bangkok to the east, and, after an hour or so, we turned left off the main road from Chachoengsao to Phanat Nikhom, heading for a mound that stood out on the flat plain like a stranded whale. We drove up on to the top and parked next to the Buddhist temple there. A small excavation square put in by a local schoolteacher remained open, and a bamboo ladder was still in place. I climbed down into inky depths for at least 9m, marvelling at the clarity of the stratigraphy. A human skull with vacant eye sockets looked back at me from the section. On the spot, I promised myself that one day I would return and take on this challenge.

Just as an army marches on its stomach, so a dig marches on money. In 1983, while pondering the Khok Phanom Di challenge, I received a totally unexpected letter. It came from someone I had never heard of called Brian Rosborough, postmarked ‘Boston, MA’, under the letterhead ‘Earthwatch’. It began with a simple question: ‘Would you like a research grant?’ My initial reaction was, ask a silly question and you will get a silly answer. Then I read on and learned how Earthwatch operated. If my proposed fieldwork were approved, they would endeavour to assemble a team of volunteers to join me in the field. Each would contribute money to pay for their accommodation and local transport, and their own airfare to Bangkok, but there would be a margin in their payment to defray the cost of the dig. Put simply, volunteers would pay me for the chance to work on my excavation. I would receive half of their contribution, the other half going to Earthwatch to cover their administrative costs; Uncle Sam came to the party as well, for the volunteer contribution was deemed a charitable taxable expense.

I needed money, so I applied. This began a relationship that lasted for 21 years, involving eight excavation programmes and more than 300 volunteers in teams to a maximum of 15, so I would like to write in praise of volunteers. It is how I began: at Snail Down in Wiltshire in 1955. I found that digging is incredible fun and, as my friend Kent Flannery once said, ‘digging is the most exciting thing you can do with your trousers on’. It is, of course, vital that your excavation yields finds that are tangible and meaningful, because if you simply find yourself chopping dirt, it can be terminally tedious.

I have been lucky. My excavations, including Khok Phanom Di, have yielded well over 1,000 human graves, and often the dead were interred with multiple mortuary offerings from fine pottery vessels to thousands of ornaments in gold, silver, bronze, iron, carnelian, glass, shell, and agate. The vast majority of my volunteers have been tip-top helpers in the square, and beyond it in reassembling broken pots or cleaning all our finds. As the Director, I always reached the excavation before the volunteers in order to run through their assignments for the day, tailoring work to ability. I cite, in particular, Wilbert Yee from Boston, who was a meticulous excavator of human skeletons, and Christina Sewall from Maine, who joined us over many campaigns and wrote an excellent thesis on the enigmatic conical rollers from Ban Non Wat. Wesley Clark began as a volunteer and ended up a professional prehistorian in his own right.

Volunteers mingle with villagers during the excavation of Ban Non Wat in North-east Thailand.

I must also record that I have had my moments. One member of our very first team stunned the conservative residents of Phanat Nikhom by marching down the main street at 2am stark naked after a surfeit of rum. On another occasion, a volunteer from Denver ripped out a human femur from a grave and brandished it like a club under the nose of a visiting inspector from the Thai Government. I will never forget the sight of a volunteer at Khok Phanom Di tripping in a post-hole and descending, as it seemed to me in slow motion, directly on to a superb Neolithic burial jar containing the complete skeleton of an infant. Indeed, when my late friend Andy Weiss visited my excavations, he said to me that he would rather try to smuggle drugs through Singapore than match what I was doing on his own excavation. Overall, however, my experience has been totally positive. Indeed, in my most recent fieldwork at Non Ban Jak, a group of former Earthwatchers have banded together to come and help me over the past six seasons.

Citizen scientists

Over the years and at a distance, I have kept in touch with many friends who studied archaeology with me at university. Unity Stack was a keen supporter of my endeavours on the rugby field, and after a career as a mother and teacher, has now returned to archaeology as a volunteer in north Yorkshire. First letters and now regular emails have flowed, and through these I know a lot more about Romano-British and medieval Yorkshire than I ever imagined possible. For the past few weekends, I have been kept up to date with the initiative of Erik Matthews at Hornby Castle, where his personal campaign, across ten years of Saturday working, provides his volunteers with regular updates and a find-of-the-day photo. On a larger scale, she also tells me about the investigations of the medieval village of Thornton-le-Street near Thirsk. At the Shanghai Archaeological Forum last December (it was a different life then), I learnt about Nick Card’s excavations at the Ness of Brodgar on Orkney. I emailed encouraging her to apply to join the dig as a volunteer, but apparently it is so popular that places are filled almost as soon as advertised. I have always been fascinated by deserted medieval villages, and the project at Thornton-le-Street looks, from its website, to be a model of its kind. ‘Roads to the Past’ has achieved the ‘magic trick’ of achieving a lasting identity beyond Heritage Lottery funding and a lot of earth moving.

Calling all volunteers: revealing stone foundations on the ‘Roads to the Past’ project at Thornton-le-Street.

What better way to start than taking a LiDAR image to delineate the traces of dwellings, the site of a watermill, the field systems, and even the trace of a Roman road that in all likelihood gives the ‘Street’ part to the name of the village? Then there is research on the medieval documents that describe the village and its inhabitants. Volunteers were trained in the field to identify the surface features at ground level – such an important first step before even considering the spade or trowel. Jim Brightman, Chris Scott, and Dr Scott Williams have integrated there a model project involving visiting specialists and over 245 volunteers, who have learned the basics of excavation, processed more than 3,000 finds, and attended 15 workshops. They have visited similar sites, and provided reports and feedback to the local communities.

This takes me briefly back to my own volunteer-sponsored work in far-off Thailand. Looting is an endemic problem in South-east Asia. An Iron Age site in Cambodia has a shelf life measured in weeks, as the hordes descend to root out their ancestors’ graves in order to gather up and sell beads. It is bad in parts of Thailand too, but thankfully, where I work, the villagers have been as conscious of their cultural heritage as are their contemporaries in Yorkshire. At Ban Non Wat, the headwoman has inspired the construction of an excellent site museum; the same is happening at Khok Phanom Di; while the entire site of Noen U-Loke has been ringed with a protective barbed-wire fence.

So it is heartening to see how the volunteers at Thornton-le-Street have been involved in informing local schools and villages about how the past has been illuminated through archaeology. Posters, leaflets, visual displays are all part of the armoury deployed to excite and educate. It is not just the digging that is so rewarding: it is also the pleasure of working in a team, the excitement of discovery, the yarns and reminiscing that flow over tea and a flapjack, or in the pub after the day’s toils in the square. There are very few disciplines where inexperienced amateurs can join in basic research and make an impact. Long live the volunteer, I say. Many of them become as capable and knowledgeable as the professionals. They are a part of the corpus of ‘citizen scientists’, a feature of British society with its long tradition of self-improvement.

Charles Higham is a Professor at Otago University in New Zealand, and an authority on Cambodia's Angkor civilisation and Ban Non Wat in Thailand.

IMAGE: courtesy GeoMapApp ( CC BY (Ryan et al. 2009).