Avocational Archaeology

SAA is pleased to ally with the Council of Allied Societies (CoAS), a multi-national body made up members of State/Regional/Provincial avocational-based archaeological societies who follow the tenets of SAA Principles of Archaeological Ethics, further the commitments of Visit with Respect, and support continuing education for the general public on archaeological matters of interest.

At CoAS, we define “Avocational Archaeology” as citizen scientists who actively participate in the gathering and understanding of the archaeological record, who follow the ethical guidelines as set forth by SAA, and the national mandates that include NAGPRAARPANHPA and individual state preservation policies. Avocationals regularly work with trained archaeological professionals on both academic and private cultural resource projects, as well as state and local projects coordinated by accredited state agencies and non-profit organizations. 

How can I find opportunities to engage in archaeology near where I live?

A first great step is to join a state archaeological society! State societies always welcome new members. Many of these organizations belong to the SAA's Council of Allied Societies. Most of these groups have a membership comprised of both professional archaeologists and avocationals.

Contact your State Archaeologist or your state archaeological society to find activities in your area. If you need additional help finding opportunities in your area, contact SAA's Archaeology Education Coordinator nearest to you.

There are both private and public organizations that offer opportunities to take part in excavations. Private non-profit organizations such as Crow Canyon Archaeological Center charge a fee that usually includes lodging and meals. There are also several private foundations such as Exploring Joara Foundation that offer free public archaeology opportunities. Public agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service have volunteer programs. They do not generally charge fees, and usually offer inexpensive camp accommodations to volunteers. Some programs are targeted to different age groups.

Go online!  Many organizations, including publicly interpreted archaeological sites, have Facebook pages that post interesting research and provide notifications of upcoming lectures and volunteer opportunities. 

What kinds of opportunities are available for avocationals?

Field and Laboratory Activities. Many organizations offer opportunities to work side-by-side with professional archaeologists, both in the field or in the laboratory. Archaeological societies provide hands-on training in field techniques from site discovery through excavation.  In the laboratory, there is always the need for washing, sorting, classifying, and cataloguing the artifacts that were recovered during fieldwork.

Research. Research begins with questions. Do you ever wonder about the “why, how, and when” of an artifact or the people who made it?  You may be cut out for research! Professional-avocational collaborations can lead to significant scientific contributions.  There are many public-minded professionals across the country who are open to avocationals participating in their research. 

Public Outreach.  Avocationals can be emissaries carrying the message of site preservation to their local communities. Their presence at local civic events and at schools informs the community about the rich archaeological heritage of their area and the need to protect and preserve it. Many states celebrate annual Archaeology Day/Week/Month events, and volunteers are always needed to engage with the public.

Site stewardship. There are many things everyone can do to help preserve our pasts for the future. Check with your state's Historic Preservation Office or Department of Natural Resources to see if they offer a site steward program. Site stewards are volunteers that monitor archaeological sites and record any changes or damages that occur. When you visit archaeological sites, you can help protect them from human impacts by following proper site etiquette guidelines. And always, be vigilant about the rights of landowners and do not go onto private property without permission.

Is it okay to collect artifacts?

Generally, collecting artifacts on private property is not against the law if you have permission from the landowner.  Collecting refers to picking up artifacts from the exposed ground surface.  Digging for artifacts, even with landowner permission, is against the law in some states. Do not assume that unoccupied land is not owned by a private individual, commercial entity, or government agency. In some cases, removing an artifact from where you found it is against the law— especially on public land such as state and national parks or on Tribal lands. Removing artifacts from these areas is a crime that is punishable by jail time and fines. Even though collecting surface artifacts on private property is not against the law, at CoAS, we discourage the collecting of any artifacts unless under the supervision of a trained archaeological professional. It is important to leave an artifact where it is and only record information, because it is difficult to identify an artifact out of context.

I found an artifact and would like more information about it. What should I do?

It is best to leave the artifact where you found it but record as much information as possible. Note its location and a description of the artifact. It is useful to draw or photograph the object and record its location on a map if possible. If you are visiting a state or national park, inform a park ranger or naturalist. Each state has a Historic Preservation Office that records the exact location of archaeological sites.  This is important because it is difficult to identify an artifact out of context. 

For information on a specific artifact, it is best to contact your state avocational society, State Archaeologist, local museums, or local university anthropology departments. These entities will also be able to provide you with guidelines on responsible stewardship of items of archaeological interest.

Can you tell me how much my artifact or collection is worth?

Archaeologists value artifacts for the information they contain about life in the past. Museums and professional archaeology societies do not offer monetary evaluations of objects. 

Collections that are currently in private ownership may have considerable scientific value.  If you have a private collection and you know where the artifacts came from, that information can often be helpful to archaeologists with interpreting the past. Consider working in partnership with your state society to document your collection and preserve the information for posterity.

What should I do if there is an archeological site on my property?

Avocationals can significantly contribute to the archaeological knowledge of a locality. If you know of an archaeological site on your property, consider documenting that site with the State Archaeologist. Many states have abbreviated or “short forms” that allow individuals to record critical data on the site and enter it into the state database. 

For more information, we encourage you to visit:

SAA Public Archaeology Portal

SAA Statement on Collaboration with Responsible and Responsive Stewards of the Past (2018)

SAA Ethics in Professional Archaeology