Tag Archives: Field Archaeology

Digging Up Time, Part 1: A Multiple Guest Post Influenced by Svetlana Alexievich

30 Jan

This post and style has been influenced by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Время секонд хэнд) publication released in 2013, a work of non-fiction prose which explores the personal impact of the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991 through the recording of hundreds of interviews transcribed into monologues.  These were conducted with a wide range of individuals who experienced both life within the USSR and its modern-day constituents, including present-day Russian Federation and surrounding independent countries.  I’ve previously mentioned the book on a recent blog entry here.  Alexievich, a resident of Belarus and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, is no stranger to the impact of political persecution and has herself had to leave Belarus to seek sanctuary elsewhere for long periods of time.  The Nobel Prize committee described her works as ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.

The book, of which I’ve recently finished reading for the first time, offers insight into the continual flux of humanity and it has moved me deeply.  If I’m not mistaken it is also the concluding chapter in a five-part cycle of work reporting on issues within the history of the USSR, although a number of the volumes have not yet been translated into English.  Those that have include Alexievich’s 1997 publication Chernobyl Prayer (ернобыльская молитва), a volume which I’m currently reading.  It is a book which examines the impact of the nuclear reactor malfunction in Ukraine in 1986 and its effects on the clean up crews, physicians, and local inhabitants within Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian territories.  The book includes material taken from over 500 interviews over 10 years, of which a revised edition was released in English in 2013.  A new reprint of an English translation of Zinky Boys (or Boys in Zinc, Цинковые мальчики) is due for 2017, which looks at the impact of the USSR’s decade long war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.  It is a volume I am now keen to read and to learn from.

This post should be seen as an attempt to convey the methods that Alexievich’s employs; it is not meant to diminish the impact and importance of the individual and personal stories contained within the volumes that she has produced.  Nevertheless there are parallels that can be drawn out between historical events and the personal viewpoints of our field and I was keen to explore, to hear voices from friends of their experiences of archaeology – as a career, as a dream, as a labour of love.

(Part 2 can be read here).


The author’s monologue

–  We’re exploring the past to divine the future, turning over the topsoil to see what lies below.  The borders are closing, the opportunities to traverse and learn are being cut across the globe, and I find myself at a crossroads in my own life.  Do I continue to pursue meaningful employment in the field that I so desire to join or do I keep my passion to one side, preserved with all the joy intact but with little difference made to my bank balance?

I find myself in a non-archaeology community that cares little for my achievements or my dreams that have been achieved.  Instead I archive them within my own personal vault of fulfillment and seek the next challenge, doggedly pursuing what I see as a higher form of personal learning – uncovering the voices of the past, to gather and collect the tendrils of evidence, to disseminate the dead among the living.  In my defense I am giving life back to the lost.

Life has assumed the standard pattern yet I yearn to break free, to feel the mud underfoot, the rising sun casting a glint off the blade of the metal tool in a field of crops.  There is no shame for me to admit that I find myself in neither commercial archaeology or academia, I am between camps and of no camp.  I am free to wander as my desires so take me and as my time so dictates.  My work, not associated with my archaeological passion in any meaningful way, gives me the money for food, fuel and rent, and in return I give it the sweat, hard work and integrity as I can muster.  My dreams are my own though, lying so tenderly outside the realm of reality.

So today, my dear readers, we shall instead dip into the minds of others…


The boundaries of history as an illusion of the future

The Galleon.  Mid thirties.  Field archaeologist.

–  I started in archaeology a bit by chance.  I always wanted to be an archaeologist but I thought it was a secluded works, reserved for the best of the best.  When I met my ex-boyfriend he knew a guy that was supervising and I finally entered into this new magical world.  My surprise was that, once I started to meet people I realised that, unfortunately, they were not the best of the best but quite the contrary.  There’s good people, there’s bad people, and environment is everything if you have a shitty site.  I come from another country, I have more than 10 years of experience but I’ve been treated nearly everywhere as if I was a newbie.  If you don’t know the background of someone you should ask, that should be the rule.

Also, as everywhere, good workers are slighted and bad workers are promoted.  Even if this happens everywhere, this is quite hurtful when you see bad decisions being made which can affect our knowledge of the past.  The past is a limited resource.  But it is difficult and exhausting to fight against the ‘establishment’ because builders don’t give a shit about it, engineers don’t give a shit about it, and people in general don’t give a shit about it.  Yet everyone watches Time Team or laps up the burial of Richard III…

Well, people, the reality is different: it’s hard, it’s difficult, it’s not well paid…  But let me do my work!  In an era when nationalism seem to be rising let me tell you where you really come from.


On the sensation of discovering the new and the old – A personal turning point in a friend’s life

Charles L.  31 years old.  Former field archaeologist.

–  It’s a fairly long-winded story, but it goes back to an early realization as a kid that the world was not just self-evidently fascinating, but also a seemingly endless mine of stories, processes and worlds.  Delving into the past opened up incredible avenues for obsession.  Everything imaginable had a reason for being, and an intricate history woven through the chaos of time.

My dad, also a huge fan of history, always endeavored to take me to historical and archaeological sites around the country, and whenever we were abroad, he’d always have several similar visits planned.  The feeling of utter scintillation when I walked down roads that had seen sometimes hundreds of generations of wear, or standing in the remains of a hillfort created by cultures both alien and continuous to my own…  It never left me.  The feeling that, anywhere you go, you walk through the echoes of millions of other stories; it turned the world into a magical, vibrant place.  I wondered whose story my essence would be floating through thousands of years from now.  The door to my imagination was permanently kicked open, to let the world in.

Skip forward twenty or so years and life had occurred at me.  I’d left uni with an okay grade and an unhealthy attitude to work.  I fell into a retail job, then, after that, a fairly uninspiring administrative job.  That child in me sat sulking in a corner of my mind, looking out of my eyes at spreadsheets and emails and pint glasses and insomniac nights and sadly fell to sleep.

I nearly closed the door of imagination.  February of 2009, my dad, frustrated, asked me what are you doing with your life?  What do you want to do?  I replied that I did not know, but that wasn’t quite true.  I knew I wanted to learn and learn and learn.  I wanted to write and write and draw and see and live again.  But all of that seemed so…  Unrealistic.  Childish almost.  I vaguely said I’d thought of going back to university, which didn’t exactly elicit a positive response, but he was open to the idea if I had a goal.  Initially I thought about a History MA, but decided against it.  No; I wanted to see it and feel it.  I wanted the hands on interaction with the past.  Turns out, I wanted to be an archaeologist.

So, I got onto a Masters and, with a jolt, my life returned to me.  Happiness, fascination, wonderment, hope, drive, purpose; it all returned to me in a way I hadn’t felt since childhood.  It was difficult but brilliant.  I was surrounded by wildly intelligent, funny, ambitious people with whom I made quick friendships.  The literature, whilst sometimes dry, opened my eyes to whole past worlds and interpretations I had never considered, and I was getting to write about it all.  Naturally, my first few papers were total garbage, but I got there slowly, and after a while I was interacting with the work in a way I had a grasp on.  I felt I had something to give to the field.

And so went one of the most exciting years of my life.  After the depressing lack of consequence from my first degree, my Masters was like a turbo-boost for the soul.  At the end of the year, I volunteered on a couple of field-schools and after a stressful time of applying to all of the archaeology units in the entire known universe, I landed my first archaeological job through a personal recommendation.  After all those applications, it came down to a good word from a new friend dropped to the right people.  It was a godsend at the time, and remained largely representative of my winning method for getting archaeological work.  It comes down to a very short and simple piece of advice: know people.

So, as I’m sure anyone who has worked in commercial archaeology is now thinking: perhaps this guy entered the field with an overly rosy view of things.  You’re absolutely 110% correct.  If perhaps I’d listened to a few more archaeological misery gutses, I might have had a slightly smoother ride.  Alas, I didn’t and therefore I didn’t.

My first job was actually a total joy, however.  It was only after a year or so that mission fatigue set in.  I started off on a wonderfully academic site with an extremely ingratiating and friendly unit.  I made a new city home and in the space of a few short months, accrued years of happiness.  I had great friends, a great home and a great title, one I really enjoyed: archaeologist.  Technically I was an assistant archaeologist, but I didn’t tell people that.

Some time, several jobs, mountains of financial uncertainty and seemingly centuries trapped outside in the bitter rain later, the shine had somewhat worn off.  Travelling around the country is all well and good for a while, but when it becomes constant, it’s not so well and good.  I have seen enough B & B’s to last a lifetime.  I could draw a good, accurate map of England’s mobile dead spots.  I have mattocked through ice on supervisory demand, destroying archaeology, and I have hoed away mud in torrential rain. Worse than all that, however, were the endless months alone in the middle of nowhere, watching a work gang open up pipe trenches.  Sends you a bit funny, months alone in the middle of nowhere.  Not good for relationships.  Or, y’know…  Sanity.

My bank account was permanently empty on account of extremely low pay and extremely unreliable work.  More than once I found out that work for the following week had been cancelled so, due to being on a zero hours contract, I simply wasn’t going to get paid for that week.

It wasn’t all terrible.  I still had some amazing times with amazing people.  I still saw fantastic things and some of the sites I worked on, even late into my archaeological career, are treasured memories for me.  The people are almost universally brilliant company, with whom I often laughed until physical pain.  Some of my all-time favorite conversations were out on rain-soaked fens, in wind that was trying to blow us over.

But my life changed.  I got serious in a relationship and being poor, stressed and itinerant were no longer compatible with personal happiness.  I had reached the end of my archaeological journey, and with an extremely heavy heart, I laid my career to rest.  Admittedly, I strung that process out – I didn’t know what I was, post-archaeology.  That terrified and depressed me deeply, and the year or so after leaving was a tailspinning, roller-coastering, gut-punch, vertiginous freefall of a time, but I made it through.

I don’t for a single second regret my time in archaeology, and some days I still miss it.  I’m forever glad I took the plunge, leapt for that childhood dream; it’s given me courage to do the same in different areas and aspects of life.  In a big way, it laid the foundation for my adult life.

Would I go back into commercial archaeology now, given the opportunity?

Not a damn chance…

Would I change anything, for better or worse, about my time as an archaeologist?

I would change nothing at all…


The light at the end of the trench or the beginning of a career never dared dreamed of

Natalie F.  29.  PhD Researcher.

–  Academic archaeology is a route that I happened to fall into due to a sequence of quite unlikely events, a great deal of luck and sometimes astounding timing.  As someone who has always had an inclination to play happily in the mud, and who loves the thought of bringing objects and people from our ancient past out of their tomb in the ground and into the light of modern day, I would never have thought I’d end up where I am; a postgraduate student who you sometimes have to prise out of the lab…

Originally, I was encouraged by someone to apply for an MA at my alma mater, which I did with the knowledge that I wasn’t going to make the cut.  My 2:2 meant that academia was theoretically cut off from me, the minimum being a 2:1 in seemingly most institutions; in theory, the ivory tower of academia was locked…

But I wrote my statement, stressing how much I’d loved my time there and archaeology in general, and sent off the application.  I expected nothing, nothing at all, but what I got instead was a phone call from the postgraduate admissions director for Archaeology saying that he was more than happy to push my application through the board.  So off I went, with an appropriate amount of imposter syndrome.

From there, two chance run ins, one when I was hunting down an elusive lecturer and instead found someone who would later be a very dear friend, and one at a launch party after far too much wine with a man who would again become someone I would care for and admire a great deal, led me here.  The first person pointed me in the direction of a funded PhD advert and the second gave it to me, I suspect partially as a way to get me to stop following him around and asking to play with the 3D printer.

So that’s where I found myself, suddenly a full-time researcher with no real idea what to do.  I knew that, sooner or later, I would be uncovered as a fraud; surely all these lecturers who had suddenly become my colleagues would know that I had no idea what I was doing, that I was just a lucky idiot?  But no, they didn’t.  Because the vast majority felt, and still feel, the same way.  The stresses and strains of academic research, anything from your isotope data hasn’t been done yet so you’re 5 months behind to the fact that people keep taking the tea spoons in the staff room, have different sources but are felt by everyone.  The genius who worked for NASA still gets stage fright, the cool, collected expert in her field sometimes cries by the shrubbery outside the building.

Academic research can often be stressful and isolating.  Particularly archaeology, I think, as everything revolves around the long dead; who they were, what they did, ate and believed.  We spend so much time looking backwards that it can be difficult, when the microscope won’t co-operate and everything’s going wrong, to notice the people around you in the present…  No matter how alone you feel, grabbing a nap in the staff room at 8 at night when all the world seems quiet, you’re really not.  Everyone understands, and occasionally leaves a cup of tea for you when you wake up.  There’s always someone who “gets it”.

I would never have guessed that such a real, strong sense of camaraderie existed in academia, albeit alongside some minor competitiveness; I believed, as I said earlier, that the door to the ivory tower had long since closed for me.  It came as a surprise, then, to find out that all I had to do was knock and the door would slowly start to open…


The author rejoins

–  These are just a few of the voices I have managed to curate views for.  We’re still searching for individual stories, so a second entry will be posted in due course…

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Lose Yourself (In Mud): An Annotated Guide to the Archaeologists Rap

9 Feb

The following post presents a hopefully humorous lyrical remix of Eminem’s hit Lose Yourself, a rap song released in 2002 on the soundtrack of the film 8 Mile.  8 Mile is an autobiographical film based on the early life of the rapper Eminem (real name Marshall Mathers III), who also plays the lead character in 8 Mile.  The film chronicles the early struggles he had to break into the world of rapping, alongside the growth and development of his unique style among the underground ‘rap battles’ where reputations are forged and broken.  A significant character in the film is the setting itself, the old economic powerhouse city of Detroit, in Michigan, USA, which, following the collapse of some of its major motor industry, helps forge the identity and background of the characters in the film.  The ‘8 Mile’ of the film title refers to the 8 Mile Road (part of the M-102 highway) in Detroit, which bisects different suburbs of Detroit and is home to the main character, and is used in this instance to typically refer to the split between the economic and racial divide on each side of the road.  The original song is linked via a Youtube video below, so please do familiarize yourself with the flow of the original rap and then take a read through my light-hearted lyrical remix.  Although an attempt at archaeological humour, this post none-the-less raises some pertinent issues facing the archaeological researcher and excavator.

Source Material

Eminem’s song Lose Yourself can be found on the soundtrack to his autobiographical film 8 Mile, both of which were released in 2002.  No copyright infringement is intended and the original lyrics remain the property and copyright of their owners.  The basis for the lyrics of the original song used below have been taken from the AZLyrics website, see the version I used here.  This remix is only intended for educational purposes on the life of the archaeologist.  The video to the song can be found below (please be aware that there is some strong language in the song):

Lose Yourself (In Mud): A Rap Remix

– Intro –

‘Look, if you had, one trowel and one context sheet,
To record everything you ever wanted in one excavation or stratigraphy (1),
Would you capture it, or just let it slip?
Yo…’

Verse 1

‘His palms are sweaty, knees weak, diggers arms heavy (2),
There’s vomit on his hi-vis already (3): mom’s spaghetti,
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready,
To drop GPS points but he keeps on forgetting,
What he wrote down, the whole road crew goes so loud,
He opens his mouth but the words won’t come out,
He’s choking, how? Everybody’s joking now (4),
The digger’s getting closer, time’s up, over – diesel wow!
Snap back to reality, oh, there goes the ground,
Oh, there goes safety helmet, he choked, he’s so mad but he won’t,
Give up that easy nope, he won’t have it, he knows
His whole back’s to these trenches, it don’t matter, he’s gonna cope,
He knows that, but he’s bone broke (5), he’s so stagnant, he knows
When he goes back to this temporary site home, that’s when it’s
Back to the field again, yo, this whole rhapsody,
He better go record this context and hope it don’t pass him.’

Chorus/Hook

‘You better lose yourself in the field, the moment,
You dig it, you better never let it go (go)
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to record,
This context comes once in a lifetime (yo)
‘You better lose yourself in the field, the moment,
You dig it, you better never let it go (go),
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to sketch the trench,
This context comes once in a lifetime (yo).
(You better).’

Verse 2

‘The soil’s escaping, through this bucket that is gaping,
This Iron Age world is mine for the taking,
Make me a tribal king, as we move towards a Roman world order (6),
A field life is boring, but superstardom’s close to post-excavation (7),
It only grows harder, co-workers grow rowdier,
He drinks. It’s all over. These back-hoes is all on him,
Coast to coast shows, he’s known as the globetrotter (8),
Lonely digs, God only knows,
He’s grown farther from the department, he’s no researcher,
He goes home and barely knows his own publication record (9),
But hold your nose ’cause here goes the cold water,
His back-hoes (and other associated fieldwork tools) don’t want him no more, he’s ex-excavator
They moved on to the next fully-funded dig,
He nose dove and sold nothing of his previous book,
So the soap opera is told and unfolds,
I suppose it’s old partner, but the troweling goes on,
Da da dum da dum da da da da…’

(Back to Chorus/Hook)

Verse 3

‘No more minimum wage, I’m a change what you call pay raise,
Tear this mothertrucking tarp off like two dogs caged,
I was back-filling in the beginning (10), the mood all changed,
I’ve been chewed up and spit out and booed off site,
But I kept recording and stepped right into the next minivan,
Best believe somebody’s playing the repeat record,
All the pain inside amplified by the,
Fact that I can’t get by with my 7 to 5,
And I can’t provide the right type of life for my family,
‘Cause man, these muddy boots don’t provide no good loots (11),
And it’s no Indiana movie, there’s no Jane Buikstra (12), this is my life
And these times are so hard, and it’s getting even harder
Trying to feed and water my underfunded project, plus
Teeter totter caught up between being a teacher and a part-time researcher,
Baby, student’s drama screaming on at me,
Too much for me to wanna stay in one spot (13),
Another day of digging’s gotten me to the point,
I’m like an arthritic snail,
I’ve got to formulate a theory, a methodology or an application,
Single context recording is my only archaeological option, failure’s not,
Site leader, I love you, but this trailer’s got to go,
I cannot grow old in Parker Pearson’s lot (14),
So here I go it’s my shot.
Feet, fail me not,
This may be the only excavation that I got.’

(Back to Chorus/Hook)

Ending

‘You can do anything you set your mind to, archaeologist…’ *raises trowel in solidarity as camera pans away and music fades*

Archaeological Annotations

1.  Archaeological excavation is a fundamentally destructive process, therefore it is of the utmost imperative to record exactly what is uncovered, where and when.  Each stratigraphic horizon within an archaeological dig (the boundaries between different contexts, which can be either man-made or natural) are generally recorded to build up a site activity profile.  Features within the stratigraphic contexts, such as cuts or fills, are also recorded and excavated, with special notice given to structural or material remains found within the discrete horizons.

2.  Commercial field archaeology is not a physically easy job – it is also a demanding, time-consuming and pressurized job due to a number of variables.  These can be, but are not limited, the time allowed in which to excavate as set out by the conditions of construction, the weather, the travel involved to-and-from site, the temperament of the your co-workers, the physical and mental capabilities of your own body, the constant social re-scheduling due to upcoming site unpredictability, the long-term job insecurity, etc.  If you see an archaeologist in the pub, or out excavating, be sure to buy them a pint or a clap them at a job well done.  They’ll love it and remember that the public don’t think that archaeology is all about the gung-ho, ethics destroying, human remains violating, probable national law-breaking, relic selling, macho aggression exploits of Nazi War Diggers (or Battlefield Archaeology, for the UK readers), which shows the profession in a context-obliterating style.

3.  Safety is of paramount importance on-site.  Be aware of your escape routes.  Watch out for heavy machinery.  Wear a hard hat if needed.  Shore up that trench if you are going deep.  Get certified with the Construction Skills Certification Scheme White Card, or comparative scheme, which certifies the basic safety skills for archaeological field technicians.  See the incredibly helpful British Archaeological Jobs Resource guide on the White CSCS card here.

4.  Archaeologists often work side-by-side with the construction industry; it is why archaeology took such a hit both in the localised Celtic Tiger boom and bust in Ireland, for example, and in the global recession of 2008.  If there isn’t any construction going on, there aren’t going to be many excavations going on either.  (Though try telling that to the academic departments who excavate at will).

5.  Bone Broke, by bioarchaeologist PhD candidate Jess Beck, is one heck of a site to learn about the joys of human osteology.  Check it out now.

6.  The pesky rise of the Romans helped spell the end of many Iron Age cultures throughout Europe as the Roman republic (which later mutated into an Empire) battled, amalgamated or integrated their way of life with their barbarian neighbours.

7.  First you freeze in the field, then you freeze in the cold artefact storeroom.

8.  Archaeology, as a profession, offers many, many chances to travel the world and to dig at sites that span the length and breadth of human evolution.  If you are a student, or volunteer archaeologist, you too can check out the many options available to you.

9.  ‘Publish or be damned’ is a normal phrase in archaeology, despite the distinct lack of monetary incentive on behalf of the main academic publishers.  If an archaeological site is excavated, but not published at all, that can lead to the distinct loss of knowledge of that site from the archaeological record (!).  If you care about the archaeological record, get the findings of the dig written up, the specialist material unearthed and analysed properly, and then get it published for the whole world to know about and rejoice in.  You may regret the lack of money in your wallet, but that sense of satisfaction out-weights those empty pockets (hopefully).

10.  The back-filling of a trench is carried out once the archaeological site has been properly excavated and recorded as much as necessary, or is able to be.  Back-filling involves moving the soil from space to another, which is a fine description of archaeological excavation itself.  The tower of backfill is also a place where unlikely, but lucky, finds can be found stripped of their context.

11.  Contrary to the general public perception of archaeology excavations being full of characters in the mould of Dr Indiana Jones this is somewhat gladly not the case.  (Though you will, inevitability, find one or two first year archaeology students ‘ironically’ dressed up as Indiana in the first week or so of the course).  At best though Dr Jones is a looter and archaeologists never loot – we record like our lives depend on it, imagining that if we don’t record the archaeological sites we survey and excavate the giant rolling rock will (rightly) chase us down and flatten us where we stand.

12.  Prof. Jane Buikstra (Arizona State University) is one of the core founders of bioarchaeology (the study of the human skeleton and mummified tissue from archaeological contexts) as a discipline in its own right within the United States.  Buikstra, along with other early bioarchaeology researchers, has helped to set the gold standard for skeletal analysis and she continues to be a dynamic force within the discipline.

13.  Short term adjunct professor contracts in the United States and general short-term teaching contracts in the UK, alongside the general vagabond lifestyle of the field archaeologist, make being a professional archaeologist adept at moving completely at short notice.  Fieldwork is also notoriously underpaid considering how educated the workforce is in comparison to other skilled workforces.  The British Archaeological Jobs Resource is helping to try to curb that by launching the More Than Minima campaign in its advertising of job posts.  See the 15/16 Pay and Conditions document here, which set out a useful recommendation for the companies offering commercial archaeology jobs.

14.  Mike Parker Pearson (University College London) is a well-known prehistoric and funerary archaeologist, perhaps best known for researching and excavating the Wiltshire Neolithic and Bronze Age landscape in England, of which Stonehenge and Durrington Walls are one important part.  His 1999 Archaeology of Death and Burial book is a must for all budding bioarchaeologists.

Fieldwork: The Langtang Survivors Fund, The Ruins of Palmyra, and the Role of the Archaeologist in the Present

31 May

As a subscriber of the University of York’s round-up of Mesolithic archaeological news, in the form of the Mesolithic Miscellany Monthly newsletter, it was with surprise and sadness that I came across a first hand account of the earthquake that hit Nepal in late April of this year.  University of York researchers Hayley Saul and Emma Waterton were a part of an archaeological field team conducting work in Nepal, based at the Himalayan village of Langtang, which is north of the Kathmandu valley, when the main 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the country on Saturday 25th of April.

The field team had left their base at village of Langtang a mere two hours before the quake struck and managed to survive the initial event and the aftershocks with the help of their guides.  Unfortunately, after an arduous and nerve-wracking trek to an evacuation point, they heard the news that the village of Langtang had been destroyed by the avalanches and subsequent landslides as a result of the initial quake and the aftershocks. The small population had been almost entirely killed, with almost every building standing having been flattened from the force of the landslide (see BBC, Reuters & Nepali Times).

Langtang_village

Before the earthquake and landslide. The Langtang village in the Langtang National Park, located in northern Nepal close to the border with Tibet. The village was popular with travellers and winter sport enthusiasts. Image credit: Yosarian via Wikipedia.

Hayley and Emma are helping to raise funds via their Just Giving webpage for the Langtang Survivors Fund, which will go directly towards those who survived the quake and helped guide Hayley, Emma and others on the trek to safety, to help re-build their lives after losing family, friends, their homes and their way of life.  The Nepal earthquake, called Gorkha, that rocked the country and surrounding areas at the end of April of this year, have devastated the Himalayan country.  The main quake and its after shocks, which have continued into May, have killed many in the country (current estimates are at over 7,000 individuals, with many more injured) and has left both the population and its many villages, towns and cities in dire straits and in need of medical aid, food and shelter.

Langtang and Himalayan Culture

The small village of Langtang, in the Bagmati zone in northern Nepal, sits within a national park of some splendour, acting as a starting point for tourists to explore the Himalayan mountain range in the north of Nepal.  Home to around 540 people, the village was a popular destination for tourists visiting the country and hoping to get a glance of the Himalayan mountain range and the Nepalese way of life.  The village catered for the tourists by having almost 55 places to stay, with many of these hotels being  family ran business which catered for the guests.  The Himalayan mountain range is home to a delicate ecosystem and the range has managed to shape the cultures in the countries that share them profoundly, both in their religious worldview (the peaks being sacred to Buddhism and Hinduism) and in their adaptive lifestyle to a harsh environment.

Home to the highest peak on earth, Mount Everest, the Himalayans have also been an area of intense interest to explorers from around the world for decades.  An area of outstanding beauty, it is also an area of tense international pressure with both the countries bordering the Peoples Republic of China’s eastern border and the abuse of the mountain guides (normally the Sherpa people drawn from the upper Himalayan range) causing international ire.  For instance, Tibet, home of the exiled Dalai Lama, is host to many Buddhist monasteries which have seen a relatively severe clampdown on by Chinese authorities following the 1959 Tibetan uprising starting in the capital of Lhasa.  As such the value of cultural heritage is richly viewed as having an important part to play in the formation of identity for the countries that share the Himalayan mountain range.

Since the earthquake, landslides and the subsequent and enormous damage done to villages like Langtang and cities such as Kathmandu, there have been reports of artefact and heritage looting in Nepal.  The Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE) organisation have highlighted the effect that the selling of artefacts after the earthquake helps to further strip the identity and national heritage of the country and urges individuals and organisations not to buy these artefacts.  Nepal has suffered greatly from the natural disaster, as it is a country that relies heavily on tourism and it has been hit hard by the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks.  It is hoped that the sale of its richly historical artefacts, although for reasons understandable, slowly trickles to an end in order to help rebuild the parts of the country affected.  As SAFE highlight, the cultural heritage of a country is a non-renewable resource.  Nepal relies on both its natural beauty and its rich history and culture for its economy.  To destroy that would be to wound it twice.

Palmyra: Blood on the Land

In other news the extremist group Islamic State (otherwise known as Da’ish, Da’eesh ISIS, ISIL) have recently taken the city of Palmyra in Syria from the hands of Syria’s ruler Bashar Al-Assad’s army, taking both the infamous Tadmor prison and the ancient city of Palmyra itself in the bargain.  The modern town of Palmyra lies on a strategically important location between the capital of Damascus and the eastern city of Deir al-Zeir (BBC), and represents an important symbolic gain in a country where Palmyra is held up as a UNESCO world heritage site of international importance.  Furthermore it is close to oil and gas fields which help supply the western cities still under control by Al-Assad.  The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has consistently reported on the conflict in Syria, both on the appallingly violence employed by each of the factions fighting in the country.

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The massive Roman tetrapylon at the historic site of Palmyra, which acted as a monument generally built near crossroads. The ancient city of Palmyra has a particularly rich and diverse history, of which it’s Roman side was but just one. The ruins of the site are mostly architectural in nature, but do include exquisite examples of a distinct city culture, unique in the Middle East. Image credit: courtesy of Ben Wheatley.

Born out of the 2010-2011 Arabic Spring demonstrations across north Africa and the Middle East, the ongoing Syrian Civil War has led to a fragmentation of both Syria and Iraq, where numerous factions fight a bloody, tense long game of attrition.  Since the start of the civil war there is now currently a total of 7.6 million people who have been displaced within Syria, 220,000 killed since the start of the violence, and a further 3.9 million Syrians living as refugees in neighbouring countries (source).

The so-called Islamic State, a self-styled Islamic caliphate, has become one of the prime contenders for power in the region.  Controlling almost 50% of the land mass of Syria (but not some of major eastern cities) and large chunks of Iraq, the group has thrived on its propaganda to spread its message of intolerance and violence.  Chief among these are the both the show and summary executions carried out in the provinces it controls and, secondly, its wanton destruction of the heritage.  This destruction and the selling of looted artefacts, largely of pre-Islamic art and architecture (particularly any images of the body which the group claims is idolatry) and Shia mosques (the Shrine of Jonah/Mosque of Yunis in Nineveh, for example), is justified by their strict adherence to their view of Sunni Islam.

It is this destruction of heritage that has many worried in the world as the group currently controls Palmyra.  Already news has filtered in of the possible destruction of the 1st century lion (Al-Assad name, the incumbent leader of Syria, means Lion in arabic) and of a bloody retribution in the form of executions of police and army forces and civilians throughout the modern and ancient city.  This follows IS’s form from previous takeovers of cultural heritage sites, such as the unique archaeological sites of Nimrud and Hatra, where they have actively destroyed large parts of the above-ground sites.

There has also been recent news regarding the destruction of a vitally important Mosul Central Library in the Iraq, following the desecration of the main museum.  There is a stark difficulty in attaining reliable sources within IS controlled territory however, as the group fiercely control what and how they show their effect on both the population and territories under their control.  What is clear however is that Islamic State profit hugely by the selling of stolen antiquities on the black market, which helps fund their campaign of terror and slaughter.

It is worth pointing out here the difficulties in finding reliable sources within Syria on the cultural heritage destruction currently taking place throughout the country.  Nor is it just IS who are carrying out the looting and destruction on heritage sites and museums in Syria, but also parts of the Syrian army and other factions fighting in the country.  I advise readers who want to keep informed and up to date to check out Sam Hardy’s blog Conflict Heritage, where many of his posts explicitly detail what is known and what is unknown about the situation in both Palmyra and Syria at large. This post is a good start.

Yet it is not just heritage that faces the wrath of the numerous factions fighting in Syria and Iraq.  Medécins Sans Frontiéres (MSF, otherwise known as Doctors Without Borders), an impartial independent organisation that helps medical aid where it is most needed, have repeatedly warned of the violence that medical staff in the country face, both from the government and from the opposition forces.  This is partly targeted attacks against medical staff and civilians.  Operating in clandestine situations, the organisation and it’s staff have also faced sustained violence and intimidation, even whilst trying to give aid to individuals who need it.

Fieldwork Thoughts

The role of the archaeologist in the field, either during commercial (or CRM) work or during research fieldwork is primarily to collect data, often through a combination of surveying, excavation and/or collating samples for analysis.  The role of academic fieldwork where the pace can, at times, be more relaxed, also allows for a greater integration into the everyday life of the people who you may be based with or around.  Although there is a caveat to this in the fact that some fieldwork takes place in remote, inaccessible locations, a good many field work projects could only take place with the help, aid and friendship of various organisations and individuals.

As Hayley and Emma attest in their vivid recollection of quake, this was the case at Langtang.  It was with the help and dedication of their hosts in Nepal that they have had many succesful seasons of fieldwork at Langtang and that they, and their co-workers, had become deeply involved with life at Langtang.  This has involved getting to know the guides personally and meeting their extended family members, alongside taking an active interest within the daily life at Langtang.

Palmyra represents the possible (until there is firm evidence of destruction this website will not indulge in becoming a mouthpiece of propaganda) destruction of heritage that plays a vitally important part in the identity and self of sense in Syria.  As a BBC article highlights  that:

it must be remembered that there are rarely mutually exclusive choices here. The loss of Syria’s cultural heritage represents the loss of far more than some tourist attractions – it is the loss of connection between multiple generations” (source).

Further to this the repercussions of the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq, and the lack of any in-depth will by international partners to aid and stabilize the countries, could have serious geopolitical consequences on the world stage amongst the international community.

As archaeologists we know that the past and the present are intimately linked by cultural bonds and values that help transcend history, and help inform identity and actions today.  As such, and as a discipline, we would be remiss to conduct our fieldwork without knowledge of the environment in which we work.  Finally, we must ask ourselves what is heritage without the people?

Further Information

  • The Just Giving page for the Langtang Survivors Fund, and the first hand account of the devastation, can be found here.  Donations are still welcome.  The funds raised by Hayley Saul and Emma Waterton are to be given to the Community Action Nepal charity, who are based in Kathmandu, in memory of the many friends that both Hayley and Emma made at the village of Langtang during their fieldwork seasons.  The UK-based Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC), who bring together 13 charities, has also launched an appeal.  You find out more and donate here.
  • Medicéns Sans Frontiéres help distribute and organise medical aid around the world, particularly in hard to reach areas.  They often operate in situations deemed too dangerous by many aid organisations.  The organisation is impartial, neutral and independent, and helps respond to both natural and man-made disasters.  They regularly operate in dangerous climates where other aid organisations will not work in and have been instrumental in helping to contain the recent Ebola outbreak in parts of western Africa.  You can help support their important work here.
  • The Mesolithic Miscellany site started out as a journal although this has somewhat petered out within recent years – back editions of the journal are available on their website however.  The Mesolithic Miscellany Monthly newsletter is very active though and advertises recently published articles, edited volumes or books on Mesolithic archaeology.  You can subscribe for free here.
  • The Saving Antiquities for Everyone organisation homepage can be found here.  The non-profit organisation helps highlight cultural destruction from around the globe and carry out both research and fieldwork.  The wide range of the campaigns that it carries out, in places such as Haiti and Kashgar alongside general advocacy, can be found here.
  • Conflict Antiquities, a blog ran by Dr Sam Hardy, regularly provides accurate information on the destruction carried out by IS and the various factions fighting in Syria and Iraq.  The site also thoroughly documents examples of conflict antiquities and cultural destruction from around the world.

Interview with Stuart Rathbone: A View from the Trenches

8 Nov

Stuart Rathbone is a field archaeologist with considerable experience in the UK, Ireland and the United States of America in excavation and project supervising a number of important prehistoric and historic archaeology sites.  In conjunction with field work, Stuart has also held academic positions and writes regularly on a broad range of topics in archaeology for varied audiences.  Stuart has recently left the role of an archaeological project officer, based in the Orkney islands in northern Scotland with ORCA, to persue an archaeology career in the United States.  Stuart’s Academia profile, with links to his papers, can be found here.

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These Bones Of Mine:  Hello Stuart, welcome to These Bones of Mine!  For those who do not know could you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do please?

Stuart Rathbone:  Well I’m really what you might call a jobbing archaeologist. I graduated from Bournemouth University about 13 years ago and since the week I left I’ve been earning my living doing whatever jobs people were willing to pay me to do. I left England in 2001 to do a 6 month contract on one of the Irish motorway jobs and without ever intending to I guess I ended up emigrating. I worked my way up the career ladder within one of the bigger contracting firms ACS. By 2006 I was licensed to direct my own excavations and I spent a couple of years on the M3 Motorway project running some fairly tasty sites. Unfortunately in 2008 the Irish economy tanked and I found myself unexpectedly unemployed. I was fortunate to land on my feet and spent the next four years running a field school on Achill Island in County Mayo training archaeology and anthropology students from all over the world. That job was great fun, a real change from the commercial world. I also managed to pick up a little contract with University College Dublin helping to write up the overdue reports for the Céide Fields Neolithic Landscape Project. That all came to an end in 2011 and I moved home to England and spent some time out in East Anglia doing more contract work. At the start of this year I moved up to the Northern Isles where I’ve been doing more pre development stuff but also a little bit of time over the summer spent at the Neolithic Ness of Brodgar site. Basically that’s me, some commercial work, some research work, lurking around the university departments without ever becoming a faculty member and really just doing whatever anyone with a cheque book asks me to!

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Somewhere in Wicklow in 2001. Every one who works in Ireland will remember their first Burnt Stone Mound.

I guess part of the reason you’ve asked me to do this interview is because other than digging holes I write quite a bit of archaeology. I have quite a few specific areas of interest that I plug away at. I enjoy looking at the way the profession works across different sectors and also how we communicate archaeology in different media and to different audiences. In terms of more traditional topics I’ve written a lot about prehistoric settlement, and a few bits and pieces about post Medieval vernacular buildings. Finally I do some more wayward and experimental stuff which provides an antidote to all the serious pieces I write. It would be unfortunately rare for me to actually get paid for any of this writing, so it’s definitely a sort of a hobby. The nice thing about this though is that because I’m not being paid or funded I’m not really beholden to anyone either. Not only am I very free to choose what I’ll work on, I’m also very free to express myself in the which ever way my mood takes me.

TBOM: I think anyone who has read your William Burroughs influenced ‘cut up’ archaeology article probably wouldn’t forget it in a hurry!  Having been a field archaeologist since 2001 and writing widely on the subject, how well do you think the world of archaeology is presented or made accessible to the public?  Do you think a dichotomy exists between the public’s perception of archaeology and its value compared to what the researchers and diggers actually do?

Stuart: Well there’s certainly problems. I think we don’t communicate with the public directly enough, or certainly not at a serious academic level. Everything is mediated through a series of interchangeable TV presenters, who may have backgrounds and expertise in totally different areas. Time Team was fabulous and irritating in equal amounts, and that’s not just from a professional point of view. A lot of the time they thought they were being clever but they weren’t fooling anybody. We certainly need more archaeology on TV, and there’s so many ways that it could be worked out. The old documentary formats are far from irrelevant, they just need people to figure out new ways of getting decent archaeological content into them. But somehow some shows really need to exploit the potential for following longer and more complicated excavations. I’m sure it could be done, but it needs to be a really fabulous set of sites, really competently run and with beautiful project design, and it needs to be cinematic. A damp field in rural Leicestershire just isn’t going to cut it.

The main problem with TV isn’t even the shows, it’s what the effect has been on popular publishing. Almost all the popular archaeology books are now written by, or ghost written for, the people from TV and linked in to the sales generated during the airing of a particular show. It’s all incredibly basic, watered down and insipid. Mostly it’s the same generic information endlessly recycled. If you are lucky enough to still have a bookshop, go and have a look at  the history shelves. You’ll find they are teaming with books on a huge range of historical subjects, and only a small percent are tied into TV shows. If you find the little corner of the shelf where the archaeology books gather it’s a very different, and very sad, story. So it seems there is still an audience for proper books about history, but we’ve just not got that for archaeology. Maybe it’s a fundamental problem with the subject matter, that it just doesn’t lend itself to interesting tales, but I’m sure it’s also because we just don’t have the skills that historians do in finding exciting ways to share our information.  That’s where all the ancient aliens and mother goddess stuff comes in. Because people are interested in the archaeological landscapes they see around them and they want to know about them, but they sure don’t want to be bored. And the way that stuff works is that firstly it’s exciting and secondly it makes the reader feel special, like they are being initiated into this realm of secret knowledge. For all the horrendous liberties taken with the archaeological content, those books are successful because they utilise a good dynamic. So we need to be braver, we need to start writing more interesting books, more amusing books. And I don’t believe for one minute that we have to water down our concepts. Seriously, thinking we’re so clever that ordinary folk wouldn’t understand us is ridiculously arrogant. We just need to have a bit of faith that an audience we have been failing to reach is out there waiting for us to come to them.

On a more positive note we do lots of things right, but mostly when we communicate directly. I don’t really like the term Community Archaeology, it seems so… medical. What was wrong with having societies? But anyway those groups provide fantastic interaction between the public and the archaeologists, and they are thriving. Unfortunately they are only involving a small number of people, there just isn’t the capacity to reach everyone that might be interested. And they tend to be a little bit elusive, they don’t reach out to new potential members so much. I think there will always be a natural group size for things like that, somewhere between 10 and 30 people, probably better near the lower end. It’s a club structure, operating at a very local scale, it just doesn’t work with big numbers. So all the archaeology days and all of those things are great, but they don’t solve the issue of the missing popular archaeology. Same sort of thing with the public lectures. You know when archaeologists go out and give their lectures at little groups and societies? Well that’s fantastic, and I love doing that sort of thing myself, but at 30 people a time it’s not like the message of archaeology is getting spread far and wide. That’s probably where the internet can step in. I love the way archaeologists have all these new ways of communicating with the public and, just as importantly, with each other. It’s totally changed things in an awful lot of ways, in particular because the academic structure really isn’t carried over to the digital realm where people use all these weird nicknames and avatars and identity is hidden, or even on Facebook where identities are normally genuine, people don’t advertise their job title so much. So you’ll see a question go up on a board from a member of the public or another archaeologist looking for information and advice, and they’ll get all these useful answers, really helpful stuff. But if you know who the people are who are giving the information away it can be these really important archaeologists, contractors with decades of experience, state sector archaeologists, University lecturers, or just random gobshites like myself. People are getting access to some really highly qualified people and they may not even realise it. That just makes me very happy every time I see it.

TBOM: It seems that reality has read your reply and answered in the form of making the TV presenter Dan Snow the new president for the Council of British Archaeology!  Stuart, you have written movingly of the issues facing that much-maligned face of archaeology, the field archaeologist, over at Robert M. Chappel’s blog.  Having been a field archaeology for some 13 years now what, in your view, has improved and what conditions remain to be improved for field archaeologists in the UK and Ireland?  More importantly, what can people who run archaeological units or are field archaeologists themselves do to the improve conditions?

Stuart: Yeah that thing on Bob’s Blog is probably the most successful thing I’ve ever written, it got a ridiculous number of views. I’d like to think that’s because it really hit the spot for a lot of people but of course, you can never be sure. I think the main point by the end of that piece is that the conditions in field archaeology could be having  a much worse affect on peoples over all well being than has ever been acknowledged. There’s certainly every possible combination of circumstance that would promote ill health, in particular poor mental health, but we just don’t know if it is a problem or not. There is no data. We have all these surveys of the profession but they are so limited in terms of what they’ve examined. We really need a sociological study of Field Archaeology, that’s kind of what the paper is about. That someone needs to really go out and conduct some very in depth interviews with a great big pile of archaeologists and see what the situation is. I suspect it would be bad, but I wouldn’t be that surprised if people are coping better than they might. Archaeologists are fairly rugged individuals and tend to have a bitter sense of humour that can see them through. I’d love to do it myself but it’s such a huge project and I have no funding. I’m up to my eyes in unfunded hobby projects so I just can’t take it on. What I am doing at the moment is asking for people who have read the article to contribute their own experiences either as a comment at the bottom of the blog page or if they want to stay anonymous just to email it to me, or send it to me on Facebook or whatever. That came about because quite a senior Northern Irish archaeologist wrote a lengthy and really emotional account of why she left the profession as a comment after the piece. I was just blown away so I’ve asked for more and any that come in will be included as an appendix in a physical version of the article that should be coming out next year. I’ll probably take the chance to make my own testimony, and that would  explain a lot about how I got interested in working on that topic in the first place.

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The top of Slievemore in County Mayo, during the summer of 2010. One of those moments when the great out doors really just takes the piss.

As for the problems facing field archaeologists in Britain and Ireland, well the situations are quite different, and that’s going back for ten or fifteen years at least, but in many ways it’s equally bad. It’s no secret that there is a major problem with careers in field archaeology, in terms of payment, job security and career progression. I don’t really have any answers I’m afraid. The current mechanisms of competitive tendering in a deregulated market just don’t allow for much progress to be made. The Institute for Field Archaeology and the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland are both in the same boat. Whilst they perform some important functions they just won’t get involved in the issues which most field staff want them to. Archaeologists look for them to replicate some of the functions of Unions, but they can’t or won’t do it. It doesn’t help of course that many of the people running the companies that treat archaeological staff so poorly are heavily involved in these professional bodies. The people directly responsible for the situation are members of these organisations and if there was a will to change it’s always been in their power to make it happen. It often seems like they are only involved in order to protect their own interests, but that’s probably an unfair and over simplistic view. The involvement of the company owners provides a fantastic resource and they have such a wealth of knowledge about things the rest of us only ever get small glimpses of, but at the same time it causes a lot of bitterness and distrust. Perhaps the company owners need to be separated off from the main body of the groups in some way, like having them form an advisory panel that places their skills at the disposal of the rest of the membership but doesn’t let them influence or even partake in voting.

I’m sure both organisations would see membership rocket if there was a genuinely feeling that they were going to sort out these problems. I know the Diggers Forum are trying to orchestrate a takeover of the IFA, building a new world inside the shell of the old and all that. And I wish them the best of luck, it’s the way the syndicalists in France managed it so it’s a tactic that does have history. Personally though I think the only way it will change is through direct action. David Connolly at BAJR has a mild version of this, he’s always saying that when archaeologists see poorly paid jobs they simply mustn’t apply for them. And he’s right, we can’t fight against each other like that, if no one takes the jobs at rock bottom prices they will have to offer more money. So not taking work at lower than BAJR rates is kind of a minimum requirement. But I think it needs to go a little bit further than that. I was disappointed that the Representation for Irish Archaeologists group got diverted into a sort of sub committee within the IAI, I feel they would have been more effective as a separate organisation. Unfortunately at the moment the sub committee convened  what had been a very lively and public discussion between lots of different people with lots of different views just ended. And the handful of people that got onto the sub committee went off and that was that really, the discussion group died and all of that energy and vitality evaporated.

I think history shows that with these struggles you need big popular movements, an empowered collective of the staff. Secretive closed meetings between a handful of people on behalf of the rest… well I wish them luck, I really do, but I do think it was a tactical error, and made no secret of that at the time. More interesting perhaps is what’s going on with the Unite Union in Ireland at the moment, as they are making a big push to get archaeologists on board. I guess there’s  a lot of scepticism about Unions, the profession isn’t really their working class semi skilled natural environment, but I’m waiting to see how that goes, in terms both of the level of engagement and to see if there’s much in the way of a specific plan put forward. Jean O’Dowd is involved in that, and she’s bang on so I have some hope, but whether that sinks or swims will really be down to Unite producing a convincing document detailing the specifics of what they can do for archaeologists if enough of us join. The sad thing is of course that the interests of the owners needn’t be different from those of the staff. If wages were higher contracts would be more expensive and the company owners could make more profit. It’s just something has to be done to take wage costs out of the equation when it comes to competitive tendering, and no one is ever willing to make that first move. The profession exists in an eternal Mexican standoff.

The other really big thing we have to tackle, once we have basic rates of pay sorted out is going to have to be pensions. We need to find a way of getting a pension scheme for archaeologists, something that can work for a career based on continually shifting between companies and regular bouts of unemployment. This is were the IAI and the IFA could really do something positive, find a pension provider that can design a product with our needs, find a way of companies being able to include a standard set of pension contributions along side wages. Because at the moment the reality for any archaeologist in my position is extremely grim. I don’t own a house and probably never will, I’ve never earned enough to buy one. On occasion I have savings, but every time I have a period of unemployment they get burnt up covering the bills and paying child maintenance. At the moment if I were to retire I would be essentially destitute and the state would look after me. But in 30 odd years time once the demographic crisis has kicked in? Forget about it! When I think about my retirement I just see a cardboard home under a bridge in London and meals from a soup kitchen. When my alcoholic compadres finally beat me to death for my spare change the local newspaper might run a small article about how I had once been an archaeologist and was known on the streets as ‘the professor’…

I know a lot of archaeologists in their mid to late thirties who have really been screwed over. They went to college to get degrees, fought like ninjas to get established, worked in some pretty awful conditions because they were so committed to the work. And basically they got nothing out of it at the end of the day. They don’t own houses, they don’t have good cars, they don’t have pension funds or savings. It’s like there’s some hidden law that says archaeologists can’t have nice things. But we deserve better than that, we really do. And the thing is… would you recommend your own kids followed you into archaeology? I know I certainly don’t.

TBOM:  Would you say specialising in archaeology could provide a way for field archaeologists to branch out?

Stuart: Yeah… why not. There’s certainly something a bit more like a normal career if you can get established as a pottery expert or an animal bones expert or that sort of thing. You have to be very careful though if you’re going to pay for training in some areas, like surveying for example, firms may be quite happy to use self taught bodgers rather than to pay for properly trained staff. And of course if they can just get any old person to do it you can be damn sure they won’t be paying very much money for a trained person. I think it’s a terrible shame people are expected to pay for their own training these days, but that’s across every industry. Companies are just no longer willing to commit to a person and fork out some cash to increase their skills. As they have made no financial investment in their staff they are always dispensable. Horrible really. But as it’s going to be a personal investment you really need to do your research before handing over your money to a University or whoever is going to train you. That stuff can get expensive really fast and you need to be completely sure that you will be getting high quality training that will actually be recognised and  that there are genuinely improved career prospects for you at the end of it. If you think about it in a particularly harsh way someone making these choices will have already wasted a lot of time and money doing an archaeology degree that hasn’t provided them what they wanted, so they mustn’t make the same mistake again. It’s really at this point when you have to make the choice about whether to stay in archaeology and improve your skills, or leave archaeology and get some entirely new ones instead.

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Wandering into the massive souterrain at Carn Euny in Cornwall. This was during the brief but glorious heat wave of 2013. It was nice to be cold and damp for a change!

But this sort of thing is sad in another way. It always seems that specialists tend to be treated better than field staff, especially if they are taken on to work in the company offices. It all gets very cosy inside. They get paid more, get treated with more respect by the management, they aren’t putting up with all the constant relocation, long commutes and shitty weather. I suspect there is often cake. And when you compare that to how field staff are treated it just doesn’t make sense. It’s field staff that are out there doing the hard work, having to deal with the developers face to face, doing the graft that generates the companies profits and where’s their cake? Honestly, when does the boss ever turn up at break time on site and drop off a nice cake? Cake withholding bastards the lot of them!

More seriously though, one of the old IFA guides made the point that on site specialists should be used to do certain tasks, precisely because they are specialists and have the training, but at the same time it should be acknowledged that the experienced site staff are specialists in the process of excavation, and they have expertise and skills that are just as highly developed in their respective field and those skills should be fully utilised. That always struck me as a very telling remark. Experienced site staff may have ridiculous amounts of experience, literally decades of the stuff. They can excavate any site you throw at them, project mange the heck out of it, know the legislations and regulations inside and out, identify and process finds, design and run sampling strategies, undertake all manner of surveying tasks, write reports, provide training, lecture, tour guide, pass peer reviews… and certainly in the UK there isn’t much in the way of financial recognition of the body of skills they are able to bring to bear. When they made the excavation License interview in Ireland much harder about 10 years back at least there was a clear understanding of the range of skills and depth of knowledge site directors needed. It isn’t a perfect system by any means but because it is a hard qualification to acquire and every site has to be run by a License eligible archaeologist located pretty permanently on the site it provided a great mechanism to raise wages.

All screwed now of course but that’s a different story. In the UK there’s really no requirement to hire anyone with any serious level of experience to run sites so a company has some choices. They can hire someone really capable that deserves and expects a decent wage, they can offer an experienced archaeologist a job at an insultingly low rate or they can take some kid just a few years out of college, pay them peanuts and give them sites to run they may or may not be able to handle. Using inexperienced staff to save money is a practice that goes wrong. It goes wrong a lot, and we all damn well know it does. I don’t mean to do younger staff down at all. There’s just so much to learn and it takes a long time to build up the skills. It doesn’t do a promising young archaeologist any good to be put in a situation they aren’t ready for and just expect them to handle it with minimal support. And it’s certainly no good for the archaeology.

The other issue here is that there have been lots of scientific advances in the last while. Now there are specialists doing stuff that is frankly ridiculous. The stuff that can be done with soil chemistry these days is insane. They can pull viable and useful DNA samples out of soil samples for crying out loud! But that’s confined to the university excavations. That stuff hasn’t really filtered down to the commercial world. Again we’re back to the competitive tendering system, it just doesn’t allow for these new techniques to be used. And the typical commercial dig is starting to look archaic, when it should be the state of the art. We really shouldn’t be doing commercial work as second rate excavations, but soon it will be clear to everyone that we’ll be doing them as third rate excavations. We need a fresh generation of specialists bringing these new methods out into the commercial environment. That’s only going to happen if there are requirements to do these new analysis imposed upon the commercial sector from outside of it, from the regulatory bodies. But whenever the archaeological community has looked to the various organisations for leadership, the state archaeologists, the Institutes, the associations, the government… there’s never been anyone there.

TBOM: A very interesting point made on the commercial excavations.  Noted also are the higher university fees for courses in the UK, perhaps hindering specialism’s in archaeology.  You have also started a ‘Campaign for Sensible Archaeology‘ group on Facebook, could explain why you felt that this was necessary?  I have noted with amusement a few of the articles you have posted about the often obtuse and confusing use of the English language.

Stuart: Well that’s been running quite a few years now, there’s  a decent little introduction to the group over on Past Horizons here.  I think the first thing to point out is that there really isn’t any such thing as ‘Sensible Archaeology’. It was just a joke, just me getting annoyed at some of the way archaeology is written and some of the projects that are undertaken. When I put it together I defined a ‘sensible archaeology’ as one in which the style of writing is only as complicated as is needed to explain and explore the points you want to discuss; as one where some of the arguments being made are supported by actual archaeological evidence; and one where the topic chosen for study is appropriate for analysis using archaeological methods. Now think about that for a minute. There really isn’t a single archaeological project that should be unable to meet those criteria. If someone is using excessively complicated language, beyond that which is merited by their research, why? What’s wrong with them? If an argument isn’t based on any archaeological evidence, it’s just historical fiction, which is really a different genre all together. If a topic isn’t suited for exploration through archaeological methods, which are powerful but horribly flawed and limited, use one of the more appropriate methods that are available.

So that’s it really, it’s just a simple little thing that at its heart is about promoting better project design. The thing is people read the name of the group, or see any of the little bits I’ve written about it, and some of them just flip out. It’s actually been really odd at times. I’ve been called a good few names, “the intellectual equivalent of a hairy arse” was an early favourite, and “not just annoying, politically annoying” was a more recent one that, to be honest, still confuses me. Why am I politically annoying? One prominent academic, who I won’t name here, came to the site to insult us during the early days, and instead I really tried to engage with him about his work and at first it was cool because I had been reading his work and really thinking about what he was trying to say, but the more I pushed him for straight answers the more evasive he got until he just started lying about things. That was just so peculiar it got kind of embarrassing really.

Anyway the group is basically just some people having a bit of a laugh, kicking a few ideas around, sharing interesting or irritating archaeological news stories. A lot of members are in the same sort of position as me, that sort of independent academic position, or to use the more technical term, deluded. So we spend a lot of time sharing any freely accessible resources we find, because lots of us find it hard to operate when we’re locked out of the university library system. It’s been very useful for me really. A lot of ideas I’ve kicked around on there have subsequently been included in my work, and it’s certainly helped me engage a bit more with the theoretical side of archaeology, which as a field worker it’s kind of easy to just end up detached from. I think it’s a nice group, a bit of communal therapy or something, and normally good for the odd giggle.

I was discussing the point about complex language with Joanne Bourne, a freelance writer I made friends with this summer on the Ness of Brodgar excavation in Orkney. Well Jo said she used to think the same thing, that the function of writing is to communicate ideas neatly and efficiently. But then she decided that’s a bit like saying a coat is used to keep the rain off. That’s a pretty good way of seeing things, but I’m still not convinced for the need to smother things in dense impenetrable language. Obviously we don’t all walk around in exact replicas of the same colourless ‘rain deflective garment’ like in some 70’s parody of communism. So we’re also using our coats to express all these other things about ourselves, about the way we perceive ourselves, the way we wish to be perceived, our  cultural allegiances, all sorts of other stuff.  I guess Jo was saying writing is a bit like that. So there is the actual archaeological content that needs to be explained and anything beyond the functional needs of the research is expressing other things. In the case of too many archaeologists it seems to be a compulsion to really impress upon the reader how marvellously clever the author is. I just can’t be arsed with that. That was one of the points of my article on William Burroughs’ cut up technique that you mentioned before, that you can just line up these strings of long complex words and it will sound kind of deep and meaningful even though it’s nothing of the sort.

nessbroadgarstuartrathbone

Excavation of one of the Late Neolithic buildings at the Ness of Brodgar during the summer of 2013. Simply sensational digging.

TBOM: And finally, what, so far, has been your most treasured memory of an field excavation or moment in archaeology?

Stuart: Ah well thanks for asking about that. I know in some of the things I write I can come across as utterly negative and really that’s a bit unfair. The critical pieces seem to generate much more interest than the other stuff I do, the stuff on prehistoric settlements or transhumance or whatever. If anyone has ever seen me lecturing they’ll know how much I enjoy myself, sometimes that humour comes through in the written stuff but writing funny archaeology is a hard trick to pull off. Although there are all these really serious topics, and clearly I’m none too happy about where archaeologists are financially or in terms of job security and career progression, I’ve had a really great time being an archaeologist. Really my whole adult life has revolved around it, and it’s pretty much a 24/7 thing for me. So rather than just pick one moment, here’s a quick run through of some of the highs, by way of redressing the balance a little.

Getting an email from some guy in Ireland offering me my first paid job; doing that first contract in Ireland and discovering that something as ludicrous as the digging scene existed in  the real world not just in the pages of an old beat novel; getting my first promotion; excavating the Bronze Age village at Corrstown, Portrush; having my kid, Adam; seeing my first article being run in Current Archaeology; meeting Steve Linnane; giving my first lecture at IPMAG 4 in Derry; meeting the whole Clerks Bar crew in Drogheda;  passing my License Interview and getting to run my own excavations; finally seeing the Corrstown volume published after all the hard work Vicky Ginn and I put in to get that done; working on the M3 Motorway where we really pushed the limits of what can be done in a commercial setting, something I was incredibly proud to see Martin Carver acknowledge in his recent book on pre-development archaeology;  getting the job running the field school on Achill Island, excavating the Slievemore Roundhouses and having such a laugh with the students;   meeting my wife Christina; moving to Belderrig and getting to work on the Céide Fields material with Seamus Caulfield; the whole Facebook archaeology scene kicking off and out of the blue becoming involved with so many interesting and amusing archaeologists; meeting Bob Chapple and then finding he would run with pretty much anything I sent to him no matter how off kilter; having a paper run in my favourite super serious journal PPS; seeing the sites on Shetland and Orkney and getting to work on the Ness of Brodgar excavation.

And the adventures continue. This summer I was invited to write a book for a new publisher, and given a very open remit. So I’m working on that almost round the clock and I’m loving where that’s heading. It’s called Archaeological Detritus: Experiments, Discussions and Unprovoked Attacks and is definitely a bit different so who knows how it will be received. Just the other night I was driving back to where I’m staying on Shetland through this horrible storm and all of a sudden the rain stopped, the clouds parted and there were the Northern lights in all their glory. Simply magnificent. How many other jobs would provide such a roller coaster through all of these highs and lows?

TBOM:  Indeed, thank you very much Stuart for taking part!

Select Bibliography:

Ginn, V. & Rathbone, S. (eds.). 2012. Corrstown: A Coastal Community.  Excavations of a Bronze Age Village in Northern Ireland. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Rathbone, S. 2010. Sensible Archaeology. Past Horizons website. 23/10/10.

Rathbone, S. 2010. Booley Houses, Hafods and Sheilings: A Comparative Study of Transhumant Settlesments in and around the Northern Basin of the Irish Sea. In: Horning, A. & Brannon N. (eds.) 2010. Ireland and Britain in the Atlantic World: Irish Post-Medieval Archaeology Group Proceedings 2.  Dublin: Wordwell.

Rathbone, S. 2011. Dig, Draw and Digitise: Guard Houses of County Mayo. Past Horizons. 23/04/11.

Rathbone, S. 2011. The Slievemore RoundhousesArchaeology Ireland25 (1): 31-35.

Rathbone, S. 2012. Deer’s Meadow, Hut Group CUlster Journal of Archaeology69: 150-154.

Rathbone, S. 2013. A Considerations of Villages in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain and Ireland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. 79: 1-22.

Rathbone, S. 2013. Optical Stimulated Luminescence Dating of ‘Problem’  Sites on the M3 Motorway. In: Kelly, B., Roycroft, N. & Stanley, M. (eds.). 2013. Futures & Pasts: NRA Monograph 10. Dublin: Wordwell.

Rathbone, S. 2013. The Village People? An Early History of Neighbourly Disputes. Past Horizons. 01/08/13.

Guest Post: ‘Welcome to Commercial Archaeology: A Biased Introduction’ by Charles Hay

14 Oct

Charles A. Hay is currently aiming towards his next big adventure.  Prior to this he has worked as a field archaeologist throughout England for units such as Wessex Archaeology, Cambridge Archaeological Unit and the University of Sheffield.  He also holds an MA in Archaeology from the latter.  His writings, including investigations of philosophy and original short stories, can be found at his Human Friendly site alongside his numerous drawings, musings and photographs.  If you find him in a pub, he will be having a pint of Pendle or a good scotch.  If it is a working day, then a black coffee will do instead!  Charles has previously written for These Bones of Mine with a guest post titled Glass & Metal.

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A few weeks ago (sorry for the delay Dave), I was asked to write about commercial archaeology, the ups and downs, what it involves, how it is as a living, how to get in et cetera. The past fortnight (in fact, I suspect significantly longer, sorry again Dave) I’ve been attempting to come up with something both encouraging and suitably warning, equally weighted, inspirational; a one-stop advice sheet.

So, interestingly enough, that version ended up reading like bullshitty gumph.

Instead, I’ve decided to take a much more straightforward approach. Instead of advertising, I’m going for the storytelling approach.

Listen.

I’m not really, really sure how I managed to gain (relatively) stable employment in commercial archaeology. I am prone to telling the same stories repeatedly so anyone who knows me knows the story. I graduated back in 2007 with an English & History degree and the dawning realisation that English & History aren’t quite the career kickstarter subjects I imagined them to be as an eighteen year old. I therefore did what any self-respecting English & History graduate does: I worked in NHS administration for two years.

After several moments of epiphany along the lines of you should become a cartoonist and you should start wearing checked shirts, I finally had one that actually coalesced into something tangible. It was preceded by that most dangerous of decisions, to consult one’s inner child. Now this inner child had been yelling at me for a while for various reasons. I didn’t draw as many trains as was my habit as a five year old. I seldom watched marathons of Thunderbirds and Stingray anymore. I never got around to being a guy who dug old shit up.

The University of Sheffield let me onto their Archaeology MA course and the rest, as they say, is history.  Actually I’m guessing you probably want a little more than that.

Ok so after spending a semester feeling like a certifiable moron, I finally started to gain traction in the subject. Having zero idea what I would write for a PhD (or more accurately, several ideas too vague, wishy-washy and error fuelled to acknowledge in public), I started to lean toward the idea of commercial. I decided to go for the fieldwork based final project instead of a dissertation.

If you are currently thinking, “Charlie, most of your life decisions seem to be completely ad hoc and impulsive with no thought to real consequence”, yeah, I really can’t disagree.

Anyway, my plan for the fieldwork assignment was to use it to mine for references, tip-offs, advice, and alliances. I genuinely suspect it was, with regards to commercial archaeology, the best decision I made. It may well have been the most well thought through too. More or less everyone who supervised me on that first dig have turned out not only to be good, persisting (and persistent, helpfully in my times of grumpitude) friends, they turned out to be wonderfully, mind-bogglingly useful too. The Laurens, Lettys and Chrisses of this world are exactly the sort you need to be meeting to get positive and get a grip with a new career and I had the good luck to meet them all at once.

Due to a tip-off and a good word from Letty and a timely email, more or less immediately after my fieldwork assignment finished, I sadly left Sheffield behind with no idea when, or if, I would be back (as it happened, I was back the following March; not quite the epic absence I had envisaged). I left for my new job, a two month contract with Cambridge Archaeological Unit. The first day I turned up, I was so unbelievably nervous. My only experience so far had been volunteer digs over the summer so I felt as though I knew absolutely nothing. I wasn’t entirely incorrect. Looking back, if I’d known quite how much I was yet to learn at the point, I suspect I’d have been an order of magnitude more nervous.

The other point of aarrgh!! was meeting a whole bunch of new people. As is always the case when approaching a new group, they all seemed to know each other so well and so confidently that it seemed impossible for me to fit in. In this situation I tend to adopt the Cold Swimming Pool approach.

Dive in, make a splash, try not to look like too much of a twat.

Luckily, and I repeat this a lot, archaeologists are, on average (and also, in general; the majority are awesome, but there are some total chumps messing up the numbers) a friendly and inclusive bunch. It is true that I have never worked with any bunch of archaeologists with whom I felt lost or unwelcome. Within a couple of weeks I had been made to feel part of the pack and, by the time my contract was through, I was as sad to leave as I had been upon leaving paces I had lived for years.

It is interesting to ponder on exactly what about certain environments attract certain types of people. Archaeology certainly attracts the kind of philosophical, gregarious, intellectual, adventurous and pleasantly weird and nerdy people I have always gravitated to.

Perhaps it has to do with the human nature of archaeology. It is, after all, an attempt by us to contact, in the only way we have, those who ran before us. It is the inquisitive questioning of the long dead. This seems a little wishy-washy however, and would constitute a complete argument perhaps if you were drunk or if I were spectacularly attractive.

Let’s try another tac.

If I am being entirely honest, there is a great deal of lovable-misfittery in this business. Archaeology is not a vocational science. It is very much an interest settled upon as a result of a questing and wide-ranging personal curiosity about the universe and how what came to be came to be and why. It is for minds who ask, “how do things work, and why?” Curiosity and passion, perfectly suited for a subject which seems a hybrid offspring of science and art. As a result, you will rarely find an archaeologist completely focused on one subject of interest. Many are polymaths, and many harbour a huge array of hobbies and talents. I have learnt and worked with ex-teachers, ex-astrophysicists, people who understand the inside of cars (apparently not magic, who knew?) and people who, like myself, dream of careers in writing, directly passing excitement about the universe on to others, whilst perhaps becoming spectacularly rich and marrying some kind of unbelievably attractive actress maybe.

Hmm, that was quite a tangent. Let’s talk about lessons learnt.

Here’s something for you. Something I cannot overstate. Commercial archaeology is absolutely, completely and utterly balls knackering at points. Be prepared to spend your evenings, especially in the first months, absolutely dog-tired. Hoofing out enormous lumps of dirt is, to the surprise of precisely no-one, exhausting. Doubly so, as not only do these holes have to be dug comprehensively and quickly, they also have to be neat. You’ll get used to it. Or your arms will fall off. Either way, you’ll adjust.

This will, in time, come naturally, and some actually come to love it, but be prepared. On the plus side, it keeps you pretty trim and, with practice, you’ll get better and end up less destroyed without you really noticing the chance.

Another shock to the system: the weather. Earth’s atmosphere is a highly volatile jerk playing entirely by it’s own capricious rules. Own protective gear. I learned this the hard way at my job in Cambridge during the winter of 2010-2011. The local fire services were chiseling cats out of trees, we were all blinking in triple time to avoid eyeball freeze-over and I was out digging sans thermals. The back of my left leg split in the cold. Believe me when I tell you, that hurt. Own protective gear. Many units will give you waterproofs and boots and whatnot, but they most probably won’t give you thermals, knee-pads et cetera.

The biggest warning I can give here though, and one I would be irresponsible is this: If you are not ok with genuinely struggling for work in the first few years, forget it. I’m a happy archaeologist now, but holy hell I would not want to relive my first year attempting to get my foot in the door. There’s not a particularly chirpy or amusing way to put this: intermittent unemployment sucks on a profound and affecting way. Getting one or two month contracts after being on the dole for months is actually financially worse than being on the dole. That first month with no financial support makes you feel scuzzy and poor, on account of the poverty and general scuzzoscity that will bring to your life.

I searched far and wide for jobs during my wilderness months. I rang commercial companies over and over, generally making a nuisance of myself (incidentally, this strategy did work; ring up, be friendly, be enthusiastic, and make them remember your name, for god’s sake – a life lesson not constrained to archaeology). I also looked at office jobs, factory jobs, pizza guy jobs… The day I got an email from the university last summer asking me to assist in supervising one of their summer fieldschools (actually the same one which I had taken the previous year), I had been on a trial-run day working in a kitchen. I had spent the morning “bearding” mussels. I am deeply afraid of mussels. I still considered that job, due to needing to continue existence.

Now this period did end. I did manage to climb back on board and I suspect the waters in which I felt I had been drowning were not nearly so deep and tempestuous as I felt at the time, but I can unreservedly tell you this: If you are not willing to deal with that, find something more sensible to do. I battled through because I have an unusually loud and pushy inner child and because the archaeological community was one I simply was not willing to leave behind. The job’s a fun ride too.

So there you have it. I hope that steps a reasonably useful line between positivity and adequate warning. It is a fun job. The people are very awesome. Sometimes you’ll get very wet and muddy and grumpy and once my beard got full of snow but that’s not all of the time.

With regards to actually getting a job, I’ll summarise with these top tips which I also regard as being useful for life in general.

1. Get experience. Especially over summers, there are volunteer digs going on all over the place. If you’ve got money to burn (or use constructively, some might say), you can go and volunteer abroad, find awesome things and get a sweet tan to boot.

2. Make friends. With everyone. In the world. Or alternatively and more practically, work on your communication. Be outgoing or at least polite and friendly. Never be afraid to ask questions, especially questions you think are stupid. If you think they’re stupid now, the outcome of not knowing the answer will look a whole heap more stupid.

3. Connected to the previous point, make contacts. A lot of the time this will occur naturally through making friends with everyone in the world, but sometimes it takes further effort. Steel up and ring companies directly. Send them an email. Send them a cv. Smoke signal them. Everything. If you send an email into the ether and don’t get a reply, it’s because someone louder, more enthusiastic, possibly more obnoxious (eg. me) is holding their attention.

4. Grow an enormous pair of testicles or ovaries, because the path in is winding and treacherous; more than once you will have to consider hunting local cats to survive.

I hope this has been of some use to some people somewhere. I may have just been gassing on for several thousand words (it’s been known). Any further advice required can be acquired at the Red Deer pub on Friday evenings. My standard rate is a pint per aphorism, with a decline in quality directly proportional to amount of advice given.

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These Bones of Mine Note:

If you are an archaeologist and ever find yourself lost in South Yorkshire, I highly recommend the Red Deer pub, located in the delightful city of Sheffield, as a place to recuperate and recover.  You are bound to bump into a few archaeologists there…