Archaeology is hard work. You need patience to cope with red tape, dedication to painstakingly record finds at digs – and a touch of eccentricity always helps
Iended up in archaeology as a result of a long-held romantic notion of making great discoveries and solving mysteries. As a kid I always had my head buried in books, lost in the realms of the great ancient civilisations of the world. I never had fantastical expectations of archaeology, though. I didn’t think that I would travel the world and be a globe-trotting treasure hunter. And you certainly don’t get to travel in archaeology unless you are somehow affluent, have magical powers to secure funding, or know the right people in all the right places.
None of the above apply to me, so I have been confined to archaeology in England and Northern Ireland. Don’t get me wrong, archaeology here is infinitely fascinating but let’s be honest, it’s not as grand and visually awe-inspiring as, say, the pyramids or Pompeii. Over here, at its most stellar, it can be just two different coloured soils side by side, but to the trained eye that tells us a great deal about what was going on thousands of years ago.
You need to be a little eccentric to be an archaeologist. A penchant for Indiana Jones hats and other strange headwear will help you to fit in well. When you see a colleague salivate over a piece of flint, or another jump for joy over a tiny lump of fired clay – the only piece of pottery that has come out of a tonne of soil – you start to understand what archaeology is really about. But if it is gold, job security, or good pay that you are after, you should probably look elsewhere as there is a serious shortage of the above. You don’t become an archaeologist to become wealthy. You do it because you are passionate about the yet unknown, those gaps in the history books.
Above all the job requires patience and dedication, because seeing a site through from start to finish is a long, slow process – sometimes taking decades to complete. First you have to go through all the red tape and paperwork pre-excavation, securing funding, approval, a licence for starters. Then you have the pre-excavation ground work: geophysical and topographical surveys, desktop research, health and safety assessments and other prep work. Next comes the laborious process of physically excavating the site by hand.
We use tools much like those you see road workers using. Long-tailed shovels, spades, wheelbarrows and mattocks are our usual companions. If your back has never experienced any wear and tear, it certainly would after digging a ditch with a mattock and spade. There is a strange joy to be found in striking bedrock with a mattock: that bolt of pain that shoots up your arms and into your skull.
It gives you toned and sinewy arms, if you like that kind of thing. There is no doubt that practical physical work can strengthen your body but in archaeology, where it can be repetitive actions, day in, day out, with the cold and damp seeping into your limbs, it can have the reverse effect, too. I have yet to meet an archaeologist who does not suffer from an ongoing physical health issue. It is usually the knees, shoulders and back that are first to go. If you start young, by the time you are in your mid-40s you will hopefully have younger minions to delegate all the hard labour to as you will find you are just too decrepit to do it yourself.
The weather is a cruel dictator, determining whether your life is going to be nice and easy or really, really tough. We all know what the weather is like in the UK and archaeologists don’t just pack up and hibernate during the winter months. Depending on who you work for and how remote your site is, there is no guarantee of shelter. Pressure on funding and time limits often mean you have to keep going no matter what until the job is done.
Recording is possibly the most important aspect of fieldwork. Once you finish up and leave a site there is no going back to just check a few details you might have missed or take a few extra measurements here and there. So your site records become a source of great anxiety and also your most treasured possession when you are out in the field. You invariably end up carrying them around like a baby and taking it home in the evenings, sharing a bottle of wine with it (unlike a baby).
One thing I never expected when I set out in this profession is that being a woman would be an issue. Some days you go to work dreading the heckling you know you are going to receive when you get there, pre-emptively hardening your defensive shell. It is unfortunate but it does happen, mostly on building sites where you could be the only archaeologist, and female, double-whammy, working alongside, and giving direction to, male construction workers, architects and digger drivers. Individually, they have always been wonderful, respectful gentlemen. Sadly, get three or more together and they bizarrely turn into misogynists. Patronising comments like “look guys, a woman working, take a picture” and “you can’t work here, you’ll have to go get your nails done” are hard to ignore. But you have to stay calm and professional, while working twice as hard to earn their respect than if you were a man.
Equally, metal detectorists can be the stuff of nightmares when on a dig. Those acting as treasure hunters, operating without a licence, digging under the cover of night, are not likely to be keeping detailed records. Once an object is removed from a site, it loses its context and its informative value is decreased to almost nil, depending on the artefact. When someone walks onto site uninvited with a bag of artefacts your heart just sinks and you have to bite your tongue.
Difficulties aside, I love the camaraderie of excavations. Working together helps to keep morale up, especially on those really tough days, when there is soil in your sandwiches, it feels like it has rained inside your waterproof and you know you only have a few hours left to save as much as you can before someone comes and bulldozes the site, erasing it permanently.
Sadly we have to accept that this will happen. As humans we will continue to build and replace. But at least through archaeology some record of what once was, remains. And I like to think some other kid in the future will be able to get lost in the records of our civilisation, and wonder.