Category Archives: Archaeology


We live in a world of tough choices: paper or plastic? eat-in or take-away? decaf or regular? (Okay, that is an easy one.) But recently I was presented with a choice most archaeologists don’t have the luxury of making: students or professionals?

Most field projects require funding and most archaeology departments need to train students in the art and science of excavation. The solution – to require undergraduates to endure 6-8 weeks of heat, boredom, and physical labour and make them pay for the privilege.

This is a good solution….in theory. Because, in theory, the students who sign up to work on field projects are archaeology majors who have completed their sophomore year (or higher) and have an interest in both the project and learning essential field techniques such as using a pick axe, hammering rebar, and drawing stratigraphy. Reality and theory often have very little in common.

Three types of students typically sign up for summer field school:

Archaeology Aficionado (AA) –  You can identify AAs by their high-tech, expensive camping gear, squeaky clean boots, keen look in their eye, and their inability to follow directions of any sort because they already know everything. AAs are the ones who bandy citations about in the trench, as though you will be so impressed by their ability to recall their “Intro to Archaeology” reading list you will forgive their sloping baulk and untagged pottery bucket. They will take 3 days to excavate a ‘feature’, walk around criticising the other students’ progress rather than making any themselves, and are the most likely candidates for heat stroke and home-sickness. Unfortunately, these beasties probably do the most damage on an excavation – compromising data and breaking equipment through their arrogance and refusal to ask for or accept help.

Pit Princess (PP) – PPs arrive at the site in a cloud of perfume (attracting swarms of stinging, flying insects and JWs) with more luggage than was necessary to move the field lab. They attempt to wear flip-flops and strappy tank tops or bikinis to the field, use baby oil instead of sunblock, and don’t appear to have noticed that this is not Club Med. They are too weak to empty their buckets into the wheel barrow and too malnourished to do more than scrape ineffectually at the ground and gossip. In fact, the entire purpose of PPs appears to be to get in the way. I will admit their antics are very amusing, but PPs are hardly worth the effort. They require constant supervision, produce no results to speak of, and rarely last an entire season.

Jock Wannabe  (JW) – JWs are decent, hard-working lads who can shift an amazing amount of dirt per day. Unfortunately, they are under the impression that relocating large quantities of dirt is what archaeology is all about. They drink hard at night and work through the hangover in the morning. Inevitably, they are the source of the PPs gossip and the sexual triangles which develop on an excavation make soap writers envious…..however, JWs usually adhere to the “what happens in the field stays in the field” philosophy and trade partners more readily than they do trowels. JWs will work through blisters, heat stroke, pulled muscles etc. without complaint. However, they have no subtlety. JWs will often discard artefacts with the back dirt. Forget asking them to sift for beads or debitage.

Students often do not return for a second year, and so there is little continuity or investment. Academics and field archaeologists working on the project are reduced to babysitters at worst, triage nurses at best. Scientific rigour is replaced by “the best possible given the circumstances”.

It is a reality we all live with – the need to train students and the need to fund field work.

Well funded projects, on the other hand, can afford teams of professional and, sometimes, hired labourers. The seasons are shorter and more efficient. Everyone has a job, knows how to do it, and does it with little fuss (albeit with much drinking). Professional excavations are not without their problems, but……

When presented with the option of excavating with a team of students or a team of professionals, which would you choose?


Leave a comment

Filed under Archaeology

An Archaeologist’s Best Friend

Marilyn said it was diamonds. Some people say it is canines. Still others, that dirt is an archaeologist’s best friend.

I admit to having a complicated and intense relationship with dirt. Sort of like that boyfriend you had in your 20s…..And while I admit I am professionally and affectionately bound to dirt – there are 5 universal and, surprisingly, little known laws of dirt which will forever preclude it from being my best friend no matter how intimate our relationship.

1) Dirt is an abradant.

It takes only a few grains – just one or two tiny little specks of dirt – trapped between the underwire of your bra and your tender skin to completely abrade the epidermis (and often the dermis) leaving you raw and bleeding. These dirt grains are unsympathetic to your plight or the measures you take to prevent this intimacy. I excavate in long-sleeved shirts buttoned to the collar, neck wrapped with a scarf, gloves tucked into my sleeves, shirt tucked into my pants, pants into socks, etc. and still, at the end of the day, I go home with dirt rash.

2) Dirt is a colourant.

Dirt stains. I am not talking about the piddling dust your 5-year-old gets on his clothes at the play ground, but real, honest to goodness, dirt. Dirt that gets ground into your pants when you kneel for 3 hours exposing a pot with a paintbrush. Dirt that has the ability to transform a turquoise pair of hiking socks grey after a few hours screening. Dirt that will leave its mark on you no matter how many times you wash your excavation clothes. Red dirt, grey dirt, black dirt. It doesn’t matter…..dirt is an equal opportunity colourant.

3) Dirt is nomadic.

At 4:30 am, the beginning of the work day, I am clean and the dirt is where it belongs –  on the ground. By 9 am breakfast break, I am blowing mud out of my nose. How this happens, no one knows.

4) Dirt is a spice.

I defy any archaeologist, anywhere, to eat a meal in the field which is not flavoured with dirt. Actually, during the field season, I cannot even eat a meal in a restaurant which does not contain hints of mud and a scent of dust. I find this one of the most insidious behaviours of dirt; even when I try to get away from it, have a civilised meal, it follows me and infects my food. I believe this phenomenon is related to law number 3.

5) Dirt has a cruel sense of humour.

Dirt plays games with archaeologists – cruel and tortuous games. Inevitably, in the penultimate week of the season, right before you need to back fill everything and close down the site, dirt chooses to reveal its hidden treasures. A season barren of finds suddenly becomes rich with tempting possibilities…….for next season. Money, time, and the limits of the firman preventing examination of this wealth immediately. The catch is that dirt, in the off-season, plays with the archaeologist – moving the finds so that weeks are wasted excavating in the recorded location only to rediscover them in an adjacent grid or diminishing them so that the walls of a structure turn out to be a few stray mud bricks.

Dirt is a wicked playmate!


Filed under Archaeology

No, I teach English Literature

Earlier this week, the man next to me on the train inexplicably broke rule No. 1 of commuting. He peered over my shoulder at my iPad and, with a maniacal look in his eye, said “Is that archaeology?”

The only correct response to such a query is: “No, I teach English Literature. Fascinating subject though, archaeology.” This inevitably ends the conversation. People find English Literature too boring to talk about, are still haunted by undergraduate courses in Victorian literature, or believe that, as they haven’t read a book for at least 5 years, are not qualified to converse on the subject. “No, I teach English Literature” is one of my favorite tools for avoiding boring people and pointless conversations.

Thanks to Indiana Jones and Time Team, every idiot on the street thinks they know something about archaeology. Everyone always wanted to be an archaeologist before they “got a real job”. A statement to which I still don’t know how to respond – I find my job real, thank you very much!

Under-caffination and shock at this breach of commuter protocol must be my excuse for unwisely saying “Yes. It is a Harris matrix of trench 3.” Any actual archaeologist at this point would have given me a pained look and gone back to their morning paper. Harris matrices have to be one of the dullest tools, and make for equally dull conversation.

“Have you found any dinosaurs?”

At this point I probably should have taken the high road, said “no”, and allowed the gentleman to tell me all about how fascinating he finds these large, extinct reptiles. Instead, I sighed, and pointed out that archaeologists don’t excavate dinosaurs, paleontologists do, and paleontology is a branch of earth science.

“Oh. So you must excavate dead bodies. I bet you travel to really exciting and cool places.”

Cool is not a word I normally associate with the field. It is usually hot, dirty, and full of vermin. Of course I do tend to excavate in deserts and tropical forests, and I suppose if I excavated in Greenland I might feel differently. I also rarely associate the field with excitement. I am perhaps unusual in the fact that I don’t enjoy the field – it is where I go to work and, for me, is the most boring part of my job. Spending hours a day relocating tons of dirt, sifting it, recording and labeling every tiny fragment of anything potentially anthropogenic….I prefer my air-conditioned lab here in the heart of the city over the field. But, I have been to some interesting countries.

“Yes, I do travel a good deal. But, dead bodies aren’t really my thing. The recently dead are looked at by forensic scientists and skeletons are the domain of physical anthropologists. I am a materials scientist. I study ceramics.”

His disappointment was palpable. The reality of archaeology never lives up to its exotic reputation. Perhaps, I should tell people I teach English Literature for their sake rather than mine – let the illusion of Dr. Jones live on.


Filed under Archaeology, Commuting, The City