Not the Discovery Channel

What we really know about the past

More Things I Wish I Knew in First Year

Alright guys, I’m back. Apparently I took a much longer break than I initially intended to, but staring to write again is hard, especially when you have a bunch of work, and some side research projects, and the climbing is getting good and….. you know what? You don’t care about my excuses, I didn’t write over the summer and that’s that. I’m sorry, I’ll try and not lapse so badly in the future. I think I’m going to try to move to a once-a-month schedule. Which I think is more manageable, and will allow me to work on some other (very cool) research I’m in the middle of.  Also posting this will get my buddy Sean off my back.

A quick not to Sean:

If you happen to be one of Sean’s students and you’re reading this because he told you to, he is the boss of you guys- just not me.
But if you want a hint, argue with him in class. He likes it.

Speaking of school….

It’s October, and school is in full swing. Friends of mine are teaching classes; mostly intro classes with bright-eyed-bushy-tailed first years. So eager to come to class that they didn’t sleep at all the night before-which is why they end up falling asleep during the first hour of lecture. I suspect some of them were so excited for class that they stayed up all night with friends in eager anticipation for their Arch 100 class- and then slept through it. Which explains poor attendance. See Sean, I told you it wasn’t your fault.

Pictured: Sean’s Class. Being engaged.

Anyway, in celebration of a new crop of Archaeology students taking up the whip, I present to you another “Things I Wish I Knew in First Year”.

The first one of these I wrote was a tad bit cynical. Not saying that it wasn’t true, but I wrote it as a way of explaining the low-wages, massive time away home, and other hardships endured by the professional archaeologist. If you haven’t read it, you should go read it now, because I’m not feeling that cynical today. Instead, part 2 of TIWIKIFY (what a horrible acronym) is going to be more about the day-to-day life in the field for the professional archaeologist.  Some of it is practical, some of it is funny, and all of it is based on the experiences of myself and  my colleagues.  As such these things may or may not directly apply to all archaeological experiences- but I hope the majority should translate.

I’m going to start with a few general suggestions, then move on to list of random things. Sound good? Of course it does. Let’s get started.

General Suggestions

The first thing I would suggest is to get field work as soon as possible. Try it out, see if you like digging. Some people don’t. It’s important to figure out how much you love the monotony, the meticulous record keeping, the long hours. I find it helpful to remember that every hole I dig, every feature I map, every flake I bag, all help tell a story. It’s important to remember the big picture, it helps dilute the monotony.

Also ice cream. Ice cream helps.

Second, your field school experience (which is likely going to be your first field experience) bears little in common to the work you will be doing after you graduate. There are some exceptions, but in most cases your field school is going to be digging some known site, with structured research goals and parameters. In the consulting world you’re often restricted by time, money, and development plans. If you get to dig, you’re not necessarily going to get to dig the juicy parts of a site; instead you may have 20 cm of intact deposits sandwiched between a layer tin, plastic, and the remains of a Buick Skylark on the top, and mucky wet clay underneath. This is not Discovery Chanel Archaeology. This is CRM baby, we dig where we have to, not where we want to.

That being said, it is fun.

Listen, we all like digging and finding things. It’s why we got into it in the first place. Being paid to do it is amazing. It’s an amazing job. Hell, I just came back from a 9 day stint in Northern British Columbia, working with a great team, hiking around the bush, digging holes, scrambling up cliffs, finding sites, not finding sites (as important as finding them!), taking helicopter rides down rivers, blowing air horns, and generally having a lot of fun. It’s a great job and I highly recommend it.

A List of Random Things

So, provided you’re on board with the whole thing, here is my not-so-definitive list of Things I wish They Told Me In First Year (part 2):

  1. Learn to enjoy the ‘boring parts’. Sure writing a report isn’t as much fun as digging, but it is more important. If we don’t report the stuff we find, we’re pretty much looters. An archaeologist who can write a good report is worth more than one that can’t be bothered too.
  2. If you don’t hike or camp, start. We spend a lot of time out side, walking around. Navigating in the bush is a skill. Get good at it.
  3. Learn how to read a map, and use a compass. Your field school may or may not teach you basic navigation skills, but your ability to figure out where you are, and where you are going is paramount. Especially when you’re a couple of Km (or you know….miles… if you’re in ‘Merica) from your landing zone and the winds are picking up.
  4. Draft beer at the local pub is dangerous. Stick to bottles if you don’t want to deal with the infamous ‘bush dump’ the next day.

    This is what you get if you google ‘bush dump’

  5. Learn basic bush skills. Can you build a temporary shelter? Make a fire? Hopefully you won’t need to, but it’s good to know just in case.
  6. Speaking of survival skills, get used to eating on the road. Hotels with kitchenettes are your friend. Per Diems are awesome.
  7. Learn how to take a bush dump. This is a much debated procedure. Some people like to wait until the very last moment, holding off until there is no other choice. Others prefer to start looking for an ideal site and the very first signs. I am of the latter school. Either way, there is much debate about the ideal procedures. Regardless of how you like to do it, everyone agrees on one thing: trees are your friend and a clear landing zone is integral. Personally, I like to have the time to make sure everything is cleared away, and will sometimes even remove my pants entirely. I mostly get mocked for this. But if I ever need a quick getaway from a moose or bear, I’d rather leave my pants on a tree than have them hanging around my ankles. I know this might seem like too much information to share, but trust me, it’s important. Especially when you forget about point 4.

    Read this if you want to know more.

  8. More scary than wildlife are the humans trying to shoot at them. Make sure you know when hunting season is. Make a lot of noise. Wear hi-vis clothing. Sing. Laugh. Burp really loudly. A buddy of mine is really good at that last one. He makes me feel safe. Plus I know where he is without needing to use my radio.
  9. Bring an extra pair of socks. Wet feet suck.
  10. Always write your notes like someone else is going to be reading them. Even if you are, you probably won’t get to them for a couple of months. By then you’re not going to remember what the hell you meant by “good stuff at 35 cm down”. I’m guessing I meant cake. I love cake.

    Best Shovel Test Ever.

  11. It is possible to accidentally set off H2S monitors. Especially if you ate the French Onion soup the night before. My friend Johnny taught me that.
  12. Always stand upwind from Johnny.
  13. You can never know everything. Don’t stop learning. Don’t stop reading. It’s hard to catch up.
  14. It takes between 3 and 7 days to clean up your field language, depending on the length and company of your stint. Remember that what seems like good wholesome conversation in the field (i.e. point 7) doesn’t always work when you’re back in civilization
  15. No-one else can every know everything. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and offer opinions. We’re all just trying to do the best we can.

    I think I found some dirt.
    Yup.
    Dirt.

  16. Your training in university is not going to specifically prepare you for life in the consulting world. It may help, especially depending on the school you’re in- and the field school you take- but it’s not going to allow you to move smoothly into it. Instead it’s meant to train you to deal with multiple things. Time-lines, deadlines, writing, research, writing, research, presentations, writing, and research.  In my experience, the ability to read, summarize, and analyze previous research quickly and coherently is a valuable tool in contract archaeology. Take the time in school- when you have people marking you and offering you feedback- to learn how to do this. You’re not going to get marked in a CRM firm. You’re just not going to get more work.
  17. Always remember why you got into this business. It’s fun, it’s exciting. You get to sound cool at parties.  And you get paid to be dirty.

And fly in helicopters.

So there you have it. My not-so-complete list of things I have learned that were not made expressly clear to me while I was in school. I hope it helps. Please feel free to add anything you think I have missed in the comments, and I can start a running list if we feel it’s necessary.

See you all next month, when I believe I will be talking about why smashing shells together on a beach in Tonga is not only fun, but also interesting.

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