Not the Discovery Channel

What we really know about the past

Monthly Archives: January 2012

Things I Wish I Knew in First Year

Alright, new post!

In celebration of finally getting a new laptop and now being able to write comfortably (read: without fighting the lagging monster that is my stone-age back-up laptop) I am going to post something a little bit more personal that the stuff I normally write.

At work on Friday I had the opportunity to chat with a friend and colleague about all the stuff we wish we had been told before we started down this particular career path. I’ll ignore all the things about theory and methodology in an attempt to prevent this post from turning into a rant and rave session about radiocarbon dating and the perils of grad school. Instead consider this more of a general overview of the day to day workings of life as field archaeologist.

These are in no particular order. Well, maybe some order.

  •  The vast majority of archaeology involves not finding anything.

This is not a bad thing, as it’s just as important to know where things are not located. It’s called negative data, and it is just as important as actual results. However it is incredibly hard to publish negative data.

90% of my work would be in this

  • Archaeology doesn’t have to be about finding the ‘oldest’ example of a thing or place.

This follows the first point. Even though popular media is full of examples of it, the majority of our actual understanding about the past doesn’t come from finding a discrete, singular, and earliest example of some behavior. Instead our understanding of the past is based on multiple examples of similar behaviors. It is hard to make robust interpretations from a single data point. That being said, you get a lot more intellectual cred if you say you have the first something. A recent post by Michael E. Smith over at Publishing Archaeology talks about this particular problem quite well.

  • It can be very boring.

It has it’s moments, don’t get me wrong. Finding a 4 thousand year old bone point used to hunt walrus or a 2 thousand year old basket is pretty damn cool. But talk to any undergrad after they just spent 65 hours sorting through fish bone under a magnifying glass. Or a lab assistant after writing numbers on a piece of rock for the 400th time that week. Or the guy on the screen who has pushed about 15 cubic meters of clay through 1/4 inch mesh in order to find two deer bones and a couple of crappy flakes. Speaking of clay:

  • Field work is very physical

It seems straightforward, but not a single one of my profs explained to me how physically demanding field work can be. You tend to spend a great deal of time digging. In hot/wet/cold/dry environments. Sometimes all of them all at once. I once worked on a project where we were camping in a desert (ish) landscape for two months. Every morning I had to knock ice of my tent in order to get out. By 10 in the morning I was down to shorts and boots in order to keep from over-heating. Often you have to walk into sites, haul buckets of dirt up 4 meters of trench walls, dig through soil so compact it might as well be concrete, and then walk out again. Sometimes you have to drive for hours just to get to the start of your survey block. You can, and often do, come back from work so drained that you can’t bring yourself to shower of the dirt caked on your face.

  • Field work is mentally draining.

Don’t get me wrong, my favorite days in the field are the ones that challenge me. The ones where I have to figure out what the hell I’m looking at and how to deal with it. I won’t give much detail here, but I find the puzzles fun. The story is almost always more interesting if I have to work for it. That being said, the work can be hard on you. You are often away from your friends and family for long stretches of time. I work with a guy right now who has been digging out here, staying in a motel room half a continent away from his wife. He has been at this for two months and will probably be here at least another month before he gets to go home. This is not uncommon.

  • The majority of your work has more to do with construction than academics.

Okay, maybe not more, but the work has a lot of similarities to the construction industry. I’m talking here about Cultural Resource Management. The field in which the vast majority of archaeologists (at least in North America) are employed. Any person studying archaeology as an undergrad in Canada or the States will- in all likelihood- work in CRM at least once. These projects involve the same kind of deadlines, delays, communication issues, client relationships, and labor requirements as construction projects. Knowing how to talk to construction workers, machine operators, and the rest of the people waiting for you to finish your job becomes incredibly important. Dealing with non-archaeologists makes up a surprising amount of your day. If you are a young student looking for summer work and you can’t find any field position, I recommend a stint as a labor on a construction project. The experience will come in handy. Ohhh…. speaking of employment:

  • The job doesn’t pay much.

I’m not talking here about getting a job as a professor or anything like that- though you could argue that the money versus investment in time/money/energy makes that particular job not as cushy as it first seems. I’m talking about being a field archaeologist. If you are seriously thinking about going into archaeology as a career, read this. It’s an eye opener for sure. The average pay of about 20 bucks an hour for a project manager is insane. This is not an unskilled position. My Field Director has a PhD and about a hundred billion hours of archaeology under his belt. I’m guessing. I asked once about his experience and he told me that he had “dug a few holes” in his life. I won’t speak to specifics, but  I can say that archaeology here in British Columbia pays towards the higher end of that scale. It might pay better, but it’s still not a money maker, you got to love it. It does have non-monetary perks though.

  • It will make you seem interesting at parties.

The key word is seem. If you use your new found attention to talk about the complexities of inter-observer error in the analysis of dietary nutrition and dental health, you will quickly squander your ‘interesting’ label. But if you resist the urge to geek out on your audience, you can play up the interesting thing. This is really good for the ego. The key is to drop the fact that you are an archaeologist casually into the conversation. Don’t make it a big deal. This will help make you seem cooler. Unless the person you’re talking to calls you on it. This happens to me all the time. But don’t wory, there is a solution! Admit that  your job makes you look cool and quickly bring up one of the above points (I recommend the one about how boring it is) and tell them all about it. This makes you look humble, which is good. It also has the added value of being true. Then tell them about something cool about your job. But open with the boring bit. And brace yourself for questions about Indiana Jones. I always say he is my hero. Though he was kind of a looter.

  • You get to see and do cool stuff.

This is one of the huge perks. I have  crawled through 800 year old Pueblos in Arizona, sat on Mayan temples, excavated  huge village sites, most of them in areas where the background scenery is breath-taking. Hung out in large caves looking at ancient carvings.  I have met incredibly cool people, and learned about the world from many different perspectives. The following is a sample of why the boring stuff is worth it.

  • Do hilariously awesome stuff. Like rescuing your boat because you forgot about the tides.

  • Stand in the middle of a submerged archaeological site. Just for a laugh

  • Deal with crazy situations. Usually by running away. Sometimes through forest fires.

  • Pretend to be a bad-ass. Even though you are a giant nerd.

    Okay I honestly don't think anyone would think that we look bad-ass

  • Finally: It IS fun

Man I have a blast doing it. It challenges me, lets me go to cool places and see cool things. It gives me experiences I wouldn’t normally have. Best of all, people pay me to do it. It may be boring at times, it may be hard work, but I enjoy it.

Most of the time