What kind of job is archaeology, anyway?

It’s the 6th and final outing of the Day of Arch, and just for a second want to stop and tip my grotty field walking hat to the tremendous efforts made by the Day of Archaeology crew over the years. Nice one!

TrowelBlazers: Not always shouting. Sometimes writing!

So I thought I’d just drop in long enough to wave at all the archaeology posts pouring in. It’s been amazing watching the shift in attitudes over the last decade or so as archaeology really puts its back into getting out into the public eye. As part of the TrowelBlazers collective, I am massively pro SHOUTING ABOUT HOW AWESOME THIS JOB IS in case it helps a few more people who weren’t convinced about the whole thing get more involved. Or at least not nick ancient stuff. Whichever.

There are a lot of hurdles in the way to getting on in archaeology though, and I hope it’s helpful to know that no one has a perfectly smooth ride. Academia is exclusive, and there are a lot of factors that keep people (really good, smart people) out of the world of high falutin’ science. Under-representation, money, stereotypes, the whole ‘victorian dude in a pith helmet’ thing — there are a lot of ways this discipline can feel uncomfortable. And that’s BEFORE you get to the field work.

I hope one of the things all this shouting about archaeology does is inspire a more representative generation of archaeologists. And if it doesn’t, then I will at least have tried by adding the CRITICAL suggestion that our Real Fossil Hunter Lottie doll have pockets.

Also, archaeology is kinda tough. It’s a demanding job in the field, and the way commercial and academic work is structured makes me suspect that Dante may have left his 11th circle of hell lying around and it may have ended up repurposed. Work is increasingly tenuous, underfunded, and over-bureaucratised — and that’s if you can get it. I’ve recently had to leave the site of my dreams because of larger geopolitical stuff and that, as a lot of archaeologists can tell you, hurts.

My beautiful beautiful site

The weird thing is, I’m talking about how great archaeology is, and I’m unemployed. I have been for over a year. I’ve also been busier than I have been in years because the joy I get out of digging the past has carried me into so many amazing collaborations and projects that I am LITERALLY never out of cool things to throw myself into. Help design a museum exhibit? Awesome.

The Raising Horizons project is a collaboration between artist Leonora Saunders and TrowelBlazers — though MAD PROPS to Becky Wragg Sykes who actually makes the whole thing move!

Tour around promoting my book? Friggin outstanding.

Pretending to read my own book in the Google offices. Because.

Learn which fish sticks are cheapest? Yeah well. You can’t have it all.

My non-job job means that I get away with doing what I love. Writing, talking, more writing.* Yes I do some academic stuff too but looking back on 6 years of Day of Archaeology I think it’s safe to say that the ‘job’ of archaeology didn’t turn out to be the straight forward career path I thought it would be. Luckily, I don’t mind fish sticks.

And just so you know, after spending every Day of Archaeology pretty much for the last six years doing statistics or weird side projects well… yep, this was my ACTUAL day: coding dental data in R. Rock on!

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You can find out more about the book here, my writing/ talks / blah here, or catch up with my misspelt rants about R on twitter.

* Also, cats.


I, Dental Anthropologist

It's that time again! Third year of my #dayofarch posts... if you're dying to see how they've changed over the years, have a look at 2011 (augmented reality!) and 2012 ( i reveal myself to be the tooth fairy)...

Really, I work at the Natural History Museum in London (and tweet at @brennawalks / blog at passiminpassing.co.uk ). And if you didn’t already know, I’m part of the collective Tumblr of awesome that is Trowelblazers ( @trowelblazers). We get all excited about inspirational female pioneers in the trowel-blazing arts 🙂

So!

Archaeology, huh? Life outdoors? Fresh air?

Meh. Up to your hips in muddy water in February, more like it. That’s why I went and got myself a speciality….

TEETH!

Yes. I am a living, breathing example of the incredibly rare animal… the Dental Anthropologist. And yes, that’s a real thing.

What do I do? Well… today, I’m hashing out some code that will preform a simple spatial analysis that will tell me about the distribution of different types of tissue on a thin section of a tooth.

Before I could even get to this stage, however, there was a long and laborious process of making histological thin sections, digitally scanning histological slides, and then digitising lots of information from the tooth. But the end result will be that I will know to the day the ins and outs of someone’s childhood – growth faltering, chemical composition changes, and a host of other things that we can find out in the lab.

So why teeth? A few reasons:

1. Teeth don’t remodel. You grow ’em once, and you’re stuck with them.



With the rest of your skeleton, remodelling can hide traces of past events — if you broke your arm as a child, you might not ever know from looking at your adult skeleton. Whereas everything that happens to your teeth as they are growing is crystalised right at the moment, leaving an unedited record of the time when your teeth were developing.

2. Teeth grow in a very regular pattern. Like tree rings.

 

Because teeth are so regular, we know exactly which bits are forming when. So if something happens to a kid, like a bad fever or a period of starvation, that disrupts normal development, we can work out exactly when it happened. Take a look at these lines, left on a tooth from when the individual was so sick that growth stopped for a time. If we magnify it in a scanning electron microscope, we can work out how old the kid was in days when growth stopped:

 

That’s fairly impressive for a kid who has been dead for almost 200 years!
3. Everybody Teethes
 
Almost everyone has teeth! Teeth usually survive really well in archaeological sites because they are heavily mineralised – sometimes they are the only part of a skeleton left. In my current work, I look at both the teeth from modern humans (super modern. Like, the subjects are still alive) and the teeth from children who died nearly ten thousand years ago a continent away in Central Anatolia.
Actually, I’m gearing up now to leave for the field to go and take some casts of teeth of children who lived at the site of Aşıklı Höyük right when people were sorting out that whole ‘to-setttle-down-and-farm-or-not-to-settle-down-and-farm’ question. The casting itself is a funny process, normally used by dentists, but turns out archaeologists can adapt just about anything…