Back filled: when days of archaeology come to an end


I couldn’t blog on Friday as we were packing up at the end of month of excavation in Jersey, but I was pretty sure what I was going to write about. I was in the midst of making sure we ended well and anticipating what I knew was about to come, that moment when everyone starts to grab their lifts, planes, ferrys and leave the dig.  You’d think, after 25 or so years in the field I’d be used to it, but it doesn’t work like that, maybe age has made me realize how precious these times in the field are or maybe you get less used to transitioning as you get older but the days after a project has ended are a little weird and I think we should think about why that is.

Archaeologists, like other field scientists and researchers, get to experience one of the most fulfilling of human experiences,  working with others as a team sharing everything together from the time you wake up to the time you sleep (often with little in between).  Depending on the length of time in the field, and the degree to which a project has been around enough to have it’s own culture, this experience exists in a totally immersive and idiosyncratic world of it’s own. Dig cultures vary from the Utopian to the dysfunctional, they develop languages, traditions, myths and protocols which mean nothing outside the world of that dig. Members of a dig society co-op into rules, systems and responses which out of context might seem strange, draconian or institutionalized, and yet when it works amazing things can be achieved.  While I’ve worked on digs which vary from the dull to those which are some kind of re-run of the Standford Prison experiment, most have been wonderful, positive experiences in which I’ve grown through meeting life-long colleagues, dear friends  and partners.  For any archaeologist the dig will be the arena for so much growth and shaping as a person that getting the culture right is important.

I personally find the intensity of a 24/7 endevour and its contrast with the professional/social separation of the 9 to 5 ‘real’ world a genuine peak experience. Being in the position now of helping to make digs work, guiding and structuring these short-lived, single-minded societies, the experience seems even more intense.

These days I see getting the end of the dig right as being pretty imprtant.  We’ve learned some practical tips like 1. never have your End Of Dig Party actually right at the end of the dig and 2. make sure you know exactly when everyone is leaving so you don’t end up cleaning the toilets alone, but actually getting the end right depends on how people feel at that point of departure, when every hole is filled and every tent packed.  You only really know you’ve got it right when leaving seems like the most unnatural thing to do.

This year our Ice Age Island project did finish well and our wonderful team of staff and students recorded and back-filled without desperate haste or  despondency. The base was cleaned and goodbyes were heartfelt. Dismantling and packing away your dig societies seems hard sometimes. They are precious because they can’t last more than the season, the next year will always be different and you can never be sure it will keep getting better.

But because the right ingredients of discipline, play, nuture and tough-love can result in great archaeology and great science spending a bit of that back-filling time thinking about how to do it better next time is never wasted.