Why become an Archaeologist?

You’re at a posh frock gathering. Polite social ‘chit-chat’ is going on around you. Before long you know that someone’s going to ask you what you do for a living.

Is it time to fib and give a glib “nothing much, I’m an office worker” as your reply or is it time to take a deep breath before truthfully answering “I’m an Archaeologist”… (or in my case, a “lapsed archaeologist”!)

Your honest response may well be greeted with a slightly disappointed “oh…” followed by an awkward silence so painfully long and drawn out that you feel compelled (even as the wronged party) to do the correct British thing and start talking about the perfectly dreadful weather we’re having or some sporting fixture England have recently been defeated in, before politely parting ways and avoiding eye contact for the rest of the evening.

The comedians will respond with bog-standard Indiana Jones jokes. Accordingly my bog-standard answers are: “No, I don’t have a whip”, “even if I had, I won’t whip you with it” and “no, I don’t have the hat either”. Time for another hasty exit, using vines to jump over collapsing floors, outrunning massive rolling stone balls and agilely avoiding spiked dungeons.

Sometimes you’ll get “Wow, excellent! Have you designed any local buildings?”  At this point my glass is suddenly empty, or I start waving manically at a bemused stranger in the distance before making my excuses and disappearing into the crowd.

Then you get the class of ‘Elderly Explorers’. With these lovely people any conversation you start is drowned out by long winded tales of their exploits in whatever war, desert, wilderness, mountain, rainforest or hell hole they were last in, as they insist on telling you in varying degrees of graphic detail, everything to do with a most memorable trek they took part in back in some dim distant era before giving you their politically incorrect opinion about some remote region of western South America you’ve never heard of.

They do this without letting you get a word in edgeways and you wonder, as your neck starts to cramp from all the polite nodding you’re doing, how they manage to breathe, as their well-meaning but very tedious diatribe drones on and on.

You have to give others credit for even trying to continue the conversation. Some ask how much money you’ve made from the gold coins you’ve found with your metal detector and whether eBay is a good place to buy ‘genuine old stuff’. They also tend to ask whether you have your detector in the boot of your car and whether they could have a go with it as they want to throw their handful of coins in the undergrowth to see if they can find them again.

Erm, no, no, no and no.

Others ask the well meaning “what’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever dug up” question; a harmless enquiry to delight all archaeologists! They then expect you to dutifully come up with some incredibly intricate story about the bounty of rare ancient and mystical treasures you’ve located in the midst of some remote desert cave and the plethora of articles you’ve had published.

Those are the ones who look sadly crestfallen when you say, “oh, just a few bits of bone and teeth”…

‘Were they human?’ will always be their interrupting comeback, as you continue describing fragments of gnawed wood, bits of broken pottery, lumps of rusty metal and other bits and pieces thrown away as rubbish by our ancestors. All artefacts of wonder and interest to you, but another kiss of death to conversation!

You long for the day when you meet a kindred spirit – not even another archaeologist – just someone who has an equally strange profession. A profession like a Pathologist or Undertaker, as I’ve been told that they have similar conversation stopping moments! Perhaps it could be a chance encounter with someone who knows that the likelihood of excavating something truly astonishing is actually quite rare and nods with interest at what you have to say.

Yes, I’ve found the normal bits and pieces you would expect to find in generic sites in the UK. Evidence of habitation, bones – human and otherwise – lots of glazed and unglazed pottery and ceramics, worked flint scatters, some coins, lumpy pieces of misshapen metal, tile and general building materials, gnawed wood (no beaver jokes please) and the obligatory catch all for everything else, the very technical category of ‘stuff’.

Yes, I’ve processed finds for days and days, scrubbing away with a toothbrush until my hands are numb from the cold water. Yes, I’ve nearly broken my back pick-axing for hours and lugging endless wheel-barrows of heavy earth. Yes, I’ve been bitten and stung by insects. Yes, I’ve burnt the back of my neck so badly I could hardly bear to move my head. Yes, I’ve slept for weeks in an old, musty, leaky Army tent. Yes, I’ve woken up surrounded by an infestation of literally thousands of earwigs. Yes, I’ve slept in my car when the thunder storms were directly above us. Yes, I’ve slept in a barn when the rain got too much and the site was nearly swept away. Yes, I’ve ‘washed’ with baby-wipes in the absence of anything else. Yes, I’ve been stared and pointed at in Sainsbury’s when I’ve gone directly from site to do the camp shopping trip.

So why be an Archaeologist? Well, why not!?

I’m not an expert in any sense of the word; I haven’t had enough time or experience to become a specialist, but really I enjoy the endless questions relating to the unknown. How did an ancient community survive? What did they make? What did they eat? How did they live? Why did they..? When did they..? Who were they..? For what reason did..? How did they..? What was this..? Where did they go..? How old is it? How does it relate to…?

Layers of deposition, stratigraphy, contexts. Phases and periods of occupation. How did the site form and build up over time? Interpretations, hypothesis, debates, discussions. Endless questions and vivid imaginations… Open minded but yet precise. Determined and flexible.

Sounds like a damn fine career choice to me!

“TrowelPS” by Przemysław Sakrajda – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons