The unacknowledged dangers of office archaeology

By Kat Fennelly

(photo by Josh T. Hogue)

Not all archaeology is mud and glory. Behind every field archaeologist heroically scooping out ditches and pits in the endless pursuit of datable material, there are the office staff. The DBA writers and context sheet transcribers. The GIS users and drawing digitisers. The planning legislation readers and setting assessors. The report authors and the database surfers. The tweeters and public engagers. The backbone, if we may say so, of any successful excavation. We put our bodies on the line every day, all in the name of archaeology. And this is OUR Day of Archaeology too.

We cannot stress enough the health and safety concerns associated with heritage research. In order to secure our historic maps and Kelly’s Directory listings, we brave the confines of a poorly lit local archive, and the scowls of the archivist. An archive is an obstacle course of minor health concerns, from the threat of paper cuts to the inhalation of dust while unfurling the 1836 Tithe map. Not to mention the constant barrage on one’s mental health, while overhearing even the kindest archivist becoming surly in the face of constant questioning by public visitors regarding grandmother’s houses on forgotten streets, and optimistic would-be heirs, all in a volume not commensurate with research. A medieval well or a Second World War air-raid shelter in a field may be an interesting discovery for a field archaeologist, but the cartographic and documentary groundwork for that discovery is laid in a local archive. When we return to our office, we commence collating our data, and this comes with a whole new set of hazards.

Who can deny the inevitable weight gain attending to eight-hour days sitting at a desk? The day in – day out slog of typing up reports and lining up site drawings for digitisation. Not to mention the daily torture of the ice-cream van visit – sometimes two ice-cream van visits – outside of the office building. The jaunty tones of the ice-cream jingle, vaguely familiar and yet maddeningly (and, I daresay, legally) just different enough to be almost three different familiar childhood nursery rhymes at once. The haunting timbre of the van-mounted speaker is enough to distract from any dry DBA, and drive one out of doors to partake of the hygienically questionable wares. In a British summer viewed through double glazed windows in an office without air conditioning, the ice cream van is irresistible. Equally alluring too are the bags of charity company sweets that sit temptingly on the break room table, promising tangy unbranded chocolate and chalky-tasting gelatine for the every-so-small fee of £1. And it’s for charity. I don’t know which charity, or who the man with the long hair who delivers them works for, but the cheerful yet budget branding of the charity sweet box promises that for every pound you put in (and every pound you put on), someone deserving will benefit. These sugar injections can’t be enjoyed, either, without an accompanying mug of tea – whatever the weather – we may be indoors, but we’re still archaeologists. In consequence, we can find some nights that sleep doesn’t come easy, and we lie awake for hours worrying about the setting of heritage assets. This dedication to our craft can take its toll, and without an 8-hour excavation to help us keep the pounds off or tire us out, we are forced to take our lives in hand, and peddle to work on push bikes.

Today, spare a thought for us who sit in our offices, wistfully gazing out the window at the company Land Rovers and dream of trowelling. Who neatly arrange our digging equipment and steel-toe cap boots in a corner, in case a field archaeologist is required at the shortest notice. Who occasionally don full PPE to write a heritage assessment just to get a feel for the hard-hat. Just in case. Today is our Day of Archaeology too, and we should stand up to be counted.