Maternity leave archaeological-style: blogging and breastfeeding

It’s July 2014, and I’m back for the fourth year, writing about what my day as an archaeologist is like. Reading my previous posts is like a humourous lesson in modern academic careers – just as you think life might be going one way, everything changes! A year ago I’d just started a postdoc at Universite Bordeaux, and I wrote about that project, what I was doing and the amazing Massif Central region we work in.

Two other things had just started too, which are the focus of this year’s post. The first is an exciting collaborative project which launched in May 2013, and which has been incredibly successful. The second new thing in my life last year, I wasn’t even aware of – but as I sat writing for Day of Archaeology, I was starting another more personal project: growing a baby! Both these things have had a big impact on my professional life in the last year, and I want to talk about what these two “extra-curricular” aspects of life as an archaeologist have been like, and how they relate to what I am doing today.

The TrowelBlazers project started in the digital world- one afternoon on Twitter in April, discussion was being had about the lack of recognition of women’s contribution in archaeology, and the need for some kind of online resource to celebrating it. After some “get on with it then!” prompting, four of us decided to start a blog doing just that. We are myself, Tori Herridge (dwarf mammoth expert), Brenna Hassett (dental anthropologist) and Suzanne Pilaar Birch (zooarchaeologist). Given only two of us are archaeologists, we widened our remit to women from other fields that use trowels (mighty tools they are). So a “trowelblazer” is officially a woman working in archaeology, geology or palaeontology. Tori takes credit for the superb pun!

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Team TB!

Having begun the project at short notice, we started out using Tumblr, and aimed to have short, fun but respectful posts, bringing to the wider world examples of trowelblazers, both famed and lesser known. Each post also needed to have a stonking image, because (most of us) live in a highly visual world, and this can create a unique connection to the figures we featured, some of whom were working in the early 20th century, or even earlier.

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Just a few of our 80+ articles – some famous faces, some less so.

From the start, we aimed to only use open access images, or where these weren’t available, to source permissions directly. We also wanted to make TrowelBlazers a community effort, so we also opened the project up to crowd-sourced submissions. We can safely say, the last 14 months since our beginnings as online chit-chat have been a roller-coaster of discoveries, fun collaborations and a lot of hard work. The latter is why TrowelBlazers is “extra-curricular” to my official job- all four of us (working as a team spread across France, UK and the US) are early career researchers, who work on this project voluntarily, in our spare time (which may or may not be weekends and evenings…).

While some colleagues are non-plussed that we put so much energy, for free, into this project, others really get what we’re doing. We are also kept going by the wonderful feedback we get from non-professionals, and the fact that it’s fantastic fun. We’ve been involved with many organisations including the British Geological Society and Science Grrl, with mainstream media (including CNN and the Guardian), made a film on what palaeontologists do with the very cool Catherine Bennet (alter-ego of performance artist Bryony Kimmings), and connected people together, such as linking up a real Egyptologist (Petrie Museum curator Alice Stevenson( with Jump! Mag to help them base their educational story in fact. We also put together a Wikipedia Editathon hosted at the Natural History Museum to try and sort out the deplorable state (or total lack in many cases) of trowelblazers’ entries.

Plus we’ve made efforts to get involved with the scholarly communities who work on this type of thing, resulting in multiple conference papers (Royal Society Revealing Lives, AAA, EAA and ESHE), one book chapter and further publication possibilities. We hope that we can therefore, in the absence so far of funding, at least ensure our invested energy also goes towards our CVs, something all early career researchers have to constantly think about.

To celebrate our own first birthday, we launched a brand-spanking new website in May this year, This is one of the activites I’m doing today on the Day of Archaeology- writing new content for our site. I’ve been really into palaeontology for a long time out of personal interest, and only recently discovered this fossil finder who should be better known than she is. Without wanting to spoil the story, it’s a great example of a girl whose sharp mind and eyes spotted something others didn’t, but who wasn’t believed. Only the next year a boy with the right connections was able to convince people of what he’d seen, and ended up with one of the most important fossils in the history of palaeontology named after him. Was it just bad luck, or was it thanks to 1950s ideas of what young girls were capable of? Either way, this is one trowelblazer who needs to be celebrated much more widely.

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The homepage for our magnificent website (designed for us by Neil Monteiro!). The circles link to articles, and change each time you refresh!

As well as our website, TrowelBlazers has a strong presence on social media (Twitter and Facebook), so I and the rest of the team will also be looking out for other cool Day of Archaeology posts, and sharing those for our many followers.

So, to the second New Thing- becoming a parent. I found out I was pregnant at the end of last year’s field season ( which involved hauling a lot of rocks about, oops). After recovering from the surprise, I took a look at how this new adventure was going to fit into the one I was already on- working in France on my first postdoc. I was extremely fortunate to be on a good contract that guaranteed me the same rights to maternity leave as a French employee (thanks to it being a Marie Curie Fellowship). Coming from the UK, the 16 weeks I was entitled to felt quite short – 9 months is routine there – but as I work for the Universite Bordeaux, a public sector entity, I would receive full salary for the period of leave. I’m well aware that compared to US archaeological colleagues, I was very lucky indeed- they often only get paid 2 weeks, if any! My maternity leave officially finished in June, but I’ve stretched it out a bit by adding on several weeks of this year’s holiday allowance, meaning I can be at home right up to when we head off to the field at the end of July.

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The newest addition to the TrowelBlazers team- and something I’m occupied with today!

It’s thanks therefore to the fact I’m still sort of on baby-time that I’m able to be here writing this Day of Archaeology post- albeit most of one-handed! However, as many people tried to convince me beforehand (but I didn’t believe them), getting much done for my postdoc during the past four months has been virtually impossible. Trying to work when raising a very young baby means attempting to fit things into very short free blocks of time every few hours, if you’re lucky, while operating on very little (and broken) sleep, every day. Not a recipe for success! I was hoping to get more done than I have, but am pleased that I managed to get a blog post of my own out (following some fun news about Neandertal poo!), and more recently get back into TrowelBlazers writing, as well as academic work through reviewing journal articles, organising a conference session in September and resuming final edits on a paper from my PhD research.

I’m returning to work in the field very soon, but in the meantime have been working out logistics of being a new parent that are specific to aspects of being an archaeologist- fieldwork and conferences! Again very luckily, my husband is at home during my postdoc, so childcare is not a problem. As she’s breastfed, we will probably try a mix of him bringing the baby to the field station and excavation site so I can feed her directly, alongside some expressing to provide morning and feeds while I’m working. Similarly, I’ll be at three conferences in September, two of which the family will be together, but the third in Turkey I will probably be attending alone. While this will be my first absence from the baby which is nerve-wracking, I will still also have to manage expressing milk while I am actually at the conference, in order to protect my supply (if you miss too many feeds, not only does it get physically uncomfortable, but your body assumes you don’t need milk in future). So the final activity of today will be planning accommodation for these conferences, but also deciding whether to purchase a light-weight transportable breast pump I can use while at the conference (provision of space to do this is another question!) as well as on fieldwork, and continuing to express milk now between feeds in order to have a stock in the freezer for my absence.

There you have it- a day at home, technically on holiday post-maternity leave, but still full of activities related to my archaeological life. If only I could get my hands on one of those time-multipliers that Hermione Granger had, this would all be a doddle!