From Streams to Deltas: Navigating Archaeology Careers, 5 Years On

In 2012, five years ago, I wrote what was to turn out rather amazingly as the most popular post thus far for the Day of Archaeology project. I can’t know all the reasons why people might have felt attracted to my words, but the idea of needing a “Plan B” in our careers must have resonated.

My annual posts since then track a career path of unexpected turns – I’m probably somewhere on Plan E by now, although that makes it all sound rather more controlled and systematic than the organic reality. Things have certainly gone pretty off-road from the seemingly obvious, standard route that 18-year-old me understood took place, should one be lucky enough to progress from an undergraduate degree to the dreamed-about status of lecturer and researcher. Maybe I was naive, but I don’t think I was alone, and my 2012 post tried to see the positive sides to a confusing (and at times disheartening) outcome.

Five years on, I’ve realised that this untenured, untethered, and often uncertain situation is the new normal, for me and many others in archaeology. Winning an incredibly prestigious postdoc wasn’t enough to guarantee an academic position or even other research grants, and I’m not the only one who is now technically unemployed, but somehow working full time. So for this final year, join me at the helm to see what my working life looks like, doing archaeology in many different ways.


Exotic flints from the silcrete quarry workshop



First task of the day is checking the proofs of a journal article which was accepted a couple of days ago. It reports the results of my postdoc fieldwork (covered for Day of Archaeology in 2015 here) and subsequent analysis of the stone tools from a prehistoric silcrete source and quarry-workshop in the Massif central, south east France. This was a really challenging site to excavate and study, as while hugely abundant (there are probably over 500,000 knapped objects), the technology is very informal, making dating activity very difficult. We did however find some possible hints of direct extraction from the bedrock using pits, as well as some extremely interesting flint artefacts that were what we call ‘exotic’: imported to the site from four different flint sources up to 70 km away. It would have been nice to know when this was happening, so we could tie it into the archaeological record for different prehistoric periods in the region – I was especially hoping for some evidence of Neanderthal lithic transport- but the sample we recovered did not allow us to do that. Still, I’m really proud of the paper, especially as it’s part of a special issue in the journal all about silcrete use around the world, which I co-edited.

Once the proofs are all approved, my next job is catching up on correspondence for multiple related projects linked to my work with TrowelBlazers, an organisation focused on cheerleading women in archaeology, geology and palaeontology. The past year my focus has mostly been on our Raising Horizons exhibition (which we were busy planning in the last post for Day of Archaeology). As a collective of four women, we each have evolved different areas of responsibility to develop what TrowelBlazers does, which means we can all take ownership of what excites us most, while benefiting hugely from brainstorming, positive critiques and endless support of each other’s work (not to epic and hilarious email threads). It’s the most continually fun and inspiring work I’ve done as an archaeologist, and I’m incredibly proud of what we achieved with Raising Horizons, one of my two babies of 2016 (the other being an actual Homo sapiens infant). We’re most of the way through a UK tour for the exhibition, having successfully crowdfunded the entire enterprise thanks to the fantastic engagment and generosity of our community. I’m working on contract documentation and final planning for three upcoming showings at the British Science Festival, the Lapworth Museum in Birmingham, and the annual conference of the Palaeontological Association (one of our major sponsors).

At the Raising Horizons exhibition launch, February 2017

After the Raising Horizons admin is out of the way, I can get a bit creative in thinking about two potential new projects linked to TrowelBlazers: first a consultation on working with a hugely significant archaeological site in the UK to tell the story of the women who worked there, and second, mapping out possibilities for a collaborative grant application to create an entirely new exhibition on particular women who made key contributions to both science and society. I’ll be having skype meetings for both these projects next week, so the main task is preparing for those conversations. Project management and exhibition work is not something I had thought much about before the chance opportunity to develop Raising Horizons appeared, but it turns out it’s something I love (fascinating deep research, coupled with creative connections and juxtapositions), and am really good at.

After a lunch break (with the luxury of working close enough to home to visit my family and share a meal), my afternoon is all about the Big Book Project. An earlier contract with Sigma Science for a book on birds in prehistory is temporarily on ice, but my incredible editor is marvelously supportive, and so I have a second contract for a popular science extravaganza on my official area of expertise, the Neanderthals. With the manuscript due this autumn, most of my days are focused on delving into the nitty gritty of their archaeology, and packing in all the unexpected and compelling stuff we know about this species, plus how we know, and why we seem so obsessed with them. It’s a dream project, and right now we’re close to being able to share the title which is immensely exciting (and also terrifying, in a rollercoaster-over-the-edge way).

Snapshot of book writing; Scrivener software totally recommended!

Can what I do now still be called archaeology? I’ve not done any fieldwork for the past two years, and I have a bad case of trowel itch. Yet even without an active excavation or current analytical research project, all my time and energy is spent on archaeology in one way or another. Increasingly that includes working to improve it as a discipline, both for the people in this field, and to make what we do mean something, beyond intellectual curiosity. The answer to my question in 2012, “once an archaeologist…? ” is definitely, yes, always. My biggest lesson since starting out is that everything in archaeological careers is about luck. But, you also have the ability to load your own dice, and the more throws you give yourself, the better chance you have of rolling a good score. My own professional course been less of a single-stream, focused trajectory, and more of a braided river delta, where the lie of the land means diversifying expertise, taking chances when they come, and reaching the horizon in more ways than you imagined.

Lena River Delta. Image: Public domain, NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

Raising Our Trowels to New Horizons

It’s summertime, and all over the world the trowels are blazin’ … for some of the TrowelBlazers team this year, however, the hard graft isn’t soil-shifting but grant-writing.

As a genuine grassroots collective which began in 2013 and has been growing ever since, we’ve started to throw out fresh shoots towards Big New Projects. Last year’s Fossil Hunter Lottie Doll was one such, and we have another that is going to launch in early 2017.

While our core activity of running the TrowelBlazers website still goes on, we’re also working on developing Raising Horizons, our collaboration with renowned photographer Leonora Saunders and Prospect Union. We’ve shared a bit of information about this already (via our blog), and since then lots more things have been coming together for this exciting project. (more…)

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!