The Archaeological Writer – My Own Past is My New Day

Shiqmim, Negev Desert, Israel 1984 – hot, remote, with tough living conditions. Photo: Dr Eleanor Scott

I worked for a long time in the field on archaeological excavations and surveys, in the UK, the Isle of Man and in the Middle East, and now I’m lucky enough to be able to write about it all and get my research, stories and ideas online as an “open access” (free) resource. Every day is different, but the common theme is that I run and write content for an archaeology website and blog. I spend a great deal of time delving into the past, and I use my own archaeological past as a way of illustrating points about excavations.

In particular I’m working on a series of posts on “The Challenges of Excavation”, including physical and mental challenges, and basic things like feeding volunteers properly and keeping them safe. I spent a lot of years working on archaeological excavations and saw the best of people and sometimes I saw situations that were less than ideal. In particular I’m extremely keen to highlight how digs can be inclusive, and to give examples of good practice to show how it’s possible to make provision for potential diggers who face challenges around physical, mental, sensory or medical issues, rather than choosing to exclude them.

Castell Henllys, Wales 1981 – collegiate, eccentric & a good digging experience. Photo: Dr Eleanor Scott

Often I start with an old photograph of a dig I was on, perhaps of me or a fellow digger doing something interesting, and I start writing around it. Today I’m working on part two of a piece that gives guidance on feeding diggers. It might sound trivial, but believe me it’s not. A crew of physically active volunteers need to keep up their morale – and they need food that they can eat, and lots of it. In tandem with this today I’m making a few more ‘dig dinners’ to photograph, including vegan and gluten-free, to demonstrate how relatively easy they actually are to cook in less than optimal kitchen conditions. I am nothing if not dedicated! At the end of a cold, wet March day in Wales, vegetarian diggers want something like a big plate of macaroni cheese with a ‘side’ of mixed vegetables, not a chicory salad with a ‘side’ of cress.

I’m also noting down some thoughts today that have been triggered by stuff bubbling up on social media (I use Twitter a lot), as ideas for a future blog piece. There are some concerns around dig cooking being affected by the strong undertow of (often unconscious) gender biases, i.e. it’s what Theresa May might describe as a “girl’s job”.  I already argue that everybody should take turns mucking in to help in the kitchen, and that that’s part of the collegiality of a dig – people should take pride in successfully feeding their colleagues and keeping up their strength and spirits. I’ve already also suggested making “dig cook” a proper staff position, with decision-making and budget-holding capacity. So I’m going to develop that argument. Give the job status, and undermine the sexism.

I’ll also read some emails about technical upgrades from my website provider, and put the bins out.

And that’s what I’m working on today. Writing, cooking, photographing, uploading and editing – all inspired by archaeology, all derived from that seemingly insatiable desire to move earth and stones and observe the only ever partially-knowable past. I’d like to help others carry on the practice of excavation safely and collectively, and to produce their best work – and to try to make them want to come back next season for more.


Dead bodies, texts and reviews: a day in the life of a theoretical archaeologist and a body person

I am a theoretical archaeologist -which always raises a few eyebrows if this is even a legitimate field of research in our field- and a body person (more pompously: an osteoarchaeologist with an interest in history of physical anthropology): I deal with dead bodies and follow scientists’ interactions with them, throughout history and contexts. The public’s perception of archaeology is usually the one associated with field research, or in the best case, laboratory analyses—and I would say this is pretty much shared inside our field as well—but the life of some of us is mostly spent in front of a computer, in archives and museums/collections. Being interested in the history of 2 intertwined disciplines, archaeology and physical anthropology, I spend most of my time deconstructing texts written by my colleagues -dead or alive- and placing them in the contexts of their creation. Why do we write/draw/measure as we do? How did we change perspectives over what a dead body stands for, how do we frame identity and human variability, and where do we want archaeology to go next? These are some of the questions that keep me tied to my laptop, when I am not browsing through musty papers and photographs from archives.

This year’s day of archaeology finds me resting between 2 such projects.

One is a freshly finished text on a ‘scientific ossuary‘, an early 20th c. skulls and archaeological skeletons anthropological collection in Romania (the collection housed at the Institute of Anthropology ‘Francisc I. Rainer’ in Bucharest). Writing is a tedious effort, which nowadays presuposes a complex (to be read: source of frustration) network of mostly online communication – between you, editors, reviewers, friends who are nice enough to read and comment on your texts etc. Bottom line—typing, reading, typing, and typing again. Bearing in mind the amazing and life changing slogan ‘publish or perish’, and with occasional intermezzos of browsing Academic Pain or similar ‘motivational’ procrastination devices.

The other one is a study on kings’ bodies, and archaeological narratives of identity and identification around such excavated corpses: a text on political anatomies and bodies (part of a great international and Polish-led project).

Between these 2, I also need to squizz in a book review, some applications- the life of young academics in archaeology, always in need of a job/project-, updating my blog (Bodies and Academia; @BodiesAcademia) getting ready a special journal’s issue on bodies/matter, and some procrastination, of course.

I am not sure if mine is the most glamorous way of spending The Day of Archaeology—writing, reading, copy-editing, sleeping, doing nothing, and then some more writing. But it shows another take on what an archaeologist might do.


Some of the books that frame my day, materials which wait to be consulted


How to think like an archaeologist: Youth archaeology in Arkansas

Behind the scenes of Hollywood

Cover of Behind the scenes of Hollywood.















I discovered archaeology as an undergrad majoring in journalism. It’s a good thing I wanted to write, because that’s how I spend a lot of my time as an archaeologist. Recently, I co-wrote a short book introducing high school aged students to archaeology. When people think of archaeology they often envision fieldwork (and Indiana Jones), but archaeologists spend most of their time in the lab and writing up the results of their research, rather than excavating.

Behind the scenes of Hollywood is a little different from most of the books you may read about archaeology. The book follows ten high school students from southeast Arkansas who participated in a 3-day workshop. The workshop lead them through a series of activities that demonstrate the archaeological process from the field to report. The book provides the data to let the reader practice being an archaeologist and reach their own conclusions about artifacts and the site. The reader doesn’t get to dig in the dirt or handle the artifacts, but they think like an archaeologist while doing a series of activities such as examining landscape change on maps, analyzing soil, and setting up an excavation unit.

Analyzing the artifacts.

Analyzing the artifacts.

Many archaeologists recognize that archaeology is more than just digging in the dirt or analyzing archaeological collections. In her new book, Strung Out on Archaeology, Laurie Wilkie underscores that archaeology is more than just research methods. Archaeology is a way of thinking about and living in the world. Archaeology helps people imagine deep time, human interactions, and social change. It puts to use all of the things you learn in high school the Pythagorean theorem, how to ask research question, examine data, see culture change, think about human environmental interactions, and write.  At the end of the day, archaeology requires putting your fingers to the keyboard and telling someone what you learned.

An Author Archaeologist’s (Childhood) Dream: The Privilege of Writing What I Love

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”


As adults we seem to love this question, though we know better than to hold kids to their answers. The expected responses range from the unrealistic, to the wildly aspirational, to the not-all-that informed–whether astronaut or firefighter, archaeologist or baseball player, or President of the United States. Fortunate kids will find other passions to pursue as they grow older. Others will combine interest and practicality into something else. Still others—the majority–will not have a much of a choice, at all. But it’s no tragedy to veer from the course we set ourselves as children. It’s good to have passion, regardless.

In some ways, what I wanted to be when I grew up I already was at twelve. But that I’m one of the very, very few who’s stuck with his first answer is nothing to brag about. I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to pursue my interest and narrow-minded enough to rule out other–in some ways wiser–options.

I was in eighth grade when I took part in my first archaeological excavation, eleventh grade in my second, and a sophomore in college for my third: a steady continuum, from child to adult. There’ve been short diversions here and there: some eye-opening time at a law firm (!), a year as a consultant in healthcare (!!). But archaeology has always had my soul.

Today, the thrill is still what it’s always been: the same excitement, the same sweet sadness, the same ever-humbling awe.

Now, in addition to my work for museums and heritage organizations, I get to write what I love in my Samantha Sutton series of books for kids–merging my early, unarticulated interests with the lessons of my career.

Of course, I recognize that not everyone cares about the archaeological particulars. Some people don’t get it at all. In the Samantha Sutton series, I hope to impart a basic introduction to the science and its ethics (the characters–the good guys, anyway– use appropriate survey, excavation, and dating methodologies, and actively seek the involvement of local stakeholders). But my main goal is to give enough life to Samantha’s passion that young readers can identify with its fervor, if not with its specific focus. Because while a few of my readers might be archaeologists one day, others will be astronauts and firefighters and presidents, and lawyers and consultants, too.

Passion is what I wish for my young audience, and the ability to recognize it whenever it happens to find them.

Jordan Jacobs has loved archaeology for as long as he can remember. His childhood passion for mummies, castles and Indiana Jones led to his participation in his first excavation, at age 13, in California’s Sierra Nevada. After completing a high school archaeology program in the American Southwest, he followed his passion through his education at Stanford, Oxford, and Cambridge. Since then, Jordan’s work for the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, and UNESCO Headquarters in Paris has focused on policy and the protection of archaeological sites in the developing world.

Jordan’s research and travel opportunities have taken him to almost 50 countries–from Cambodia’s ancient palaces, to Tunisia’s Roman citadels, to Guatemala’s Mayan heartland and the voodoo villages of Benin.

Jordan now works as Head of Cultural Policy at UC Berkeley’s Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two daughters.

Writing! Reports, Articles, Chapters, and the Dissertation

What many new students to archaeology may not realize is that doing archaeology means doing a lot of reporting. And this week, for me, that means doing a lot of writing and writing related activities. I’m a PhD candidate at Indiana University and conducted my dissertation research as part of the Proyecto Arqueológico Nejapa/Tavela based in Oaxaca, Mexico directed by Dr. Stacie King.

Eli’s desk is all set up and ready for her to work.

Eli’s desk is all set up and ready for her to work.

Monday and Tuesday, my friend and colleague Meghan and I met up at my office in order to motivate each other to do some dissertation writing. Meghan was comparing her ceramic assemblages to other sites by combing through older dissertations and data tables. I was reading book chapters and putting those citations into the appropriate places in my dissertation.  On Tuesday afternoon, I took advantage of my second computer monitor to watch the World Cup match while I worked on digitizing an excavation drawing.

Yesterday, my co-authors and I received good news that our article was going to be published very soon but that the editors wanted us to add additional images. So I took the time to select the appropriate photographs and make nice black/white versions of them. I was also working cross state and national lines with my adviser and colleague on a proposal for an XRF study (X-ray fluorescence, a non destructive form of chemical analysis) of obsidian collected during our field work in 2013. (I’m here in Indiana, my colleague Andy is in Tennessee, and my adviser Stacie is in Oaxaca!)

A fabulous image created this week of an architectural plan of a site included in my dissertation.

A fabulous image created this week of an architectural plan of a site included in my dissertation.

Writing/reporting are important aspects of the archaeological process and archaeologists are ethically compelled to disseminate their research and findings to a wide audience through reports, articles, and presentations. And though I know the writing is important, I’m still stealing the occasional wistful glance out the window and daydreaming about using my trowel.

Evening and More Creative Thoughts

You can’t put down a good read. Still going through my pile of references and finding more on the Internet.  There is a fascinating policy context for engaging young people in archaeology. It’s frustrating that archaeology hasn’t really engaged with the wider debate about young people. I can hold myself partly responsible for this as I was the Head of Education at the CBA, and was with the CBA for 17 years. I now think I spent far too much time sitting on committees and being concerned about the school curriculum. Ah well. There are plenty of good people in archaeology working with young people and I’m sure that greater political awareness will come about without me worrying about it.

I do think we’re far to insular in the UK and don’t look internationally enough at the good work going on elsewhere. How many here know of the World Heritage Education Programme?

One depressing statistic I’ve picked up today. 77% of media reports about young people are negative or unfavourable and that becomes 83% in broadcast media. I wish the media could see some of the work of the Young Archaeologists’ Club. It might open their eyes – but then they won’t want to see it as bad news is always more newsworthy it seems.

Right – time for chocolate.

Burst of Creativity

Did some good reading on young people’s engagement with heritage this afternoon and was inspired to write a few paragraphs for the report I’m working on. I can see more clearly now where archaeology needs to be more aware of its wider context in working with young people. That was quite fun.

Now it’s tea time. Time to make my pigeon breast omelette!

More reading this evening I think.

From Home With Love x

Unlike my fellow colleagues, who are working industriously in the field or in the lab with great enthusiasm, I am working from home today! As a matter of fact, I have been doing this for a while now. You may think ‘working from home’ is only an excuse for slacking or not getting out of your bed in early mornings, but not for me (okay maybe a little bit!).

The reason why I am tied to my chair with my hands glued to my laptop in my tiny apartment is because I am WRITING UP! After years of working in the field in Belize, polishing hundreds of samples in the lab till my arms sore, freezing/ boiling in the basement laboratory, and in my case a stitched-up thumb (long story!), I have decided that it’s time for me to finish my PhD. The process of writing up the dissertation is a lot more challenging than I would have imagined.


My attire of the day – yes it’s PJs! I’d figure they are the most comfy thing to be in when you are writing…


Of course, there are times that I can just go on and on, even though mostly writing craps. But, there are times that I got stuck with data interpretation and integrating theories into scientific analytical framework. There are also times that I would just stay up all night contemplating on THE question of ‘the Collapse of Maya Civilization’…

One thing I’ve learnt so far is that I work far better at home because if you know me I simply cannot resist the temptation of talking to my colleagues. Also, I have this very bad habit of reading what I have just written out loud, which can be quite annoying at times.I am still at the early stage of writing up my dissertation, if any of you out there are aware of a more effective (or less painful) way of doing so, please let me know!


I’m snowed under by this pile of books!


After all, I am working from home with love – my love for archaeology, Maya civilization, ceramic analysis, and archaeometry (archaeological sciences)! x



Data analysis in the afternoon

Some people say the morning is the best time to write, but I like the afternoon.  In the morning I’m too distracted by all the various to-dos that I know are on my list for the day; I find I’m better off getting some of those things done in the morning and then plopping down in front of the computer after lunch. The only problem with this schedule is that it seems many others use afternoons as their errand time.  So while my phone, email, etc tend to be blissfully silent in the morning, in the afternoon, if I need to leave my phone/email on for some reason (or if I just forget to turn them off) it’s a constant stream of interruptions.  So it has been this afternoon.


My plan for the afternoon had originally been to finish up an article on one part of the Navajo project – it’s almost there.  But then I got several emails/phone calls, all about different important matters that don’t take much time to address but which I did need to deal with.  Unfortunately, I don’t deal with distractions at all well while writing; I really need a block of time in which to concentrate.  So I abandoned ship on finishing the article today.  Maybe over the weekend.


Instead, I turned to data and statistics.  The beauty of this kind of work in this situation is that it’s something I can do with interruptions – in fact, I find interruptions to be useful.  I can keep thinking about a data problem in the back of my head while dealing with something else.


So today when interruptions derailed my writing, I turned to my Spanish project.  Earlier this summer, I was in Valencia, Spain, looking at a zooarchaeological collection of leporids (or rabbits) from the site of Cueva de Nerja.  Now, it’s time to take those data and figure out what they mean.  My question in looking at these rabbit bones has to do with how the rabbits were being hunted.  Did the prehistoric inhabitants of Nerja take these on the landscape?  Or did they hunt them using a mass capture technology, such as netting?  The way to answer this question is by looking at the demography of the rabbits in question – are there lots of young rabbits, or mostly older ones?  More males or females?  Are there changing patterns through time, and if so, are those patterns statistically significant?