Thursday, 28 April 2016

Not so secret life of an archaeologist

There has been an opinion piece doing the rounds on twitter - The Secret Life of an archaeologist: soil in your sandwiches and sexism. Having been subject to sexism both privately and professionally, I can sympathize with aspects of this, however there is a lot in this piece which made me frown. Enough so that I decided to do my own blog post about it. When I saw the title I thought it was going to focus on the problems of sexism and harassment in the field, something which has received a lot of attention recently, both in archaeology and in other field-based disciplines. But the thing that irked me was its presentation of what 'real' archaeology is like. There seem to be two extremes in the way archaeology is perceived, it's either Indiana Jones and digging up 'treasure' (i.e. pretty objects, preferably precious metal), or there are the pieces like this, which want to tell everyone how boring and hard work it actually is. This reminded me of an excellent post (go read it!) by Colleen Morgan - Stop saying archaeology is actually boring. Yes, stop it! I think everyone knows archaeology is hard work, or can be, physically, if you do a lot of field work. But it is important to remember that archaeology is more than just digging things up. Some of us specialize in the laboratory side of things, where you can avoid the field entirely if you want to.

I find these posts problematic, as it could easily put people off considering archaeology as a career, particularly those who are not physically able, or from 'non-affluent' backgrounds. So this is my not so secret life as an archaeologist. For context, I am a physically fit female from a 'poor' family - all working class northerners. I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I went to Oxford. So I have a very good appreciation of how people with non-affluent backgrounds perceive university ('posh', 'not for people like me'), and especially 'weird' subjects like archaeology. Weird as in, what on earth kind of job are you going to do with that ('you're clever, why don't you be a doctor'). So when people write about how you will never get to do the fun stuff like travelling to exotic places, unless you are rich, I find it incredibly frustrating. I chose to do geography as an undergraduate precisely because I wanted to travel and see the world, and it was one of the subjects I knew where you  do field work. There was one occasion where I had to chose digging in Scotland rather than Tenerife because I couldn't afford it (my undergraduate compulsory field course), but there have been many many more opportunities to go further afield, which I took advantage of (Fiji, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Azerbaijan, all over Europe...none of which I've had to pay for out of my own pocket).

I think being affluent certainly makes it easier, as you don't have to worry about how much things cost (isn't this true for everything in life?), and yes you have to secure funding. But this is the same for all archaeology, whether it is closer to home or further afield. You can't do fieldwork without funding, full stop (unless you can convince everyone to work for free). Do you need to know the right people? Again, it might help to find out about opportunities and get access to certain projects. But not always. My first ever excavation was in Fiji. I didn't know anyone there, or anyone who had anything to do with the project. I applied for some university travel funding and got it (because I made a good case for it, rather than having magical powers), and sent an unsolicited email to a Professor I found out about through my own research, and asked if I could join his project to do work for my dissertation.

But fieldwork in the UK isn't necessarily 'boring' anyway. I am actually trying my best to steer my research towards the UK. I still love travelling, but there are reasons (i.e. mini me) at this point in my life where it is not as appealing as it was. Archaeology doesn't have to be the pyramids or Pompeii to be exciting; can't we focus on telling people why scatters of stone tools are exciting instead of going on about how boring they are? I think the real story here is that developer funded archaeology can be boring, because often you are digging things where there just isn't much to be found and there are no exciting questions behind it. But at least being outdoors is exciting, and getting to do it as a job is amazing. If you're me, soil is exciting too. Can we stop telling everyone that soil is boring? I also spend a lot of time studying fossilised poo though, so treat my views as you will. The eccentricity thing is probably true. And I'm also very skilled at not getting soil (or fossil poop) in my sandwiches.

As far as the sexism, I have limited experience of the situations this writer is talking about. It is very much focused on UK commercial archaeology, and having not done much of this I can't comment. I do however have extensive experience of fieldwork in an academic context, in all the above mentioned far away places and in the UK. I am happy to say I have never experienced the sorts of comments about women working, getting your nails done etc. I guess it might be different when the team are all archaeologists. But even in countries where you might expect different attitudes towards women, I have never encountered such comments (actually, it's sometimes more like men go out of their way to treat you the same, maybe cause they don't want to be seen as fulfilling a stereotype?). I have experienced similar comments in other situations, at conferences etc. So I am not denying there is a problem, but I would hope that most of the time people will get called out on such poor behavior. The bigger problem in my mind for women is the less obvious discrimination. Unconscious bias, the gender pay gap, the career impacts of having a family. I don't think these problems are unique to archaeology, or even academia.  And I'll leave it there otherwise this will turn into a very long post!

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Micrograph: Unusual archaeobotany

As a micromorphologist something that you begin to notice quite quickly is that plant remains come in a huge variety of forms. Whilst at the macroscale we usually think about charred remains - wood charcoal, burnt seeds and grains - at the microscale there is a whole world of other plant remains. Phytoliths and other microfossils are something I talk about quite a lot in this blog, and these are becoming a standard form of 'plant evidence' alongside plant macros. More unusual are pseudomorphic voids, plant remains that are no longer there! I have talked about these a lot in previous posts, basically they are 'impressions' of plants that have since decayed. The micrographs below show something a bit in between. The plants haven't fully decayed, as they were partially desiccated. The orange colour you can see is where the organic matter from the plant has stained the calcareous aggregate (probably some sort of architectural material). In the voids you can see remains of the plant tissue, some sort of grass presumably being used as a 'temper'. This sample is from the Neolithic settlement of Kamiltepe in Azerbaijan, where summer temperatures often exceed 40 degrees.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Micrograph: Partially burnt sediment with plant voids

I've been preparing for teaching a micromorphology lab class tomorrow, on the topic of architectural materials. Having recently dug out my old laptop (to look at old job applications...), I came across my huge archive of micromorphology images. I really need to figure a way of making these available online. I have so many and they are such fantastic references. I found this nice example of a partially burnt aggregate; it is perfect for showing how pseudomorphic plant voids appear in a plant-tempered clay. On the right hand side of the image, the plant temper (grasses) has been burnt, and so has preserved in the form of microcharcoal. On the left hand side, where the aggregate escaped the burning, the plants have totally decayed, leaving only the voids in the shape of the grasses. It also shows how the colour of the sediment change as they are heated, becoming a distinctly darker brown. This sample is from the Deep Sounding midden at Catalhoyuk, some of the earliest deposits that have been excavated at the site.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Make your own archaeological poop

Two posts in one day?? Yes, deadlines are looming so the blog posting is on fire. I thought I would do a little update on some non-academic stuff I've been doing recently. Around this time last year I ran an Indiegogo fundraiser. The main reason was that I no longer had an academic job, and therefore no longer had access to a microscope to continue my research that I had started at the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney. I was unsure about whether to do crowdfunding, it is really hard asking individuals for money, compared to asking research councils for millions (that's harder in a different way). But I couldn't think of any other options and desperately wanted to continue the research I was doing. The campaign was reasonably successful; I didn't raise the total, but I did get enough to buy a halfway decent microscope and to cover the costs of taking it up to Orkney for the next field season, to do a 'field lab' where students and visitors could watch the analysis in progress. At the end of the campaign everything changed completely, as I ended up getting a job offer at Newcastle. As a result of this unexpected change in my employment situation, I have been very very slow at fulfilling the Indiegogo perks, but I did finally get them all sent out last week - thank you so much to anyone who donated for your patience!
Alarmingly realistic said one parent

Related to this is the outreach work I've been doing recently. Although initially I had planned to focus on Orkney, I thought it would be a better idea to develop a series of activities that could be done closer to home as well. The first of this was 'make your own archaeological poo' at Segedunum Roman Fort, in my home town of Wallsend. Basically it's making home made brown play dough and mixing it with bits of seeds and stuff, then doing a mini excavation of the resulting 'poop'. Sounds disgusting, but children appear to love it, and it is actually a great way of introducing archaeological science. While they are doing their excavations, we talk about how different types of food remains can tell us about diet, and trade if we have 'exotic' plants. I've ran it twice now, with help from student volunteers from Newcastle, and it was really good fun. I am hoping to expand it into something suitable for older children over the summer, bringing in more of the science and linking it to things in the biology and chemistry curriculum like chromatography and the digestive system. We'll be using the microscope to look at real archaeological samples as well as the 'experimental' stuff!

Dietary inclusions we wouldn't expect in Roman poop
Newcastle students Amy and Hope helping out

How many academic job applications does it take?

Following a discussion over on Twitter about whether you should apply for a particular academic job or not I decided to have a look through my archive of job applications. Having been a bit rubbish at blogging over the past couple of months, procrastination is back with a vengeance, as usual correlating nicely with many many deadlines. This analysis is something I said I would do if I ever got a permanent job - whilst the numbers are somewhat depressing, I hope it is informative. At the very least, it shows that rejection is the norm, even for someone who eventually did get a job.

I finished my PhD in 2008, though due to an unusually long time between submission and viva, then corrections, I didn't officially graduate until 2010. I began seriously thinking about applying for academic jobs in 2009 (yes, AFTER I had finished; I was clueless). Looking back my first attempts were rubbish. I got some very harsh feedback from my first proper interview in 2010, which I found very upsetting, but looking back I realize I was totally unprepared. At the time I was still bad at asking for help (I didn't, at all). My number one advice would be to ask for help from people who have been through it, and preferably have been on interview panels.

Fig 1. Number of jobs applied for
Despite the fact I applied for everything I felt qualified for (and some that I probably wasn't), it's notable that there were really not that many jobs. There were one or two that I was qualified for but didn't apply, for personal/practical reasons regarding location and where my family would be able to live, but by and large I applied for everything that matched my expertise. I applied for around 57 jobs between 2009 - 2015, with 22 of those being jobs in the USA and 34 in the UK.  The number varied hugely year to year (Fig. 1). The thing is, you never know when a suitable job might come up. One year there might be loads, the next year one, or even none, so when they do come up, apply!

Fig 2. Percentage of rejections, interviews and offers
In 2010 I actually did ok for getting interviews, but didn't do very well at any of them. This was when I was offered my postdoc at York - and that was incredibly random as I actually didn't even go to the proper interview as I was in Budapest, and did it over the phone. In 2011 and 2013 I applied for 12 and 2 jobs respectively, and was rejected 100% of the time! In total over those 7 years I was shortlisted for 7 permanent academic jobs. It didn't seem to make much difference whether I had recently finished the PhD or had lots of postdoc experience. The most interviews I ever had in a year was three, in 2012 (last year of first postdoc) and 2015 (last year of third postdoc).

I did quite well at getting long listed for positions in the USA (noticeably at institutions with a strong international research focus), but was never short listed. In the UK, it was very hit or miss whether I got an interview. Combining permanent jobs and postdocs, I was outright rejected most of the time. I was never in a position where I had a choice between jobs; if I was offered it, I took it.

My advice is, apply for everything, within reason. Obviously if you wildly don't meet the criteria then don't. But don't fall into the trap of thinking you don't have the experience or the institution is too prestigious etc. Some people get jobs straight out of their PhD, others like myself do multiple postdocs, it is so unpredictable. But the cliche is true - you only definitely won't get it if you don't apply. Rejection after rejection sucks, but it does build resilience. I would never take it as a reflection on ability (except 2010, I really did not prepare properly).

I won't deny that I had a really tough time of it when I thought I had to give up on the academic job dream, and knowing how hard (and honestly, random) it is, I find it tough telling people to choose this as a career path. It is definitely advisable to have a non-academic backup plan (this brief analysis does not even include all the alt ac jobs I started applying for from 2013). But if you are going to try, then maximize your chances. Rejected applications are not wasted, you re-use and refine the text each time, and when I eventually did get the permanent job, all that postdoc experience did count. I have the track record to apply for promotions much sooner than I would otherwise.