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!


  1. Well said! When I have the time I'll read both articles to get a sense of their perspectives. Gotta agree that it's about the attitude: why even be in archaeology unless you love exploring history in all its iterations? I've never come across a truly "Remarkable" find - for me, it's just exciting to find a 3 cm obsidian blade, or bits of sea shell because I KNOW that means there were indications of trade. And hell, I love doing the munsell chart although if I was ONLY working with soil that might get a bit dry eventually...personal preference, though. I know some people where that's all they do.

    And I've never experienced sexism, as a woman, in my years in the field. Not saying it isn't out there, or that it isn't something that we should be critical about (we should), but I don't think it's any more prevalent in archaeology than any other field. Tbh this generation of college students, far more women are in undergrad anthropology and archaeology classes. Nice article.

    1. Thanks :) I think there are definitely problems for women. I just don't think the Guardian article is presenting it the right way, and by spending half the article talking about how boring archaeology is, it detracts from the actual problem. I think there is also a more complex issue about sexism and the backgrounds of people who tend to do construction work, and the tensions of conflicting priorities.


Post a Comment