What makes archaeologists angry?

Twitter is not long enough for this rant. I was reassured to see a lot of the responses to this tweet mirrored my own concerns. Whilst I do have academic annoyances about archaeology to do with methods and interpretation, these feel so minor in comparison to the frustration I feel about archaeology as a profession.

It all links in with the history of archaeology as a discipline. Other responses touched on the 'cult of the object' - despite moving beyond being about pretty objects, the popular image of archaeology still focuses on the objects, rather than what archaeology can tell us about society, and how it is relevant to the present and future. What hope have we to convince people archaeology is an important academic subject when the popular opinion is that it is lovely and all that but really just frivolous. The history of archaeology shows clearly that it started out this way, a colonial endeavor, going to exotic far away places and finding exciting objects. Even those individuals who pursued a more systematic approach were largely wealthy and well connected, and didn't have to worry about this actually being a job and having to make a living.

I remember hearing a student saying once that they thought people should be grateful for getting to work in a cool job doing what they wanted to do. Oh how naive. Firstly, professional archaeology probably isn't what you think it is, and secondly, the only people who can make a career out of doing a low paid job with no long term security are those who have family and/or financial support. As someone from a working class background, working at a university that has a strong emphasis on so called Widening Participation recruitment (i.e. students from less well off backgrounds), this really really bothers me.

A view of the Wallsend shipyard in 1973, about 10 mins from where I grew up.
The world of professional archaeology reminds me of my own family situation. My dad was a shipyard worker at Swan Hunters during the 80s. I didn't understand it at the time, but his job was not a job at all, but a series of temporary contracts where he was made redundant on a regular basis. Eventually the redundancy was permanent when the shipyard closed down. My parents could never get a mortgage because of this, and they continue to live in the council house we lived in when I was a child. At some point they will be asked to move into a smaller home as they have three bedrooms and only two people living there now my sister and I have left home. They have lived a life of no security and making do, with no ability to progress. A life like this takes eventually its toll mentally. I am forever grateful that they put everything into giving me and my sister the opportunity to succeed.

And this is what field archaeology is like, at least for those from similar social backgrounds. Again, back to that dismissive student, they continued by saying they could easily live off X wages, they were fine living in a shared house. I can guarantee that attitude will change as you get older and decide living like a student in your late 20s and 30s is not fun, and on the crazy off chance you may meet someone you might want to live together without a bunch of other people. You may even want children, or a pet.

And it's not just the low wages for entry positions. There are other professions where entry wages are not great, but at least you know there is prospect for advancement. That if you work a certain number of years your wages will go up. Until professional archaeology is actually a profession, I have no enthusiasm for selling archaeology as a vocational subject. It is a fantastic degree for general graduate skills, with its combination of humanities and scientific training. But for the level of debt incurred through going to university, how can we tell our students to choose a life of temporary low paid contracts and all that entails, over a general graduate job with long term stability and genuine career progression?

My husband has a Masters in Maritime Archaeology, with some seriously specialized diving training and 10 years of field/underwater experience (and some serious student debt to go with it). We just got our first house this month. At the ages of 35 and 36, after 5 years of saving and saving and doing overtime to save more for a deposit. The reason we could do this? Because he left his career as a professional maritime archaeologist, and went to work as a project manager for a big company instead (apparently it's quite similar to what he was doing in archaeology, the projects are just not archaeology projects). It was a bittersweet decision - we are so much happier in our personal lives now that we have less financial stress, but it is also sad; we met on an archaeological project and had this mutual passion. I will leave you with this Robert Frost poem before this rant gets overly long.


  1. I have a long experience of archaeology and the passions it releases. I have also spent much time since the 1960's experimenting with ancient ceramic techniques, looking at and considering the deposits caused by firings etc.

    I have created neolithic ovens and have many theories on the practical side of cooking. Seeing supposed 'ritual' deposits, I usually come up with a practical solution. Actually being listened to is a continual bugbear. I'm only offering sincere thoughts on interpretations in archaeology.

    What I have done now for my own satisfaction is write a series of novels set in Neolithic Orkney. I put myself 'in pace' with the characters, who become so human and reasonable. They are so unfettered by modern dogma that they can have a life.

    The series is called 'Skara' It is too a great adventure in ancient experiences where folk live, love, antagonise, work, create wonderful things eat amazingly good food and ,of course breed.

    Go to www.skarabooks.com buy a copy or download an ebook. It's a brilliant read, so I'm told. It is being made into an opera in New York and there are now wide screen prospects. It is a 'Thrillogy' of five illustrated volumes coming out over the next two years.

    This has been great therapy for me, being able to freely express archaeological thought in a book that folk love.

    All the best,

    Andrew Appleby 'The Harray Potter' www.orkneypottery.co.uk


Post a Comment