When one first volunteers on an archaeological dig there are a range of thoughts that may go through one’s head. Typically one thinks of, or at least hopes for, gold and silver, adventure and danger, the things brought to one’s mind by modern cinematography and the increasingly romaticised view. Advice for you: if you go on a dig thinking you are going to find the tomb of King Thingymajig filled with golden statues, treasure and lost books of power, prepare to be quite disappointed. But yet again don’t be mistaken in thinking you won’t find anything of value. The smallest of artefacts could turn the history of a place around. Take one dig I participated on in Australia. The one thing the director did not want to find was evidence of children because it would completely recreate the ideas concerning the site. What did we find five minutes later? Marbles! Whoops…children’s toys…so with this discovery we had to completely rethink the ideas we had about who lived there, why they were there and what they did!
Let me dispel a few more myths for you. When one says ‘I’m an archaeologist’, I have found that generally one is asked first one of two questions: Have you found any dinosaurs? And have you found any gold? I suppose they are fair questions if you have no idea about archaeology but sometimes even people who take the time to go on digs leave after one day after finding out that the answer to both of these questions is typically ‘No’. Actually yes I once was on a dig where they uncovered a gold coin but anything of financial value is pretty rare, and when they do turn up its not like we can keep them or even when they are displayed are they appreciated. In the British Museum there is a wonderful display of golden torques which were dug up by a number of British archaeologists several years ago. Amazing, beautiful, very rare, once in a life time discovery! And yet in the British Museum they are subject to silly statements like *American Accent* “My those ancient Englishmen had tiny waists!” Oh dear…When I mentioned this statement to one of the archaeologists that found them I think he almost had a heart attack.
In regards to dinosaurs, the closest I’ve ever found is a cat skeleton and a century dead cow under an old pub…It would be cool to find one yes but its not what we look for, thats left for the paleontologists.
Besides these common myths among the common folk, there are myths that even creep into the amateur mind. Still believed by those of theoretical studies of archaeology in universities around the whole. It doesn’t seem much but if you are planning to go on a dig it is a good thing to realise. This myth involves tiny tools and sitting doing small actions taking a long time. Sounds boring so its a good thing it isn’t true. The work involved on an archaeological dig is immense, it helps to be very fit! Occasionally we use tiny brushes, dentist tools and little spray cans of water but far more likely you will see us with shovels, mattocks, pick axes and even the occasional piece of heavy machinery. There is a reason why one needs a construction health and safety certificate to work on a dig in Australia. Hard hats, work boots, trowels and a hard days work followed by a cold beer, that is the life of the archaeologist. Certainly more work than you see Tony Robinson do in ‘Time Team’ (Though he is such a lovely fellow).
So if you want to go on an archaeological dig remember these things: No gold, no dinosaurs, small finds, lots of nothing, large tools, keep fit, need beer, small and seemingly insignificant finds or no finds at all can be the most significant in the whole dig. This last point almost caused a mutiny in one dig I was involved in when the director forgot to mention that we were actually trying to proof that there was nothing there…on the seventh day of nothing we were planning to hijack the van and drive to France but in finding nothing in that area we proved a very important thing: The extent of the whole site.
All archaeologists have one thing in common, apart from the wish to end the day with a pub dinner, they love the experience in itself and do not concern themselves with the trivial romaticised views set about by the movies but rather the nature of the human past and condition, the possibilities. May the search continue!
But if you ever do uncover a Stargate please do tell me!
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When students start studying archaeology and ancient history they tend to always think of one thing: Indiana Jones and Tombraider. Okay technically that is two things but they amount to the same, the romaticised view. So here is what really happens to the professional archaeologist! Live free and die hard is actually an accurate way of describing time as an international archaeologist. In my time I have had an absolute ball but I have had to work ridiculously hard to get where I am and get the opportunities to play hard.
Honestly, if you love history as much as I do then the hard work can’t help but come with some fun. I have cliff jumped in the Peloponnese, got drunk in ancient temples of Apollo, played rock cricket with internationally acclaimed academics and then played beer pong with them in university libraries. Every dig i have been on has had its theme song from Dr Horrible’s Bad Horse in Scotland to The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up in Greece (The mp3 player got stuck during pottery analysis with that one). I have discussed Doctor Who with Orthodox nuns, found a TARDIS and gone on a Doctor Who hunt through the British Library, flown planes over active volcanoes, chased thieves off ancient sites and had conversations with Romanian strippers about their shoes. And note that none of these few things were planned!
Life as an archaeologist has been awesome but I’m an eccentric and outgoing person so who knows, this could have happened with any job I chose to pursue. These are the things I do not confess to my students because they are only a small part of the whole. But admittedly I love the other side just as much though often stressful and tedious!
On my last dig season in Greece I went through so much pottery and got so desensitized that I thought of drowning myself in the wet sieve. I had to give up going to Olympia the first time to finish reading and reviewing a dissertation on Roman drainage pipes. The reality of the archaeologist is many hours of finding nothing in stifling heat or marsh land in the pouring rain or sitting in an isolated room for forty hours a week sorting through hundreds of Greek inscriptions to find the one one that is useful. Eight years of university to get a PhD (and it is taking forever). The reality of archaeology is a lot of repetitive research and analysis, lesson plans and bad weather. But you know what? I still love it! The opportunities are amazing if you are proactive even though the pay is virtually non-existent. The history one has in their hands is inspiring and never boring in the long run.
So if you are thinking of starting a career in archaeology remember the two sides to the coin. Its bloody hard work but it’s worth it if one loves what they are doing as I do. Plus its kind of fun saying that you can read several ancient languages and seeing someones jaw drop. Archaeologists are not by any means boring people. They are generally eccentric and quite mad (I’ve associated with Hawaiian shirted underwater experts and former smugglers turned archaeologists)
Also remember that one needs the languages. Its what students often find the hardest part but it really is necessary, who knows one day you could end up in my class or could be teaching a class of your own.