Archaeology was, for me, an accident. I came into it late, after a career that had stopped challenging me a long time ago. After a stint at college I went to university to study History, not really knowing what to expect. I’d floated along for a while and didn’t really have any expectations. I thought I’d end up working as a scientist and, in a way, I did – archaeology can incorporate a lot of other disciplines in order for you to find the answers to the questions you’re asking. For instance, I’ve been working with volcanologists recently – definitely not what you expect for someone who spends their time digging things up.
Every day’s a little bit different. It’s very outdoorsy; I’m no stranger to being covered in mud, sunburned or rained on while on a dig, but there’s a complete flipside to it over winter. It becomes very office-based, lots of research and cataloguing. It isn’t without its challenges either; staying on top of the way we think about our past is one of those – the way we think about and interpret our past never stays static for very long, and keeping tabs on that does feel like a mountain to climb sometimes.
Of course, days in the office can be monotonous. I’ve not long finished entering 2000 fresh database entries, and by the time you’re done you want to claw your eyes out because of the tedium. But it needs to be done to get the results and answers to the questions we’re asking. It’s this slogging away in offices that, I feel, goes unappreciated. People love reading about what we do but there’s little, if any, thought given to the hours spent not explicitly finding things. There are ways to keep it from getting monotonous though – changing tasks frequently helps, and always, always reading wider. Whether it’s politics, history, sociology, it doesn’t matter as long as you keep building your knowledge base.
If you think archaeology’s a glamorous profession, you can think again. I don’t know anyone who wears make-up on a dig, and even though there are opportunities to travel you’re still doing the same thing that you’d be doing somewhere in the UK. That lack of glamour extends to the living conditions as well. Some friends of mine went to spend six weeks in a cave with a generator that would not stop blowing up – they spent those six weeks being immensely damp and cold. But it’s worth it for the finds. I was excavating a Roman well a while ago and found a stunning Iron Age glass bead. It was incredibly beautiful, intricately made and obviously made by someone who was a master of their craft – it’s still one of my favourite finds.
It’s not without pitfalls either. The culture surrounding archaeology has changed for the worse; it’s now “publish or you’re out”, and it’s only become harder for people who want to go into archaeology or academia. It’s even more of an uphill battle when there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever use the qualifications you get – it can, at times, feel like you’re being cheated. Archaeology’s a broad church, though – we work with other academics, specialists in given fields, museum volunteers, schoolchildren – anyone and everyone, really.
In spite of the gruelling fieldwork and steep climb to academia, there’s something satisfying in what we do. People love reading about their own culture and, if I could change one thing, I would change the opportunities that we get to funnel what we find back to the public. People think it's all about treasure and glory… it's more to do with contributing to a community of knowledge. It's not really about your name, it's about that small contribution to a bigger whole. It’s part of what makes us human and, given that humanities have suffered in schools recently, any opportunity we get to offset that is a valuable one.