Sometimes Archaeology Sucks

Pic: What happens when your contract states all the excavated material from a specific area needs to be screened, and that area is excavated by hydrovac?  You spend two weeks screening mud.

Archaeology is incredible.  Every project I’m part of I feel luckier and luckier to be an archaeologist.  You get to work with incredible communities, travel to gorgeous locations, and see fascinating parts of history.  I can’t imagine any better job to have.  BUT, and it’s a big but, that doesn’t mean that archaeology doesn’t suck sometimes.  Sometimes there are days or experiences or situations where you’re left feeling defeated and questioning your life choices.

In the Twittersphere as of late there’s been a lot of talk about being more open and honest about the hardships of profession and academia.  And I’m definitely all for being open and honest.  I think it’s doing more harm than good to hide away the hardships we ALL face in our careers.  It’s harming those dealing with hardships and new students coming in without any idea of what they may be facing on the road ahead.  EVERYONE will face hardship and struggle at one point or another.  Some more so than others, and others less than some.  I’m a believer in the making the best of a bad situation, so when I’ve hit rough patches I’ve tried to use them to make me better in the long run.  I know what sucks for me and I work to find ways to get through it.  Both for myself and for others I may mentor in the future.

Without much further ado, I want to list today some of what I’ve encountered in archaeology and my pursuit of archaeology that have made me feel pretty crappy.  It’s all about honesty, right?  I’ll preface this by saying that everyone will share similar experiences, but we’ll also all have very different experiences.  I’m writing this as someone who doesn’t have any mental or physical illnesses and/or impairments.  There are many (in and outside of archaeology) who do and they face many additional hardships that I don’t.  I encourage you to take the time to listen to these hardships and think about ways you can work on trying to make your sites and projects more inclusive (They’re a bit dated now, but take a look here and here as starting points if you’d like to learn more on disabilities and archaeology).  So.  What do I think sucks about archaeology?

It can be extremely physically demanding.  Going into archaeology, I was definitely expecting this.  I knew survey and excavation would be a major part of the work and that each would be physically tough.  What I didn’t, however, was exactly how tough it would be.  Different soil conditions can make excavating horrible.  On a project in Edmonton, my first unit was compact clay.  My boss wanted us going down four levels a

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My clay unit full of water

day (10 cm levels).  I was lucky if I got through one.  Not only did I have to excavate the clay, but I had to screen it too.  By the end of that week I would wake up with my fingers literally locked in place (as though around an invisible shovel).  And what did I find after all that hard work excavating?  Nothing.  In fact, it ended up raining and, because clay doesn’t absorb water, my unit filled up like a pool and I couldn’t even finish it (I was down only nine levels and our “bottoms” were at about 12).  Surveying is just as physically demanding.  I get to see some gorgeous locations in BC that I consider myself very lucky to see.  But hiking up mountains over fallen logs and treefall, and through patches of salal and devil’s club is hard.  Especially when you’re doing it for 8 hours a day.  And then 8 hours the next day.  And another day after that.  You come out bruised and bleeding and so sore that you can literally barely pick up your legs (at times I have had to physically lift up my legs with my arms to climb back into the boat or car).  I’m not exaggerating.  Try spending 8 hours lifting your legs over logs and through viney salal and tree fall and see if you can lift your legs.  And sometimes you don’t find anything.  Not even a damn flake.

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Sometimes surveys suck.  Like when you have to survey in face-height thistle bushes and shin-height poison ivy (see my post on the Survey from Hell for more info on this survey in Kingston)

Working with difficult People.  In archaeology we’re almost always working in teams.  Sometimes large teams, sometimes small teams.  The only time you might not be working with a team is if you have to go out and do a quick property inspection.  Whether it’s fellow archaeologists or not, 99% of the time you’re working with other people.  And sometimes those people suck.  Even your own colleagues.  I’ve been extremely fortunate that as a woman I haven’t faced nearly as many difficulties as many other woman have.  I’ve definitely been in frustrating situations (i.e. not taken seriously, not respected, treated like a secretary), but for the most part I’ve been really lucky to work with amazing and respectful colleagues and employers.  Check out the Google results for “Women, Archaeology, Sexual Harassment” and you’ll get an idea of the crappy situations women have to deal with in archaeology.  Just because they’re women.

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I like drawing profiles.  But that’s not the only thing I’m on a project for.  I’m nobody’s secretary (but my own).
Putting gender aside for a moment, sometimes people are just generally difficult to work with.  Sometimes they’re arrogant.  Sometimes they’re bossy.  Sometimes they’re lazy.  Sometimes they’re argumentative.  Sometimes they’re rude.   Sometimes they’re clingy.  Sometimes they talk too much.  Sometimes they have very strong opinions that you disagree with.  Sometimes they have absolutely no regard for safety (like project engineers pushing you and your crew to work faster in 35° heat and not caring when you lose 3 members to heat stroke).  Sometimes they refuse to admit they don’t know what they’re doing and won’t ask for help.  Sometimes it’s early in the morning, you’re tired, and they’re just too damn happy.  And you have to spend 8-10 hours a day with them.  Sometimes you even have to share a room or house with them.   That’s both as a supervisor and not.  When I’m supervising a crew I try to be friendly and fair.  I hate

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Managing a large crew means there are more opportunities for disagreements and difficult situations.

bossing people around, I hate getting mad, and I hate having to put my foot down.  Sometimes crew members under my supervision take advantage of this.  They think they can get away with being lazy or slacking off because we have a friendly relationship.  And then I have to be the bad guy by reaffirming that I’m in charge.  I’m half-Dutch – I have no problem being stubborn and saying “no” to your wait-until-lunchtime request to take off early for the afternoon to go fishing (true story).  But that doesn’t mean I enjoy doing it.  And I hate when people make me have to do it.

It’s expensive.  You’ve got to go to school, and tuition is expensive.  Grants and scholarships are difficult to come by these days and they favour those with 4.0+ GPA’s.  I had to pay my own way through school.  For my first degree it wasn’t so bad.  I worked a crappy retail job, but I was living at home so I was able to save the money for tuition.  But when I moved to Edmonton because I felt my best education would come from UAlberta, that meant I had to pay for both tuition and living expenses.  My retail job said I would have no problem transferring to an Edmonton location so I made living arrangements based on my wages.  But they dropped the ball and I had to start over.  Which included lower wages at a new retail employer (retail sucks, but it offers great flexibility for students).  It also pushed me a year back because I couldn’t afford to take more than two classes that first year.  My amazing parents helped me if they could afford to, which I will always be eternally grateful for.  But that didn’t prevent struggle.  Enormous struggle.  It’s not fun spending your time wondering if you’ll be able to make rent that month because you had to spend $50 on groceries this week.  And that’s while having to study for exams and write papers.  Honestly, if I’m worried my power will be shut off next month, do you really think I can concentrate enough on studying to be able to get the A’s that will get me the scholarships?

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Thousands of dollars (in tuition fees, conference fees, flights, etc) and hundreds of hours (of school and work) went into this photo of my recent conference badge
It’s not just expensive in school.  Even trying to break into the field after school can be expensive.  Conferences and networking opportunities cost a lot of money, and they’re the best way to get your name out there.  To showcase your abilities knowledge.  To meet the people who will hire you onto their projects or into their companies.  It’s expensive going to those conferences to get the opportunities in the first place.  Just as frustrating (if not more so) is when you’re being offered opportunities and you can’t afford those either.  I’ve had to pass on opportunities, including even applying to see if I can get the opportunity in the first place, many times because I couldn’t afford them. Frustrating is an understatement.

Mentally and emotionally defeating.  I love my job and I’m passionate about it.  But now, nearly 10 years after starting my journey into becoming an archaeologist (more specifically a bioarchaeologist), I have nearly no pride left.  It’s slowly building back up, but it’s definitely low.  I’ve allowed myself to feel guilty about pursing this education and career, because it’s not just me that my struggles have affected.  It’s hard to feel guilty about doing something that you love.  My confidence is there because I know I’m damn good at my job.  But my pride at times is very low.  It’s hard to go through periods of no work.  It’s the nature of the beast – some seasons are busier than others.  It’s like that carrot dangling in front of my face.  I get a taste of being busy doing what I love, and being paid for it.  I make some gain on my debt.  My cats get to have a great life.  And then work dries up and once again I find myself face-to-face with struggle.  My cats still get a great life, but I don’t.  What makes it suck even more is when you know other people who are successfully doing what you want to be doing.  Or getting project and publication opportunities thrown at them.  It’s so easy to ask, “why them?  Why not me?”  Which is a very dark path of self-doubt to walk down.  It makes you doubt yourself and lose support for yourself.  It also makes you feel like nobody else supports you.  Why would they, if you can’t find work on your own?  On top of that you’re surrounded by people who are so successful at what they’re doing.  They’ve got the grants, the projects, the publications.  And meanwhile you’re going into month #3 of living in overdraft.  Your project has fallen through and you need to start from scratch.  To say that I feel mentally defeated at times would be an enormous understatement.  I’ve certainly become acquainted with curling into a ball of misery in the shower.

I refuse to let all this suckiness defeat me.  I’m half-Dutch, remember?  Dutch people are some of the most stubborn out there and I’m no exception (my husband can certainly confirm this to be true).  I see that light at the end of the tunnel and I put all my energy into focusing on it.  I know all my hardwork and struggle is going to pay off.  I’ve aligned myself with the right networks and made sure that I’m good at my work.  There will come a day, and I honestly feel like it’s a day in my very near future, where everything I’ve worked so hard for will come to fruition (June 16, 2018 update: they are! Good things are happening!).  My pride tank will be full again.  I’m not mad at my struggles and the hardship I’ve faced.  They just mean I’ve spent a little longer setting myself up for a good future.

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Me being damn good at my job

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