Houston, We’ve Got a Problem…


Photo: Two of the 3 unexploded shells we found on a historic site in Kingston, ON.  Notice the shovel-dent in one of them?

As archaeologists we face unique problems in our line of work.  Based on my own experiences, these are some of them:

  1. Using an outhouse when it’s -30° outside.  Especially on a breezy day when the breeze comes up the toilet.
  2. Forgetting a metal artifact in your carry-on bag and then trying to gothrough airport security.
  3. There is a small hill separating your units from the screens.  And that hill is clay.  And it’s raining.  Good luck getting those wheelbarrows up that hill.
  4. Your unit is primarily clay.  And it’s raining.  That water isn’t going anywhere.  On the plus side, you’ve given yourself a cool pool of water to jump into for those hot days.
  5. Not paying attention to which way the wind is blowing while you’re screening.
  6. Getting attacked by angry birds in the forest that hit you hard enough to knock you off your feet.  It was a goshawk and it happened to a forester I was with.
  7. As a tall, thin woman – finding work pants that are long enough while fitting in the waist. And aren’t jeans.  Also, finding work shirts that are long enough in the sleeves and torso.
  8. As a woman with small feet – finding logger boots that fit (boots with metal spikes in the bottom, we use them for surveys in BC)
  9. Being attacked by a hoard of poodle puppies (between the wagging tails and slobbery kisses I counted 6 of them) while you’re trying to carefully excavate extremely fragile glass beads from a shallow unit.  I distinctly remember my colleague shouting, “save the science!” as we frantically tried to keep the puppies out of the unit.
  10. Privies. A privy is a fancy word for “toilet”.  Because they were also used as garbage bins, they happen to be fantastic sources for artifacts on historic sites.  Yes, that means that we have to admit to spending our time sitting in toilets pulling out artifacts covered in poop.  And yes, they smell about as bad as what you might think.  And then while cleaning privy artifacts you come across rags of fabric that were very likely used as toilet paper.  There are few things in life that make me gag.  Cleaning privy rags is one of them.

    Sorting through hydro-vac mud in Edmonton, AB
  11. Ending up with random things in the trunk of your car.  Like artifacts covered in poop from privies.  I had a big fire-cracked rock in my trunk for the better part of 2 months before I remembered to take it out.  I’m also one of the few people out there who can say that I’ve had bodies in my trunk and not get arrested for that.
  12. Finding unexploded shells, grenades, bombs, etc.  Anything that should have blown up but didn’t.  And you found when you hit them with your shovel.  Yep, that will get your heart pumping.
  13. Going to the washroom in the woods, or, as my colleagues affectionately say, “make like a bear”.  Sometimes it’s difficult to find a spot that doesn’t involve poisonous plants or stinging/biting bugs.  Bears and cougars are also a problem.  One a large burial site I worked on, another problem was finding a place where there were no burial cairns.
  14. As part of your permit, you’re required to screen all the dirt that’s excavated from a particular spot on the construction site.  The construction crews decide to use a hydro-vac truck for excavation.  You now need to spend a couple of weeks going through thick, sticky mud.

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    Starting work in the winter before the sun comes up on a construction site in Edmonton, AB
  15. Working on construction schedules (in the case of monitoring).  This involves both starting before the sun comes up (in the winter) and working 12-hour days, 7 days a week.
  16. Coyotes coming through your site and chewing on/slobbering on your gear and artifact bags while you’re having lunch down on the beach.
  17. Trying to backfill your unit at the end of the season without making it look like you’ve just buried a body in the forest.
  18. Lining your unit with plastic at the end of the season so you know where you left off for next season, but then the plastic tears as you’re backfilling.
  19. Failing at getting any work done because you’re too busy chasing your supervisor’s young dog out of your unit when he decides he needs to dig up the giant root sitting in the middle of it.  And then he steals your gloves and runs away.  You get your gloves back but he gets into your bag and steals your lunch and runs away.  You basically spend half your day chasing the dog.  For the record, I love having dogs on site, and young dogs need to learn somehow.
  20. Having to pee in the bushes during a particularly mosquitoey season.  Don’t forget to spray bug spray down your pants, guys.
  21. Bears with cubs wandering into the literal middle of your site during the day.  That’ll get your heart pumping.
  22. Fire ants.  Not much to say other than they are the worst things ever.  If you see one just know that there are hundreds nearby lying in wait to ambush you.  My advice is to tuck your pant legs into your socks so you can avoid the discomfort of them biting you in very unfortunate places.  Learn from me.