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An open letter for new fieldwork staff:
It’s a lazy Sunday in lockdown, and after months of fruitless job applications I half-heartedly zip off another CV, already resigning myself to the silence I have come to expect as an answer. By Monday I already have an email asking when I can start and whether I have access to a car. What follows is one of the most stressful weeks of my life, and I can honestly say that the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic barely even feature in my mind. I’ve applied for so many jobs with little response that I’ve genuinely reached the point where I’m convinced I’ll never be able to start a career in field archaeology. Now all of a sudden I’m starting in a week, and somehow that reality seems much more terrifying than the alternative.
I’ve been trying to get into commercial archaeology since I finished a Masters in September 2019. In the roughly eight months since then, I’ve applied for every position I’ve come across and sent my CV and cover letters out unsolicited to more archaeology companies than I can keep track of. The fact that most job postings require at least six months of commercial experience seems like an insurmountable problem, and for the most part, all I received was radio silence. I was very lucky at the end of February to find two weeks working on an urban site near Manchester, but this was entirely a case of having friends in the right places as opposed to anything I’d done personally. So saying I was shocked to receive a site assistant job offer might be the understatement of the century.
I’ve always had issues with anxiety and imposter syndrome, although the latter was missing a handy and easily identifiable terminology for most of my life. At the best of times I’m a nervous wreck with an earnest but leaky dam holding back the worst of my neuroses from the poor unsuspecting people around me. So, obviously, I was freaking out from the moment I received the offer that no one would like me, that I would be an awful excavator, and essentially that anything that could go wrong would go wrong. I’d done about two months of digging on field schools, but that and the two weeks of commercial I did earlier in the year did absolutely nothing to calm my fears.
When I started on site the following week it became immediately apparent that I was the only person who didn’t have years of experience in field archaeology, which did little to dissuade my negative internal monologue. I felt my blindingly obvious inexperience keenly. I didn’t have half the things I needed (seriously, invest in a large stash of nails and string), people had to show me how to do significantly more than half of the tasks I was asked to do, I had a really hard time figuring out where the natural was and I’d never even HEARD of ‘permatrace’ before. On paper, this would have been enough to send me into full-blown anxiety meltdown.
The reality was not like this at all. For starters, I was very lucky going in that by sheer coincidence I already knew someone wonderful and helpful on site, which really aided in calming my nerves. However, even if I hadn’t, every single person I met that first day was nothing short of phenomenal. They’re laid back, friendly, patient, and completely supportive. So instead of feeling like crawling into a hole and crying, I felt like while I have a lot of learning and improving to do, this was a space where I could feel comfortable in doing so The archaeologists I spent two weeks with near Manchester were exactly the same. I think we’re extremely fortunate to be in a field that attracts such deeply supportive and passionate people, and I am so grateful that that is the case.
I’ve been in my new position for two weeks now, and while I still have a very long way to go, the difference from day one is amazing. It is honestly remarkable how quickly you can pick things up as long as you watch, listen, and always ask if you’re unsure. Driving into work each day puts a massive smile on my face because I know that even though it’s hard work, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.
So, for anyone reading this that’s still looking for a fieldwork job: DON’T GIVE UP. It isn’t easy to break into, but if this is what you’re passionate about doing it’s worth it. Eventually you will be the right person at the right time, even if you can’t see it now. For anyone who is just starting in fieldwork: watch, listen, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Everyone starts somewhere and there’s no way you can expect to be amazing at everything right away. And for everyone, above all else, be kind to yourself.
Induction week, September 2018, saw me sitting on the couch in the Air b n b I was staying in (I still hadn’t found anywhere to live) completely overwhelmed. I had to write 6 essays in 10 weeks? Who was I kidding? I couldn’t do this. How was I going to keep all these deadlines straight and also get my job done on the side? What was I even doing here? Why had I thought I could do this?
After wallowing in serious self-doubt for half an hour or so, I decided that I needed to come up with a plan. The first thing I needed to do was plot out all of the due dates so I couldn’t miss them. To do this, I turned to Trello. I set up a list for each week of the semester, and put in a card for each assignment submission. I then created a card for an outline for each paper, as well as a draft. So three cards per paper. Working back from the due dates, I then slotted the outlines and drafts into various weeks, to make sure that the work was evenly spread across the whole semester, and I could avoid overloading weeks where I knew I also had a big work deadline or a personal commitment. I ended up with something looking like the cover image above. Suddenly there were only 3 or 4 tasks each week, which seemed a lot easier than 6 essays in 10 weeks.
Once that was done, I made sure to select my essay topics for the whole semester, and wrote them in the front of my notebook. (This was easy because we generally had a choice of two topics per paper. It didn’t work so well in second semester when we had free choice topics.) The rationale behind this was that I was committed to those topics, and so I could capitalise on the class readings that we had to do throughout the semester, and also on the readings for other papers, and make sure that I was taking notes for all the essay topics every time I read something. It saved a lot of time later in the semester when I already had a good back of notes and readings to draw from, rather than having to start reading and note-taking for each paper from scratch.
When the time came to focus on my dissertation I also set up a Trello board for that, with milestones such as reading a certain number of articles, having a draft of each chapter completed, as well as my fieldwork days. I didn’t stick so strictly to my own timeline for this one, as things changed frequently and the order I’d initially thought that I would work on each part did not end up being the best way to handle it. But it was still a useful exercise as it showed me that the project was really achievable if you chipped away at it over the time allotted, which was beneficial to my confidence and allowed me to stay fairly relaxed throughout the process.
While this approach worked well for me, it is important to remember that everyone is different, and you need to find something that works for your own work style. But if you are returning to study or about to embark on your dissertation and are feeling overwhelmed, then perhaps give something similar a try. At the very least there’s something to be said for the satisfaction of dragging cards to the ‘done’ column and being able to tick tasks off your list!
Statues aren’t our history. They’re our archaeology.
Medium article by Claire Baxter
Recent weeks have seen statues again become a flashpoint for protest and debate. Statues of slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol and Belgian king Leopold II in Antwerp have been torn down. Statues of Winston Churchill in London, Captain James Cook in Melbourne and Sydney, Robert E. Lee in Virginia, and many others across the world, have been vandalised. After writing a master’s thesis about the removal of statues last year and watching the current debate being played out, it has become clear to me that many people are misunderstanding the meaning of public monuments. For example, ‘tearing them down would be erasing our history’ is a common refrain from those opposing the vandalism or removal of statues. ‘We don’t need a statue to teach the history of colonialism’ is a common counterargument. The fact is that statues are teaching us very little about history. Most are accompanied by a brief plaque mentioning who the person was, their job title or major achievement, and who raised the statue. The majority of Captain Cook statues, for example, don’t go into detail about who appointed him, when he set sail, what happened on the voyage, the ways in which he charted the coast, etc. Instead we are just given a simple description, for example, ‘Captain Cook. Discovered Australia’. Not only is this not teaching us history, it is in itself erasing history because it only tells us the European side of the story, and a factually incorrect one at that. But having these memorials, and only these memorials, normalises this version of history, erasing alternative versions.
Rather than history, these statues are our archaeology. Archaeology is the study of human activity, beliefs, and values through material culture: that is, the objects that were created and used by humans. The value of statues is not in what they tell us about the individual being memorialised, but what they tell us of the society that created the statue, erected it, and perhaps altered, removed, or replaced it. These statues are therefore a story of us. Who we venerated and celebrated, what stories we told, and what values we upheld. At the moment, these are largely celebrations, stories, and values of white men. Walking the stretch of Melbourne’s St Kilda Road and Swanston Street between the Shrine of Remembrance and State Library, for example, there are fourteen statues of named individuals. Thirteen of these are men. The lone woman is the statue of Joan of Arc outside the State Library, who is flanked by a bunyip, St George fighting a dragon, and a Gumnut Baby. The other statues are all of men, and are all white, with the possible exception of St George. In terms of leaving an archaeological record of our society, I think we can do better than this. Especially when future generations would look at our archaeological record and see that we left our monumental landscape intact, but allowed important, ancient aboriginal sites to be destroyed.
There are many options for dealing with archaeological artefacts. They may be uncovered, recorded in place, and covered over again. Or they may be left in place with some protection and interpretation. Or they may be removed and placed in a museum. Or a new museum may be created specifically for the objects. There are examples of all these approaches with regards to statues. The Maitland Brown Memorial in Fremantle has been left in place but has had additional information added. A Jefferson Davis statue at the University of Texas in Austin was removed from the campus and put into a museum with details about why it was created and why it was removed. And there are three examples in Hungary, Lithuania, and Russia, of statue parks created to house communist memorials removed from their cities. The best option will need to be decided on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with the community. Museums might not have space, for example, or there might not be enough statues in a given location to make a statue park a viable option.
Regardless of what option is taken, archaeological recording of these objects is important. We need to preserve their context. An object does not have intrinsic meaning, but gets its meaning from its use, surroundings, and relationship to other objects and the landscape. When you remove the object from its location, it therefore loses some of its meaning. This is what we mean when we talk about context. A statue of a Confederate soldier, created at the end of the Civil War and erected in a cemetery, has a different context and meaning to one that was erected on the steps of a capitol building at the height of the white supremacist movement in the 1920s. The first statue might be a genuine reflection of loss and sorrow, whereas the latter is a message of intimidation and power. Similarly, a statue of Captain Cook at Botany Bay has some relevance, whereas one in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, a place he never visited, much less so. In this way, the physical context of the statue needs to be recorded, which can be done by photography, laser scanning, mapping, or numerous other techniques. Their relationship to each other is also important, as the fact of there being 12 monuments to white males on one stretch of road, with only a single female represented and no non-whites (I’m excluding St George) tells us more about the values of our society than does a single monument.
If the choice of what monuments get erected is a reflection of our society, so is the choice of which ones get preserved or torn down. These are other forms of context which should also be recorded. Who created the monuments and why? Why did they become controversial? What changes did they go through over time, for example vandalism or protest? How did people behave in and use the space around them? How did they make different groups feel? Who was involved in the decision to remove them? These are questions that archaeologists would often ask about an artefact, but in the case of ancient or prehistoric artefacts, may never be able to get the answers. We are in the fortunate position now of being able to answer these questions, and so these contexts should also be recorded, whether the statue ends up in a museum or not.
While I’m not advocating vandalism or even saying that all of the monuments should come down, I do think that we should be thinking of these as a current reflection of our values as a society rather than as purely historical objects. On this basis, our memorial landscapes do feel like they are out of date and there is room to even the score. So if we retain that Captain Cook memorial, let’s add another sculpture that commemorates the victims of colonialism, whether through disease or violence. And let’s record the contexts of our monuments so that they can be studied and questioned in future, regardless of where they end up. It’s important that we continue to think critically about the way we present history and the kind of societal values that we are projecting, and this contextual information about our public monuments can help to educate us and provide a focus around which we can continue to reflect on who and what we are celebrating, including whose voices we are valuing. Public monuments are part of our archaeology and we should consider what record of our society we want to leave behind.
My Tool Bag
Over the years one of the most common questions I get from new archaeologists is..
‘What do I need in my tool bag?’
It was one of the things that when I first started in field work that gave me an enormous amount of anxiety to go along with the worry that no one would like me and not understanding what was going on half the time. I at the time had the money to invest in a basic tool roll from an online shop and this was a great start as it had everything, I needed but not everything I wanted.
As a massive over packer I have things in my tool bag that I want but not need so I have split the contents of my bag into a few different lists, to help you sort through the needs and wants.
This is what you should realistically have in your bag on your first day on site, however if you are new don’t be afraid to ask to borrow equipment.
- A hard-wearing tool bag; there are many different types and styles of bags you can use to carry all of your equipment. I like to have a soft waterproof tool bag with a long shoulder strap and pockets. This is so I can easily carry my bag on public transport with my backpack and it makes it easy to carry it across site as well. Other people prefer a backpack style tool bag again for ease of transportation. Other people will use a bucket or a cloth shopping bag. Have a look round online and see what works for you.
- A WHS 4” pointing trowel. This is the standard trowel in British Archaeology; they come with either a soft red handle or a wooden on. I prefer the wooden one, but this is just personal taste. However if you have a trowel that you have used before that you like and works for you; use that. You will become very attached to your first trowel and if you have to borrow someone else’s, it will feel wrong.
- A leaf trowel. This is a trowel with a long handle and a smaller blade, this is used to dig post holes and more delicate work. It can also be used to lay out a string line in a pinch
- String, you should get a spool of brightly coloured builders string; most archaeologists tend to collect several bundles of knotted string in the bottom of their tool bag.
- 6”nails. You can use these for marking out the area you need to dig, setting out string lines for section drawings, piercing holes in finds bags labelling up sections, their uses are endless and you definitely need more than the two I turned up to site with.
- Bull clips. Big bull clips are like currency on site guard these with you life!
- A pencil case with black ball point pens, black sharpies, 6H pencils, a pencil sharpener and a rubber. Have a bit of fun with this, my pencil case is currently a sparkly mermaid themed and you are less likely to lose a colourful rubber on site
- A line level. These clip on your section drawing line to help you get it level. These go missing a lot so don’t get too attached to yours.
- A small hand shovel, this is very useful when you are cleaning up big dich slots or for helping to excavate smaller for features.
- An A5 hardback note book. This is to keep note of section numbers, photo numbers, context numbers, sample numbers. We use a lot of numbers! It can also be used to write down take away orders, phone numbers or for me jotting down bank details so I can put a deposit down on my house. Keeping a note of the numbers you have taken out can help clear up confusion if a mistake is made in a register.
- A metal tape measure I quite like the 5 meter ones
- A 30m tape measure (but you should be able to borrow one to begin with)
These are the basic things in most tool kits, however some archaeologists (me!) Carry much more than this others will carry less. If you can’t afford or can’t find all this equipment when you first start, ask to borrow it, most people will be fairly understanding.
Things I like to have in my bag but don’t need
Many archaeologists tool bags have a collection of tools that they have built up over the years that they like but are not useful for every site. There is no such thing as a bad bit of kit, just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work for someone else. This is a list of tools that I have seen in people’s bags or I have myself that make life a little easer but they are not useful all the time.
- A hard-bristled wooden hand brush, this is used for cleaning bricks and masonry.
- A small decorators paint brush, not for as TV will have you believe to brush the soil, but to clean off bit of pottery for photographs.
- A delicate excavation kit, this is useful for crematory sites but is a big investment so don’t buy this in your first week.
- A good quality knife. I have a swiss army knife, this is useful for cutting string, sharpening pencils, fixing wheel barrow wheels, opening bottles, the uses for this gadget is endless.
- Surveying pegs (or as I call the spikes of death) these are good for setting up section lines on a slope; however you can also use a grid iron to do the same job its just personal preference.
- A Mini Mattock, extremely useful for working in a tight spot you can also get out all your rage with this.
- A spoon, for excavating post holes.
- A cut in half plastic bottle for bailing out slots.
- A sponge, also for bailing, this is your life now get used to it.
- A hammer
- A 15cm scale ruler for measuring drawings. I find this useful
- Different colour pens, not to use on a context sheet but to help organise you note book, I will tick off pages and features when they have been completed with a colourful pen
- A kneeling mat protect your knees from the cold, wet earth and help stave off arthritis. I also use mine as a handy dandy cushion to help keep my bum dry when doing paperwork. For me this is an essential but some people don’t like to use them because they are bulky to carry
- Knee pads, see above. But do not keep your bum dry
- A second 30m tape measure to help with drawing and planning
- A waterproof note book, but these are expensive so write in them in pencil.
You tend to spot an experienced archaeologist because they will have an odd tool that they carry around with them that no one else will have a use for. They may also just carry a trowel and a pen then borrow tools from everyone else.
There will be times when you just need a bit less equipment, such as when you are banking a digger when it is opening a trench. I have a little satchel for this with my trowel, a pen, a tape measure and a handful of finds bags. This saves you carrying a big bag or attempting to stuff everything in your pockets.
I would also recommend, that you bring a backpack to site with a few bits to make you life more comfortable on site. In this you should have
- A full (at the start of the day) water bottle, drinking water by law should be provided on site but it is seen as a bit rude if you don’t at least make the gesture of bringing some of your own
- Your dinner and snacks, I would also recommend having something high calorie in the bottom of you back to help you keep going on cold days. I use squeezy peanut butter pouches
- Reading material, there will be times when you are stuck in the cabin because of bad weather and you will have finished the all paperwork and it will only be 11. I also have a back of cards for these occasions
- Hand sanitiser, hot and cold running water should be standard on a site, but sometimes the water runs out the day before it is due to be topped up or the portaloo will be frozen so it is nice to have it as a back up.
- High factor sun cream, this again should be provided, but if you have sensitive skin like me it is nice to have your own.
- Pain killers, you will be sore in your fist few weeks. I also carry anti acids because there is nothing worse than site heartburn
- If there is no tea making facilities on site bring a flask.
- A spare pad or tampons just in case your period starts early.
- a wallet of purse with your induction cards, CSCS card and a form of ID with you.
- You should have a first aid kit on site but I recommend carrying some plasters in case you get a blister or cut your knuckles.
I hope that you find this helpful, the first few weeks doing fieldwork can be a little baffling and you can feel like you are constantly messing up. But humans learn from their mistakes and there is very little that cant be fixed. Do not be afraid to ask questions or ask for clarification if you don’t understand what is being asked of you. Just keep going and keep trying and you will have got this.
How are women in archaeology and heritage affected by the corona virus lockdown? Is it all bad?
Recent media reports concerning the careers of academic women during the corona virus lockdown have been rather negative. An article in The Guardian on 12th May 2020 reported that the research output of women has plummeted while, at the same time, journal article submissions by male first authors has increased by almost 50%. It is also being reported that working women in general are being affected more negatively than men in terms of loss of income and increased household and childcare responsibilities.
Further negative coverage came from BBC’s Newsnight, which recently included a debate about a growing worry that the gender gap is widening. They found that women are doing 2 hours more childcare and home-schooling each day than men. Newsnight also reported 61% of women are feeling less positive during the lockdown compared to 47% of men, and incomes of women are set to fall to a greater extent.
But what is happening to women in archaeology?
We are essentially an academic profession, but our jobs encompass all sorts of different workplaces including Universities, public organisations such as Historic England and Museums, and privately own companies such as commercial units. We work in different ways – full time permanent positions, limited time research contracts, short-term contracts and self-employed free-lancers. What impact is the lockdown having on our ability to work, our ways of working and the outputs that we produce currently. Is it just a stream of negative stories or are there inspirational changes happening in our profession?
To address this issue, I have reached out to the ladies of archaeology that I know, and they in turn have sent my questions out in to the virtual working world. What you find below is a summary of the concerns and the great optimism that I received:
- Cancelled field work and lack of lab work – Essentially most practical research activities have stopped or are very limited. This means the continuation or initiation of projects with new excavations or analysis at their heart are not possible. These will hopefully just be postponed but what is going to happen to those working on time-limited research contracts? Will these be extended? I have heard of some post-docs being furloughed but others not and I wonder what impact this will have on their ability to finish their projects in the set time frame.
It is also likely that many archaeologists have lost earnings due to the cancellation of excavations, although the recent opening up of businesses in the UK seems to have started activities in commercial units.
- Loss of jobs – Unfortunately, there are going to be some that will lose their jobs. Due to the closure, and the associated loss of earnings, Museums are being hard hit. Some colleagues have been threatened with job cuts later this year. Worrying reports of the financial struggles that Museums are having is being reported on social media, but hopefully with the summer holidays coming up, revenue will increase and stave off the threat of permanent closures.
- Increased parenting responsibilities – Schools being closed in the UK and around the world has meant the usual hours of work for parents are no longer available or severely reduced. Someone needs to take care of the kids and supervise all the home-schooling! Parental responsibilities usually fall to the lower or more flexible worker in the family, in most cases this is a woman. So, this may be the reason for the slowdown in female academic output suggested in the media and with uncertainty in the UK when schools will fully reopen this situation may well continue for a while longer.
- Increased workload due to change of working – The change to working at home has meant online teaching responsibilities and increases in online meetings for some. The development of online courses is very time consuming and does not just mean giving the same lecture with the old powerpoint! Online teaching needs to be more interactive and adapting to this style of working does not come easily to all. Learning new software and making new resources is adding to the workload of teaching staff and is likely to be having an impact on their research output.
I have seen many twitter comments about the endless zoom meetings and the fact that people are feeling they are working all the time. This may be something to consider if home working becomes a more long-time arrangement and to make sure that you keep to a work schedule rather than being available 24/7.
- Flexible working/remote working – Many people commented they were enjoying working from home. It means less commuting, less costs in general, more flexibility when you can work during the day and for most people seems to be more productive. Online technology means most research activities can be conducted from home. I have even seen people sharing pictures of their home labs so they can get on with some new analysis during the lockdown. Flexible working is a great advantage for working women and I hope the lockdown has demonstrated to employers that being away from a workplace does not mean less work is done.
- Life/work balance, improved physical and mental health – No longer having to fit work around school runs, after school clubs, and travelling to workplaces is creating a much better work/life balance for many colleagues. Having more time with the kids and being able to fit work around this is a massive positive and many people commented they want to retain this, if possible, after lockdown. Many people have been enjoying the daily walks, runs or bike rides they are able to fit into their daily routines. All these changes have relieved some of the stresses of daily life and are leading to improved physical and mental health. This is of great benefit to families and others that feel they are constantly on the treadmill and have been able to slow down. It is a more healthy way of working.
- Virtual workshops, conferences, and training – Many planned conferences and workshops for 2020 have gone online. There have also been many newly formed series of talks making research more available. The benefits of online technology to women are vast. It increases our ability to take part in research activities that would normally be out of our reach. It reduces the cost and time spent travelling allowing women and people with low incomes and from distant world regions to participate. Retaining this online approach or offering a blended version of conferences, where some talks could happen from remote speakers and everyone can listen in real time online, increases the inclusiveness of the event. I want to encourage all organisers of research events going forward to consider this type of inclusive approach. It will increase participation from women and other disadvantaged groups.
Although there are some negatives resulting from the corona virus lockdown, I feel many will be overcome in the short-term and we should focus on retaining the positives. We have much to gain from the new found insight into flexible and online working. Encouraging our employers and research funders to embrace this more inclusive approach will benefit the next generation of women archaeologists. We need to insist that this is our new normal!
If you want to delve more into this topic there is a great webinar on how Covid-19 is impacting the gender equality at work hosted by Julia Gillard – https://www.kcl.ac.uk/giwl
So I’m an Archaeologist!
Me? I’m an archaeologist.
All pictures are the property of Matilda Siebrecht
It’s always the same. The polite chit-chat, and then the inevitable question of “what is it that you do?”, followed by an internal bracing and holding of breath as you answer, “I’m an archaeologist.” Immediate enthusiasm is usually the first response, followed by a stream of stereotypes: “Indiana Jones was my favourite film”, “I love dinosaurs”, “did you see that documentary about the Celts last week?”, “who is your favourite pharaoh?” The list goes on. Of course, all of us here should understand archaeology is not limited to those common assumptions. I know absolutely nothing about Roman pottery and would not be able to tell you anything about medieval building techniques. However, I can share a little of my experiences here, in the hope that, should someone ever ask you about this topic, you will be prepared.
Let us start with the basics: My name is Matilda Siebrecht and I am currently completing my PhD in Arctic material culture at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. My cultural focus is on the Dorset Culture (c. 800-1300BC), who inhabited the central and eastern Canadian Arctic and Greenland. My central specialisation is in artefact analysis, focusing on microwear analysis. This methodological approach is now well-known within the archaeological community, and so I won’t go into too much detail about it here. All that needs to be said is that I am looking at the organic material culture, so investigating the tools and carvings made from bone, antler, and ivory. It is fascinating, and if you want to learn more about this aspect of my work please do get in touch! (There will also be some papers coming out very soon…)
I arrived at Arctic material culture somewhat by chance: I had completed a masters in material culture studies – specialising in microwear analysis – at Leiden University, and was looking for a PhD project where I could apply my skills. The ideal study required a large material assemblage, which had to be extremely well preserved for the microscopic traces of manufacture and use to still be visible. When a project asking for a new approach to organic materials in the (freezing cold and thus wonderfully preserving) Canadian Arctic became available, it was too good an opportunity to miss.
Although the majority of my work is done behind a microscope in a lab, looking at collections that have already been excavated by other archaeologists who are kind enough to let me analyse them, I also wanted to go out into the field and experience the environmental context for myself. You cannot properly interpret any material unless you understand the context in which it was made and used, and so in order to gain a greater understanding of the agency behind my material, I needed to go up to the Arctic myself. Luckily, my supervisor was running a fieldwork project in the very region that I was studying and invited me to join him.
At this point, I imagine you all reading this with envious eyes, or preparing an email asking if you can join too. At least, this was the usual response when my colleagues and friends discovered where I would be spending that summer. Of course, anyone is welcome to join, but there are certain formalities that must be undertaken. First, you need a permit, which is obtained from the Nunavut provincial government. Easy enough, I hear you say, and indeed if you have a valuable project that will be disseminated amongst the local Inuit community, you should have little problem. The main issue comes when you start planning your budget.
To reach the field, you of course first must be in Canada. Coming from the Netherlands, that was a little pricey but not extravagant, and I could use my yearly research budget to cover the 400 or so euros to get to Ottawa. From there, you then have to fly up to Iqaluit, which is the capital of Nunavut (population of approximately 8000), and from there take another flight to Igloolik (population of approximately 1700), from where we would then get a boat out to the island that we were excavating. These two return flights together cost around 3500 Canadian dollars. A little over my budget! So, external funding had to be sought, and luckily I was successful in getting a research grant from the Nunavut government, which just about covered the flights and my share of the rent for the little researchers cabin that we had use of while in Igloolik.
The field season in the Arctic doesn’t last very long, and we only had six weeks out on the island. Even then, several of our test-pit features took a few extra days to finish because we had to wait a day in between each digging session for the permafrost layer to thaw out. Luckily, the sun was out the whole time for the first few weeks, and even when we left in mid-August is was only just dipping below the horizon for a few hours before popping back up again. You will remember that I went because I wanted to get an idea of the context of my study material, and that I did. The surrounding environment was beautiful – a clear blue sea as far as the eye could see, with the occasional iceberg floating by. Birds wheeling overhead and flocks of chicks scurrying over moss-covered rocks.
However, it was not all Disney-worthy. The island had no fresh running water, and of course there was no electricity, so drinking water was precious and by the end of the six weeks I dread to think how we appeared and smelled. Of course, this is not unheard of in archaeological excavations, and I see your sneer of “she calls that hard? I do that every year!” Quite right, so I will move on to the one aspect of Arctic fieldwork that I was most nervous about – the polar bears.
Again, I see you, and I heard your “aww that’s so cool!” However, there is a big difference between seeing an adorable clip of polar bear cubs accompanied by a soothing narration from Sir David Attenborough, and being part of a small group of very tasty humans on an isolated island in the middle of the ocean, with a 2m-long polar bear prowling along the beach in the near distance. I had been prepared for it by my supervisor, but I can still remember taking a pause from digging, wiping the sweat from my brow, gazing around me to see if I could spot any cute little chicks, and freezing as something large and white moved on a rock not twenty metres away. Luckily, this particular polar bear had apparently just eaten, as evidenced by the seal carcass found on the next beach, but I don’t think I have ever power-walked so quietly in my life as that day when we abandoned all tools and stole our way back to camp.
“Why back to camp?” I hear you ask. Because that is where our polar bear monitor was. Yes, it’s a thing. You will notice that I have not mentioned the local Inuit community that much so far. If I were to write my full experiences then this blog post would be far too long – as it is I have probably gotten carried away with this story – because the Inuit are without doubt an essential part of any archaeological fieldwork project carried out in that region, and indigenous collaboration is becoming an increasingly important part of Arctic research. For now, however, I will focus on the Mikki family, who came out and camped alongside us on the island, acting both as couriers for us and new barrels of fresh water, as social companions in the evenings (I am now a master at Uno and defy any ten-year-old to challenge me), as helpers during a week-long field-school that we ran, and most importantly as protection from any hungry predators that might be patrolling our shores.
On a lighter note, the Mikki mother, Rebekka, was also invaluable when sharing her knowledge about skin-working and sewing. Seals are still a primary source of meat in Inuit communities, and the skins are also used to create beautiful and waterproof winter clothing. While we were in the field, I was able to witness (and eventually even participate in) the full process, from skinning the animal to softening the dried leather. I also got several tips for the experimental archaeology aspect of my project, which at the moment involves using needles made from bone, antler, and ivory to sew seal, fox, and caribou skins in order to get a reference collection of usewear traces for comparison with the archaeological needles. I already have needlework experience, as some of my favourite non-archaeology related hobbies are sewing, felting, leatherwork, and embroidery, but it was amazing to work together with Rebekka and learn from her experience in the particular context of Arctic sewing. This year, I was supposed to have travelled there again, bringing with me a box of ivory needles, to run a collaborative experimental workshop with Rebekka and her daughters, but as with so many things that now has to be postponed until next year.
This blog post has become a little longer then I originally intended, but I hope that it has provided a small insight into Arctic archaeological fieldwork, and the fantastic experience that goes alongside it. Now, when you are harangued at a party by someone who is convinced that you must know everything about the Mesoamerican pyramids, you can retaliate by flinging out some anecdotal snippets about hiding from polar bears, and using the ensuing distraction to cover your escape.
Boating out to Uglit Island
Overlooking the camp on Uglit
Digging a Thule (Dorset Culture 800 BC- 1300 AD) Midden
Waiting for the ice to leave the harbour at Igloolik
Microwear analysis at Avataq Cultural Institute (Montreal)