Although I am enrolled for a PhD in Archaeology at Cambridge, I am actually new to Archaeology. I was previously a Geographer, and I now like to think of myself as a geoarchaeologist.
Geography, like Archaeology, is a highly interdisciplinary subject. Both are a mixing pot of ideas and methods that have been gathered together to create a perspective from which we can frame questions that we have about the way the world is, and was. Both also tend to involve a lot of field trips for research.
It is, however, the differences between the two that tend to create the most hilarity in my life…
Sometimes it can be simple things such as mishearing a comment; ‘Golden Child?’, reads one of my sticky notes from an early week in Cambridge. A conversation had moved towards Neolithic Orkney when this “Golden Child” was first briefly mentioned. Fascinating, I thought, I must look this up later to see what it looks like. It turns out that the “Golden Child” was a fully grown man, and actually a famous archaeologist called Gordon Childe.
At other times, the problems I have are with trying to explain what it is I even do. Several times saying I am an archaeologist has resulted in my being introduced to all the architects in the room. Apparently this is a frequent problem for archaeologists (n.b. we prefer the really old buildings).
In the coming weeks, the TwoRains team shall be heading out to India for field work. Not only will it be my first archaeological dig, it will be also be my first time out of Europe! Having learnt to ask perhaps silly questions now to prevent embarrassment later, I will share with you some of what I have learnt when preparing for my trip:
1) TV Programmes and movies tend to ignore the important, but maybe cinematically less interesting, aspect of applying for permissions to carry out fieldwork. Swooping in and just taking samples or items is effectively archaeological looting and results in being discredited and banned from research. So, sorry Hollywood, but you have got this one very wrong.
2) Archaeologists often have a favorite trowel, and apparently the best ones are made by a company called WHS. Importantly, this is not the same company as the British high street stationers, who do not sell trowels.
3) Hats are not optional. Indiana Jones was apparently onto something with that fedora…
4) Archaeologists delight in telling stories of the exotic animals that they have met in trenches. Mainly these seem to be spiders, scorpions and snakes.
5) There will be mud (or at least sandy clay!).
6) Archaeologists seem to be one of the most well vaccinated groups of individuals you could meet. Frequent, and sometimes unexpected trips abroad to exotic locations, as well as large amounts of mud (see point 5) mean they are pretty much vaccinated against everything.
7) You can never wear enough sunscreen. Having recently caught the sun on a cloudy day in London I been advised to pack factor 50.
So what sort of fieldwork does a geoarcheaologist do?
In short we collect information about physical processes that affect archaeological sites through time.
In India I will be collecting information about past water flow around ancient settlement sites that are being investigated by the project by looking at how the sequence of sediment layers have been deposited, and collecting samples to bring back to Cambridge for further analysis. This will provide an environmental context for the archaeological sites so that we can understand why humans were living where they were, and how they were affecting the landscape in which they lived.