The drinking culture of archaeologists, Part I 2

Certainly having a few drinks on our time isnt badThis year’s Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) Conference in Fort Worth, Texas was just as amazing as ever. Texas is a fine place but, wherever there’s archaeology, there’s wholesome, intellectual entertainment. This is the 14th SHA conference I’ve attended and it never disappoints.

I saw a lot, learned a lot, and recharged my resolve to keep doing archaeology. While I watched a number of excellent papers and participated in some good sessions myself (more on that later), a conversation at one of the Anti-Racism Workshops got me thinking about the way we archaeologists behave when congregate together. A workshop participant noted how much the conference revolves around the bar.

Indeed, as we had in 2016, the archaeologists nearly drained the hotel bar of draft beer in the first night. The hotel had to bring in more kegs just to keep the conference afloat. We prided ourselves on the fact that yet another hotel had underestimated the fortitude of our livers; but then I started to think seriously about how often this happens at an archaeology conference and the role drinking plays in our profession.

It seems like every year at conferences I drink much more than I normally do. As my introspection deepened, I realized that I also drink more than I normally do when I’m in the field. I followed this line of thought and realized most of the archaeologists I know drink a lot whenever we’re in the company of other archaeologists. It’s been this way since I was an undergraduate in field school and has continued ever since. It’s almost as if archaeology, at least in the United States, is synonymous with binge drinking.

This comment got me thinking about the wider phenomenon of binge drinking among archaeologists. Why do we drink so much when we’re together? Is it a problem? If so, what do we do about it? Or, should we do anything at all?

Is drinking synonymous with being an archaeologist?

I met the wonderful woman who is now my wife while I was working on my Master’s degree at the University of Idaho in 2003. Within weeks of us officially dating, my future wife noticed archaeologists, both students, CRMers, and professors, tend to be hard drinking people. Her education is in business and human resource management and, although she graduated from the University of Idaho (a known bastion of binge drinking), she was still shocked by how much the archaeology students drank whenever we hung out. She told me few of the business students consumed as much as the archaeologists. In fact, the only people she ever saw tying one on as hard as us were known alcoholics that needed treatment. Looking back, I now realize several of these students were alcoholics. I hope they have stopped drinking at that level.

As long as I’ve been doing archaeology, binge drinking has always been part of conferences and fieldwork. There have been several times when I had to have difficult conversations with cultural resource management field technicians about how drinking was affecting their work. I’ve had to supervise whole crews that were working below their potential because they stayed up too late drinking the night before. Peer pressure plays a strong role in our binging. There is a “tough guy” ethos to archaeological fieldwork that urges students and professionals to try and prove themselves. This isn’t limited strictly to men as I’ve seen women goad others on the crew to keep drinking beyond their limits.

I believe the symbiotic relationship between archaeologists and binge/heavy drinking goes back at least 40 years. Several times my supervisors have told stories of drunk behavior on field crews or at conferences. Stories of drinking in the field while doing CRM during the 1970s are common. Tales of how drunken archaeologists destroyed hotel rooms at conferences in the 1980s are also widely renowned. It’s not like I haven’t witnessed some of these activities since I started doing archaeology.

Today, this kind of behavior is viewed negatively but it still keeps happening. People lose their jobs for destroying hotels or making sexist comments; however, some archaeologists believe they get a “hall pass” when in the field or attending a conference. Some archaeologists believe we’re supposed to excuse inappropriate behavior because, well, the perpetrator was drunk and we all make mistakes. This excuse doesn’t fly with me but the idea that drunken behavior should be excused lives on.

It is known archaeologists drink heavily when we’re together but I’m not sure we do the same when at home alone. I only know my own drinking behavior and I don’t drink nearly as much when I’m at home as I do when I’m out in the field or at a conference. Which is why it is so difficult to know if archaeologists are simply letting off a little steam, participating in behavior we feel is customary, or actually have a drinking problem. Binge drinking is bad, but what if it happens a few times a year? Isn’t that harmless? The medical community says it’s okay to have a few drinks each day so why do we drink well beyond that when we’re out in the field or at a conference? How many archaeologists are drinking at the conference level on a regular basis?

Even though we all have experienced heavy drinking that archaeologists are capable of, few of us openly talk about it. Fewer still believe it is a problem. Even I’m not sure archaeologists have a drinking problem while readily acknowledging we drink more than professionals in other fields and have witnessed near Frat party-levels of drinking in the field and at conferences. Should I be proud or ashamed of our behavior when it comes to alcohol? I am also not the first one to blog about the heavy drinking done by archaeologists. I came across the post “Alcohol and Archaeologists” written in 2011 by Scott R. Hutson who also came to an inconclusive conclusion when it came to understanding heavy drinking among archaeologists.

The top minds at Middle Savagery demonstrate the way alcohol is integral to archaeological fieldwork in this infographic. Notice how having a beer was the preeminent concern above even food. And, think about your response to the truth of this graphic. I was wholeheartedly in agreement that beer is necessary for fieldwork. Drinking is deeply ingrained in our understanding of what archaeological fieldwork should be.

Alcohol use is considered normal in the field. I know some archaeologists that do not drink but most of us do. And, most of us do not pressure non-drinkers or underage students to partake even though that behavior does happen. We drink when we’re together. This is known. But, is it a problem?

Fort Worth: I think we have a problem

Our behavior whenever we get together is the quintessential definition of binge drinking. I spent some time scanning the wealth of online resources related to alcoholism treatment and realized that some of us are on the path towards full-blown alcoholism. The term “functional alcoholic” has been used in the past to describe folks that drink a lot but are still able to hold down a job, care for a family, and be an otherwise productive member of society. This is no longer used because it infers some people can actually withstand years of heavy drinking. And, that their drinking is not actually affecting their lives. This is untrue. Whether you’re able to maintain your public persona or not, heavy drinking is affecting your life.

Online materials for alcohol addiction are confusing. They agree that alcoholism progresses in stages but these websites can’t agree on how many stages there are in alcoholism. However, it is clear there is a progression that ranges from the same heavy drinking archaeologists do when they’re in the field or at a conference to the life-altering alcoholism that can take you to the grave. Fortunately, I don’t personally know any raging alcoholic archaeologists. Unfortunately, I do know several archaeologists that are closer to the final stages of alcoholism than others.

Based on the informal, seat-of-the-pants online research I did for this blog post, there are three main stages of alcoholism (FYI: these stages are distilled from about a six websites I looked at after Googling “stages of alcoholism.” My stages are by no means official, scientific, or medical. Google it for yourself if you want to know more):

1)  Binge drinking until your tolerance increases: I believe most archaeologists over 21 years of age are in this category. Since heavy drinking is in in our professional culture, most of us can handle a large amount of alcohol. Our livers and kidneys are pretty weathered by the time we’re in our 50s. It’s pretty safe to say we are binge drinkers.

2)  Drinking as a coping mechanism: Not all archaeos are here, but I’d wager a lot of us drink heavily on certain occasions as a means of coping to personal or professional situations. Many of us are introverts, so alcohol helps us come out of our shells. Others are depressed at our life and career situation (For example, a field tech with 8 years of experience or a third year PhD student). Drinking temporarily numbs the pain of our lives not being where we think they should be.

3)  Life falling apart because we drink too much: I don’t know too many archaeologists in this stage. These are the people who are missing work because they drink too much, doing a sub-par job at work because they’re hung-over all the time, lose their job and/or respect because of derogatory things said while drinking, or are un-hirable for certain jobs because they have too many DUIs. At this point, alcohol use has damaged their professional career. This is dangerously close to the kind of alcoholism Nicholas Cage had in “Leaving Las Vegas.”



Binge drinking is what most archaeologists do. I believe we are fine in our everyday lives and do not need alcohol every day just to survive (no matter how much we think we do). Our binge drinking does cause problems. Supervisors say derogatory things while drunk. Students do things with other people who will become their peers (ex. field school flings some of us regret later in our careers). If taken too far, we all suffer hangovers that diminish our abilities and make life miserable. Our drinking effects each of our lives to differing extents.

There is a very valuable social benefit to participating in archaeology drinking culture (that’s what part II of this post will be about), but none of us can say our binge drinking is always a good thing. Heavy drinking lowers our inhibitions but, sometimes, this leads us to making poor decisions that can hurt other archaeologists. Just because we drink doesn’t mean we need to drink so much.

Admitting our heavy drinking as archaeologists is not a good thing was hard for me to say. It’s probably just as hard for many of you to read. We have all had good times while throwing back a few beers at the bar with our colleagues. We’ve also had a lot of fun together while sober, but reflecting upon those good times most likely took place at the bar where we were throwing back a few beers.

I quit drinking for a whole year in 2013. At the time, I was a cultural resource management archaeologist at a new company that did a lot of fieldwork. My lack of drinking became an issue with some of my co-workers who did not trust me because I didn’t spend quality time bonding at the bar. In fact, some of these guys didn’t even like me as a person until 2014 came and I started drinking again.

This gets into the second part of this post: The way our drinking culture actually affects our career trajectories. The fact that some archaeologists do not drink may limit the progression of their careers and force them to remain outsiders.

As always, I value your opinion. Please write a comment below or send me an email.


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2 thoughts on “The drinking culture of archaeologists, Part I

  • Alasdair Brooks

    A provocative and interesting article as always, Bill (how I wish I could get you to submit pieces along these lines to the SHA Newsletter; sledgehammer hint).

    I do think many SHA conference attendees drink more than they would at home. I also think the pride that many conference attendees take in the conference’s alcohol consumption is likely misplaced; I remember many people taking particular pleasure at our drinking the hotel bar dry at my second conference (Corpus Christi; ’97) because we’d managed to drink the bar dry in a Texas oil town. No one (except perhaps the tiny number of teetotal senior colleagues I know) questioned whether this was a good thing or not. So questioning the alcohol culture in archaeology, and the centrality of alcohol to our conferences, likely does us all a useful service. You raise some important points.

    But a few advocatus diaboli thoughts here:

    1) Acknowledging that your article addresses far more than conference drinking behaviour, are SHA conferences particularly remarkable in their alcohol consumption? Isn’t hanging out at the bar common to most professional conferences? Are we unique or unusual here?

    2) More broadly, in my experience American archaeologists as a group drink less than their European, Australian, and South American counterparts. The only region I’ve worked in where the alcohol consumption of field teams was lower than in the US is the Persian Gulf – for what’s presumably obvious reasons. Alcohol consumption, like common sense, is to some extent culturally relative. As is the extent to which that alcohol consumption is managed; there’s arguably a significant difference between half a bottle of wine over dinner and getting hammered at a conference.

    3) Isolate a group of reasonably fit relatively young strangers in the middle of nowhere and with very little in the way of alternatives, and it’s surely not a total surprise that alcohol and sex (and you could potentially also usefully examine alcohol-related hook-up culture and/or sexual harrassment on field teams) are going to feature fairly high on the agenda at some point. For better or for worse.

    Then again, I’m not particularly fond of bars, and my SHA budget generally severely restricts my alcohol intake when we’re at the hotel ($10 for a glass of wine, as at Fort Worth, would surely go some way towards protecting anyone’s liver). I’ve also found I can’t handle nearly as much alcohol now (2 years shy of 50) than I could when I was in my 20s. The only SHA conference where I overdid it was 2013 in Leicester, where I fell in with (successively) groups of Quebecois and Finnish colleagues on the Thursday night. The way I felt the next morning was enough of a reminder of why I avoid that much alcohol that I haven’t been tempted since. So maybe I’m not entirely your target demographic?

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Alasdair, thanks for reading the post and making suggestions. This whole concept is new to me so I would like to do some data collection first in order to gauge our alcohol use before writing something for the SHA. Of course that’s a weak way of saying I’m not ready to go public but the reactions I’ve received over social media tells me archaeologists know our social drinking isn’t always a good thing.

      Each of your inquiring suggestions could be entire research projects in themselves. But, I think the connection between harassment and alcohol is the most timely given recent work on harassment in the field in association with some National Park Service incidents. That would be a touchy subject but it would give us some useful action steps for the future.

      Keep my feet to the fire on this one Alasdair. Keep reminding me to write something for the newsletter. It’s the only way I ever get anything done.

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