The drinking culture of archaeologists, Part II

Archaeologists and beer go together but is that a good thing?Continuing last week’s blog post about archaeology fieldwork, conferences, and binge drinking, I just want to make a confession: This last weekend, I was a binge drinker. It’s NFL playoffs season. The Seahawks played poorly and I had an archaeologist friend come in from out of town. I ended up drinking more than usual, possibly in the “five-drinks-within-a-two-hour-period” definition of binge drinking. This weekend, I most likely met the qualifications of a binge drinker.

Is that wrong? Do I have a problem? Does that make me any less than a human? An alcoholic? Or, am I just a normal American? A typical archaeologist?

That’s the question I posed in last week’s blog post. Do archaeologists have a problem with alcohol?

I started giving some thought to the issue of archaeology’s drinking culture after attending this year’s Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. It’s important to note that I’m not the only archaeologist that has discussed this matter before; however, our profession is reluctant to admit our heavy drinking in the field or at conferences is not always a benefit. There are social benefits to social drinking, even at the high level practiced by archaeologists. But, this does not mean the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

While its true most professional archaeologists and archaeology students tend to binge drink whenever they get together, I must stress the fact that few of us are full blown alcoholics. I must also admit, to a certain extent, our social drinking is beneficial because it allows us to establish peer bonds that are important to our careers. Problems happen when we go beyond our own personal limits and do things that harm our professional reputations and hurt our peers. Since most of us aren’t drinking so much that we are permanently damaging our bodies, it’s the times when we exceed our personal limits that we all need to avoid.

“If you can hang, you can hang”

Substance abuse was the topic of Episode 98 of the CRM Archaeology Podcast. This is probably the most in-depth treatment of alcohol and substance abuse in the archaeology profession that I have ever seen (FYI: I am a frequent panelist on the CRM Archaeology Podcast, but I didn’t participate in this episode. I like the podcast but am not promoting myself…..this time).

In Episode 98 it was readily acknowledged that, in addition to consuming alcohol, other drugs can also hamper archaeological fieldwork. I’ve focused these blog posts on alcohol because that’s what I’ve experienced first-hand as a field archaeologist. I leave the discussions of other substances to more qualified archaeologists.

The podcast hosts discussed their experiences with alcohol consumption, including frank conversations about how archaeological fieldwork can lead to binge drinking. In some cases, it can lead to full blown alcoholism. The podcast hosts also discussed the fact that binge drinking or alcohol consumption in general is characteristic of archaeologists in most countries where alcohol is available. Archaeos in the United Kingdom have the same drinking behaviors as those in the United States. American and European archaeologists bring these habits with them when they work in other countries.

Heavy drinking in the field is learned in field school because the work culture is so amenable to binge drinking. It’s traditional for field school students, sometimes field school instructors, to drink more than usual when they’re out in the field. Those who can drink a lot while also working hard on excavations gain prestige, respect, and are considered “real” archaeologists; thus, heavy drinking is encouraged from the earliest stages of an archaeologist’s professional career. The prestige of being hard working and hard drinking follows field school students back to campus, a space where binge drinking is a central part of life. Archaeology is a dream job. We are all doing everything we can to further that dream and it’s easy to think being one of the archaeologists that can hang is a requirement for career advancement.

By the time students graduate, archaeological fieldwork and alcohol consumption have become synonymous. And, this isn’t just because it’s part of our work culture. In Episode 98, the podcast hosts noted that the mental and physical difficulty of archaeology fieldwork is a major motivating factor in our drinking decisions after work.

We’ve all been there. “You just got off work. It was hot. Your back and arms are sore. Paperwork and interpreting soil horizons has drained your mental capacities. Exhausted, you’re among the majority of field archaeologists that choose to saunter over to the nearest pub for an alcoholic thirstbuster. The satisfaction you feel as you take a seat at the bar, grasp that chilly pint of beer in your hand, and take the first sip—It’s likely to be the best thing you’ve felt all day.

Unless, you don’t drink alcohol. The satisfaction of having a cool beer after work is what many archaeologists crave after a long day in the sun. But for those of us that don’t like alcohol or have a drinking problem, going to the bar and watching others drink is something they just don’t want to participate in. This is where professionalism, manners, and awareness can come into play.

As the hosts of Episode 98 clearly say it’s wrong to pressure others into drinking. You don’t know everything about your co-workers’ past and you do not want to tarnish your own professional reputation by peer pressuring people into drinking. You don’t know if they have a drinking problem or pregnant or have religious beliefs that do not allow them to drink alcohol. Or, they simply might not want to drink that day. It’s hard to tell if they’re slowly realizing working on a crew with you is detrimental to their health because they don’t have the same tolerance as you. You might have been fine binging every night but they could have been suffering severe hangovers the next day simply because they wanted to be one of the archaeologists that can hang. Even if they’ve been integral actors in past drunken misadventures, you still don’t have the right to peer pressure someone into drinking.

Pressuring people into drinking is wrong on so many levels, but it can be detrimental to your archaeology career because we work in such a close-knit industry. All of us are only two degrees of separation from each other. You don’t want to be known as the jerk that pressures others to drink.

Archaeologists Benefit from Social Drinking

Drinking together isn’t all bad. Human beings have been drinking alcohol for thousands of years. In fact, some archaeologists think fermented beverages may have been the reason for the rise of agriculture. Alcoholic beverage consumption closely follows agriculture in many parts of the world, a development that led to social complexity, city-states, hierarchical societies, formal religions, trade networks, and most of the other attributes of the world we all know. All of those developments led to the creation of cultural resource management so it might be true that alcohol is the reason we have a career field.

Archaeologist are no different than other social groups in that moderate alcohol consumption increases our sociability. Oxford University researchers found that modest alcohol consumption had several health and social benefits including a wider social network and deeper engagement with their friends and local communities. Additionally, alcohol consumption triggers endorphins that help us engage in activities like laughing, dancing, and singing that reinforce social bonds.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh also revealed that moderate drinking in social settings increased social bonding. They noted the number of “true” smiles increased among drinking participants of the controlled experiment as did “golden moments”—instances where several group members also smiled simultaneously. These benefits were noted among participants that consumed alcoholic drinks who also reported a higher level of social bonding through the experiment than participants that did not consume alcoholic beverages.

These modern experiments do much to inform us on how human beings have integrated alcohol consumption into our cultures for millennia. Archaeologists have long been aware of the many ways alcohol and civilization have collided in the past, for better or worse. From the deleterious effect of the introduction of European alcohol to Native societies to the negative image given to heavy drinking immigrants in North America to slave-produced rum to alcohol-fueled celebrations in ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, archaeology has a deep history of investigating the role of alcohol in society.

Social drinking is also integral in maintaining professional networks among archaeologists. Our subculture values social drinking, even binging, and many of us know “the real conference” takes place at the bar. I can’t tell you how many professional connections I’ve made while having drinks at conferences and after work as a cultural resource management archaeologist. Discussions about archaeological method and theory are also easier to have when you’ve got a couple beers under your belt.

Ethereal, archaeological theoretical mumbo-jumbo is hard to digest while sober. This is one of the reasons why, as a Master’s student, we had weekly “study groups” after our anthropological theory class at a local bar that had a great happy hour menu. Those social drinking activities helped us share ideas and connect with each other’s research. We could take off our pseudo-enlightened grad student mask and be ourselves at the bar, which is something that cannot really happen in a lecture hall. My experiences having a few drinks after class solidified my connections with my cohort. I developed lasting relationships that have endured for over 15 years.

Unfortunately, those “study groups” also alienated many students that did not participate. Most of these were “non-traditional students” (i.e. grown-ups with families and/or children) who couldn’t start drinking at 4:00 P.M. every week. We made efforts to include these folks but their lives were such that they couldn’t start day drinking every Tuesday afternoon. They tried to participate but couldn’t make it every week. As a result, I don’t even remember those individuals’ names.

Social drinking among archaeologists does solidify bonds. We drink, talk, and connect informally at the bar. In the process, we get to reveal our true personalities which makes (some of) us more personable and friendly. These frank drinking sessions also helps us connect with advisors and potential employers in a way that cannot be done through a CV or application package. It’s the real, human connections enabled by social drinking that are a strength of the way archaeologists do business.

However, those who do not participate are somewhat alienated. Many of us believe if you don’t hang, it proves you can’t hang. And, if you can’t hang, you’re not worth knowing. It is this alienating aspect of social drinking that piqued my interest in the activity among archaeos. I didn’t know our binging was leaving people out of the loop because, frankly, I was inside the loop. I never took the time to look outside our group until #SHA2017. Now that I’ve looked at this from a new angle, I’m not sure what I can do to include those that do not drink. Maybe non-drinkers just have to hang out and act like they’re drinking in order to make those valuable professional connections. This isn’t possible for archaeologists with a drinking problem but it may be an option for those that simply do not like drinking.

One thing is very clear: Alcohol consumption is so ingrained in the professional archaeology community it is very, very unlikely we will give up drinking all together. And, I’m not sure we have to unless it becomes a problem.

When the costs outweigh the benefits

We all know at least one co-worker that just does not know when to quit drinking at work celebrations. They’re continually goading people to keep drinking so they don’t have to be the only one overdoing it. They’re the last one to stay up with a beer in their hand. The next morning at work they’re dragging a** which forces the other crewmembers to compensate just to get the work done.

Many of us have also witnessed inappropriate conduct from drunken archaeologists of the sort that leaves indelible marks on our reputation. Some of us have about heard or seen other archaeologists get handsy with each other; oftentimes this attention is unwanted. We’ve heard about archaeologists losing their cool in the field because of a “love triangle” (or another shaped “love polygon”) where tempers flare, shovels fly, and somebody gets physically hurt. There are also stories of careers being stunted over alcohol-induced activities that destroyed an archaeologist’s reputation. Nobody wants to hire someone who has gotten a DUI in a company vehicle. These unfortunate events happen. Some of us have been the perpetrators or victims.

This is where the drinking goes too far; when people are harmed and laws broken. Alcohol can cause us to break the law, to hurt other people, to make others feel unsafe. While the social bonding over drinks is a good thing, getting smashed, belligerent, handsy, sexist, or bigoted is not.

In the week since I wrote Part I of this post series I’ve heard a great number of stories about negative behaviors induced by binge drinking in the field. Some of these stories involve illegal acts. Some of the perpetrators lost their jobs. A few of the stories involved archaeologists that died because of alcohol-related injuries, either long-term effects of alcoholism or accidents resulting from binge drinking events. The conversations initiated by this post series have sobered me up to the fact that our binge drinking isn’t always an asset. Sometimes people get hurt by our actions.

Stories involving peer pressure to drink was the most common tale I heard about while discussing alcohol and archaeologists. So many people told me they always feel pressure to binge drink whenever they hang out with their peers that I lost count of how often this was expressed. Nearly every woman archaeologist I talked to told me they had been pressured to drink with co-workers. Most men said the same thing. Somehow, I’ve never experienced this. Perhaps it’s because I just took the peer pressure to be harmless teasing. Perhaps I don’t care what other people think and am not afraid to put down the bottle when I reach my limits. Or, maybe it’s because my alcohol tolerance is high enough that I drink enough that I’m always able to hang. It’s hard for most people to outdrink a 230-pound man that’s been practicing for over 20 years without losing your professional persona.

I guess I never thought about the fact that, even without pressuring anyone, our constant social drinking forces many to join us at the bar even if they do not want to drink. If you’re not at the “real conference” you truly are missing out on what could be career-changing networking. I’m not sure what to do about this. How can we be more inclusive? Should we even try? I’ll leave this quandary to you.

The more disturbing stories I encountered involved sexual harassment or assault from drunken archaeologists. Or, stories of how supervisors tried to normalize unwanted sexual advances as part of the culture of archaeological fieldwork. Sexual assault or harassment is not part of archaeological fieldwork. Binge drinking is no excuse for harassing or assaulting a co-worker, student, volunteer, or anyone else on the project (FYI: I heard stories of these situations from both men and women, but unwanted advances from men to women was the most common tale.) This is clearly where drinking has gone too far. The emotional and psychological damage caused by this sort of behavior is long-lasting; life-long in most cases. There is no space for this in archaeology and it is up to all of us to expose this sort of behavior whenever it takes place.

There is an excellent discussion of what to do about harassment in Episode 98 of the CRM Archaeology Podcast. I encourage all of you to listen to that episode.

Stories of full-blown alcoholics in archaeology were extremely disturbing as well. I heard about individuals who were blacklisted from archaeology because of their alcoholism. I even heard about a few archaeologists that died from alcohol-induced health problems. Fortunately, these tales were rare. Unfortunately, alcohol destroys the lives of some of us.

So far, I’ve talked about the good and bad of binge drinking among professional archaeologists. In Part III of this blog post series I will propose some guidelines we can continue to leverage our social drinking without making us comparable to carnival workers. See you in Part III.

Let’s keep the conversation going. What do you think about archaeologists and our drinking culture? Write a comment below or send me an email.


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