The summer without archaeological fieldwork

Fieldwork is synonymous with archaeologyThis summer (2017) is the first time I haven’t had to do archaeological fieldwork since 2004. It’s not that I didn’t have the chance to do archaeology. I’ve been invited to volunteer on several projects but am between jobs so I have to watch my pennies (Y’all know how that is). Also, I’m taking the time to have a good ‘ol Griswold vacation with my kids before they get old enough to start ignoring me (If you’re a parent, you might know how that goes too).

Lacking the time to do fieldwork has been more of a psychological blow than I thought it would be. The personal and private identities of archaeologists are so intertwined, it’s hard for us to separate our work from who we are. Most of us have always wanted to become an archaeologist. Ever since we set out on this career path, we’ve found it difficult to stop thinking about archaeology. Archaeology is how I see the world. Paying attention to the human condition is what we do.

We are also heavily invested in turning our dream into a career. Becoming an archaeologist takes years. We put in a lot of effort working toward a goal that is not always what we thought it would be. When we get there, we just can’t stop, won’t stop.

All of this emphasis on our careers creates a condition where who we are as a person is directly related to what we do for a living. This is both a good and a bad thing.

Fieldwork is intimately intertwined with our professional identity

Archaeological fieldwork is intrinsically linked to an archaeologist’s identity. I’m not the only one who has experienced this. Anna Prentiss’ excellent book “Field Seasons: Reflections on a Career Path in American Archaeology” describes the formative role fieldwork played in the kind of archaeologist she became. The book focuses on Dr. Prentiss’ eventful career in academic and cultural resource management archaeology as a professional and as a student. But, another unstated theme in this work is the process by which Prentiss became an archaeologist. Fieldwork was integral to that process. It was central to the kind of archaeologist she became and the kind of archaeology she practices.

Prentiss’ account is only one aspect of how field experiences can shape an archaeologist’s a professional identity. Other workplace analyses of the social structure and cultural practices of professional archaeologists have also revealed the way fieldwork is considered a formative element in the transformation of a “civilian” into a professional archaeologist. Stephanie Moser’s 2007 research of the gendered association of fieldwork within archaeology described the gendered culture that exists in archaeological fieldwork and how it effects the professionalization process (“On Disciplined Culture: Archaeology as Fieldwork and Its Gendered Associations” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 14(3):235—263).

In this must-read article, Moser describes the centrality of masculinity to the professionalization of sciences where fieldwork has a central role. She also addresses the way fieldwork is treated as a rite that women have, traditionally, been discouraged from undertaking. This gendered aspect of archaeological fieldwork imbues archaeologists with characteristics typically granted to males like ruggedness, durability, and strength. Women in archaeology also take on these characteristics by participating in activities like fieldwork. The increase in women in the field has not changed this aspect of archaeological fieldwork or the role it plays in our identities.

Moser also explains how archaeological fieldwork has been romanticized by both its practitioners and society. Indiana Jones only added to this meme. The identity as “field archaeologist” is another formative aspect to an archaeologist’s career that garners admiration and interest from non-archaeologists. Archaeology is interesting and its practitioners are considered interesting individuals. The prestige associated with our vocation is another thing that makes it difficult to separate the archaeology from the person.

Without fieldwork, it is difficult for an archaeologist to be considered a professional. I’m not saying this is a good thing, I’m just saying it’s a thing. The field experience shapes our education and professional identities. This is one of the reasons why I feel like a fish out of water to spend the summer galivanting across the West with my family instead of digging excavation units somewhere.

Life isn’t about archaeology

This is a hard reality to face for many of us, including myself. As I sit typing this blog post, watching my kids play on a playground in Springfield, Oregon, I’m forced to recognize that I am more than my profession. Archaeology is how I make my living but living my life includes performing many different roles: father, husband, citizen, human being… Archaeology is part of the puzzle but it is not the whole enchilada.

Likewise, not doing fieldwork does not make any professional archaeologist less of a professional. Perhaps I feel this way because I have done fieldwork and non-fieldwork including management and labwork. Fieldwork was only one part of the 13 summers I spent doing survey, excavation, artifact analysis, giving public talks, working with descendant communities, and a host of other duties. More recently, my summer fieldwork has also included recording oral histories and doing more archival research for archaeology projects. My conception of archaeological fieldwork has expanded but my summers have always included some element of fieldwork that did not involve digging. I am not alone in this respect.

It is easy to feel like not doing fieldwork this summer diminishes my professional identity, which has an impact on my personal identity because the two are so interrelated, but I’ve somehow found a way to fill much of my “free time” doing archaeology-related work. I’ve continued blogging and have been working on several publications. I’ve also been teaching an online course for the University of Arizona that is strongly rooted in archaeology. While this is not fieldwork, I’ve been doing much of it from “the field”; working in hotel rooms, the outdoors, relatives’ living room couches, and other locations that are not in my hometown.

Even though I don’t have a shovel I my hands, I’m still working on archaeology. My profession still permeates my personal life.

Archaeology is about life

The reason why I can’t figure out how to stop doing archaeology even when I’m not in the field is because I use archaeological method and theory to interpret the world in which I live. Archaeology is the study of past human lives and this practice has become imbedded in the way I see the world.

Archaeologists are trained to study humanity. Our anthropological training makes it difficult for us not to see the world through this sort of lens. Divorcing yourself from an archaeologist’s perspective gets even more difficult the longer you keep looking through these “artifact-colored” glasses.

Obsessing over the human condition and how it relates to what we’ve done in the past makes it impossible for an archaeologist to separate the present from the past. This is one of our gifts to the world. Our inability to stop thinking about archaeology and seeing the world from an anthropological perspective helps us look beyond the immediate and see humanity as the result of millennia of trial and error. Archaeologists know we’ve all been here before. And, we have the potential to make it out of the problems we’re all facing as a species.

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