I was asked an archaeology question recently that made me realise something about myself.
First a bit of background, Over the last two years I’ve been running a number of large and extremely stressful sites. One of which now holds status as the biggest, most complicated and one of the most stressful of my career (most stressful is a title currently held by another site, with lots of issues). This huge site was an evaluation consisting of 1,172 trenches on a site so vast it was split by a major A-Road and took 20 minutes to drive end to end via the road (trust me you do not want to know how long it took to track the machine through the fields). I also undertook the first phase of mitigation work shortly after, where we found a collection of Saxon houses that, miraculously, our massive evaluation had managed to miss (what are the odds? – actually much higher than you’d think).
As part of this project I talked to the local archaeology group (lecture is online here) and I had to give a small presentation to the local school and have the class come out to site to see the Saxon houses. The school visit was awesome, kids ask the best questions and this lot were really on the ball. Anyway, this brings me to the question I was asked. It was a simple one and one that I’ve actually been asked quite often: “What made you want to be an archaeologist?”
Most people in my age bracket will give you the standard Time Team answer, or the generic 'always interested in history answer', (both of which I have given previously as my professional reason, however, neither is true). One or two others may give you the mistaken identity answer, and insist that their original intentions trended towards dinosaurs. Not me. My real answer, the one I never tell people, is far more embarrassing! It is honest though, and it reflects who I am and why I do what I do – I suspect it also explains part of my site management style and maybe why people seem to like working with me (I’ve never understood why people like working with me, generally from where I’m standing everything looks like chaos and not the organised kind!).
My answer then, my hugely embarrassing real and honest answer that I decided to tell this collection of highly inquisitive school children: Did you ever see Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark? (if not why not? Go and watch). It’s not the treasure, or the Nazi punching, or even the fedora and bullwhip. It’s the scene in the map room in Tannis. We all remember it right? Indy has snuck onto the Nazi excavation and dropped down into the map room with his staff of Ra. First thing he does, have a look at the room, pull out his notebook, intense concentration as he cleans sand off part of the map looking for the correct place to put the staff of Ra. Then the anticipation, waiting and watching as the beam of sunlight hits the crystal in the staff and travels slowly across the map to reveal the location of the Well of Souls. The expression on Indy’s face as his quest so far pays off – he has the location of the resting place of the ark!
That, that scene, the reward for patient research and unlocking the puzzle, the acquisition of knowledge. Everything on Indy’s face in the map room scene, that is why I do my job. That is also how I still feel when we find something amazing, like the Saxon settlement on the site that we were talking about. I’ve done my job for 16 years, and sure, I don’t have an awesome John Williams score playing in the background whilst we work, but the excitement is there.
And you know what I realised by talking about this scene being the reason I got into archaeology? That this is not an embarrassing reason for choosing my career. Sure, I have to admit that I’m an archaeologist because I watched Indiana Jones at the age of 9/10 and it will always get me odd looks from colleagues who like to tone down the Indiana Jones element of archaeology publicity, but it’s the truth, and it wasn’t the flashy Hollywood elements that caught me, it was the idea of research leading to knowledge. And that is what it’s all about. Learning new things, furthering our understanding of the human story.
And what I realised about myself is that despite everything that my career has thrown at me, short contracts, terrible companies, god awful sites (some so awful they will never again be referred to by name), extreme heat, extreme cold, extreme rain. I’ve fallen down holes, I’ve had sites without toilets, I’ve been yelled at, spat at, chased with actual pitchforks, exploded a wheelbarrow and on one memorable occasion been reported to the police (huge misunderstanding involving a trench in a cricket field on match day), I love it. I love the easy days, I love the stressful days, I hate the commercial BS that artificially suppresses wages and makes the whole thing periodically feel like an abusive relationship that I can’t escape, but I love the wonderful weirdos I work with, and more than that, I love that it’s actually not so far removed from Indiana Jones as it seems. I’ve travelled the country, worked on a Roman Arena in Chester, an Iron Age hillfort in Manchester, a Medieval toilet in Salisbury, a Saxon graveyard in Bicester, a ridiculously huge, concrete interwar aircraft catapult Oxfordshire, held 300 Roman coins in my hands. I’ve walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall, I’ve been inside an Egyptian pyramid, I’ve stood alone on the floor of the Colosseum in Rome at and looked up at the midnight sky. And all because Harrison Ford nailed his acting in that map room scene.
However, as Indy himself says in Raiders ‘it’s not the age, it’s the mileage’ and I have to admit that I’m tired. Current under budgeting and understaffing trends in the industry, failed opportunities to change how we work for the better, rapidly elevating stress levels in all parts of the industry, and feeling like an unappreciated cog in the machine make it difficult to enjoy the job. For the last few months following a particularly awful site and some terrible company behaviour about it, I’ve been in a personal hell wondering whether to throw it all away and leave archaeology completely. But the simple truth is I don't want to, I’m delighted to discover that even though I’ve done this every day for 16 years, I can still feel as moved by a new and unexpected find or feature as I did the first time I watched that scene in the map room.
Two weeks ago I watched Raiders again and do you know what, that map room scene, I’ve seen it a million times but my heart still beats faster, my breathing is faster and every hair on my body stands on end, that scene still gives me chills. That scene still shows me that the pursuit of knowledge is worth it and tells me that I'm still a dreamer, and that it's not time to leave the field just yet, but rather time to find a new place for adventure.
So, what made me want to be an archaeologist? Indiana Jones. And at the grand age of 80 Mr Ford has made Indiana Jones 5 and I believe still did (or at least attempted) his own stunts. So, there’s further inspiration, maybe, just like Indy I’ll still be on site slinging dirt when I’m 80. Unless of course Indy 5 turns out to be Indiana Jones and the post-excavation report backlog – for gosh darn sakes man write your site reports!
And just in case Mr. Ford should ever read this humble blog post, when you’re done with the fedora, jacket and bullwhip, can I have them?
S. M. Porter
Professional archaeologist and author, S. M. Porter loves history, adventure and digging in the mud. Her career is in ruins - just where she wanted it to be.