End of the (PhD) Road: Reflecting on 5+ Years of Graduate Studies in Archaeology

Last week, I (finally!) graduated from the University of Bradford with my PhD in Archaeology, ending a decade-long academic journey that was a culmination of approximately 5 years of PhD studies, 1 year of MSc studies (Archaeological Sciences), and 4 years of BA studies (Classical Archaeology and Anthropology)…and boy, am I tired.


Here you can see me looking absolutely thrilled in a puffy hat.

So, after all of these years, we get to the final question…was it all worth it? Well…maybe. Okay, that’s a bit of a cop-out, but to be fair that’s a pretty big question to ask a recent graduate! But I do know that many current postgraduates and potential postgraduates read this blog, so it feels as though it may be useful to provide a brief summary of my experiences as a postgraduate in archaeology – for more detailed experiences, you can check back in my PhD Life blog series.

The Good

One of the main reasons why I wanted to continue my studies as a postgraduate was that I was very keen on specialising as an archaeologist. After my undergraduate studies, I was well-versed as a classical archaeologist (with some detours into Viking Age archaeology and anthropology), but I also knew that I wasn’t satisfied with that. Frankly, I ended up really disliking classical archaeology by the end of my degree, and knew that I wouldn’t be happy continuing that line of study. But I knew that the extra years of study granted by a postgraduate programme would enable me to not only experience other subfields within archaeology, but also eventually specialise in one of them; this would also be much more appealing to employers, as I would have years of focused experience rather than a couple of years of general archaeology education.

And this did work out for me – had I not done my postgraduate studies, I wouldn’t have become a zooarchaeologist. Of course, I think some of this may be unique to archaeology, as it is a much larger discipline than what the general public may think. In addition, I knew that I was missing a lot of what archaeology had to offer due to my undergraduate department; in the United States, many archaeology programmes have a strong connection to anthropology, going as far as being considered a subfield of the discipline. As such, I was well-versed in interpretation and theory alongside more general cultural and historical studies, but lacked practical and analytical skills. In the United Kingdom, however, archaeology is often seen as a science, first and foremost. Here, many programmes focus on analytical applications of science for archaeology, and really emphasise the need for fieldwork experience. That said, both the US and the UK certainly have programmes that contradict those general statements, but this has always been my experience in both countries. For me, doing a postgraduate (and specifically moving abroad to the UK) would mean getting what I considered to be the “full picture” of what archaeology had to offer – and again, it did work out for me, as my PhD research allowed me the space to apply both analytical and theoretical methodologies to my topic.

Finally, it must be said that there is a definitive confidence boost that postgraduate studies can provide. Increasing my expertise and specialisation through postgraduate studies provided me with a confidence that I completely lacked during my undergraduate (and, if we’re being honest, I also lacked it during my MSc and my first few years of my PhD!).

The Bad

To start, I will be very honest and transparent about the financial burden that postgraduate studies have left me – as of right now, I’m looking at approximately $200,000 in student loans that will need to be paid off. Of course, a lot of this is entirely on me and my poor financial planning – I knew the risks of taking out loans by that point, although I will also say that, at least in some American academic spaces, there is a lot of propaganda that can convince students that they’ll only make a decent wage if they have a postgraduate degree. But not every postgraduate finishes their PhD with the intentions of becoming an academic – and the number of people leaving academia seem to be getting larger and larger each year, especially since the pandemic (Woolston 2020). Personally, I am keen on remaining within the field as a researcher and post-excavation specialist, but the lack of opportunity to teach during my PhD has left me feeling unqualified to ever apply for a lecturer position.

Besides the financial burden, I will also admit that my postgraduate studies took a massive toll on my health. Readers of the blog may know that I was diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder at the start of my PhD after a nervous breakdown that nearly jeopardised my studies. And at the end of the degree, I am facing a similar set of diagnoses and disabling conditions. While I can’t put the blame for my declining health entirely on postgraduate studies (I don’t think the PhD has the ability to give me a joint disorder!), I also can’t say that the overwhelming stress and anxiety that came from the process really helped. In fact, it does not seem to be all that uncommon for PhD students to have health conditions either develop or worsen during their studies (Allan 2014, Anonymous 2018, Nguyen 2021).

The Verdict

So, were my postgraduate studies worth it? I think so. There are connections and friendships that I would not have made without pursuing them, there is a massive amount of confidence and knowledge that I have gained in the timespan of my studies…hell, I couldn’t even imagine the person I would be right not without having done my MSc and PhD studies. But again, a lot of that is a testament of the gigantic life changes that my postgraduate studies necessitated – moving abroad, meeting new people, changing my life goals and desires around my circumstances, etc. And of course, not all of those life changes have been entirely positive either, and there are still many obstacles I face that are a direct result of having done my postgraduate studies – student loan debt, the constant fear from being a precarious migrant, my worsening health, etc.

I think that, overall, I have become a better person from my postgraduate studies. And I think that, despite a lot of the negative fallout from finishing my degree (which I am obviously much more fixated on, the joys of anxiety!), I have a lot to offer as a newly minted PhD in a discipline that is at a breaking point in some respects (Alberge 2021, Schofield 2021, Slotten 2021), and I hope that I can wave my new title around as I charge in headfirst into the fray…I mean, the PhD is a shield, right? Although I guess I wish it were a sword, sometimes…

Anyway, the point I hope I’ve made is that postgraduate studies are ultimately a massive commitment for an extended period of time – frankly, my experience represents one of the shorter periods of study you can expect for your MSc and PhD, as timeframes do vary by country and discipline. I urge students to make these decisions with as much care and consideration as you would for any other major life change, because ultimately, that’s what your postgraduate studies will become – a massive shift in your life that may lead to many good things, but also many bad things as well. It’s a risk, as are most big life decisions, and its necessary to think about how much you’re willing to do for it. But at the same time, these considerations will need to be happening continuously, because its also okay to change your mind as well! Hopefully this blog post helps put things in perspective, and at least illustrates that postgraduate studies aren’t a linear path to success – in fact, its a big squiggly line of successes and failures and sometimes chronic illness and a global pandemic and a foster cat or two and…well, you get the picture.

References

Allan, K. (2014) A Reflection on Chronic Illness and Graduate School. PhDisabled. Retrieved from https://phdisabled.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/a-reflection-on-chronic-illness-and-graduate-school/

Alberge, D. (2021) Help our profession or UK’s shared history will be lost, say archaeologists. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/may/30/help-our-profession-or-uks-shared-history-will-be-lost-say-archaeologists

Anonymous (2018) We need to talk about disability and chronic illness during the PhD. The Thesis Whisperer. Retrieved from https://thesiswhisperer.com/2018/02/28/we-need-to-talk-about-disability-and-chronic-illness-during-the-phd/

Nguyen, L. (2021) Coping with a Chronic illness during a PhD. Voices of Academia. Retrieved from https://voicesofacademia.com/2021/02/19/coping-with-a-chronic-illness-during-a-phd-by-lieselot-nguyen/

Schofield, J. (2021) Six reasons to save archaeology from funding cuts. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/six-reasons-to-save-archaeology-from-funding-cuts-161465

Slotten, C. (2021) UK Archaeology Has a Problem. Women in Archaeology. Retrieved from https://womeninarchaeology.com/2021/06/09/uk-archaeology-problem/

Woolston, C. (2020) Seeking an ‘exit plan’ for leaving academia amid coronavirus worries. Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02029-6


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating and Do My PhD Corrections

For the record, I didn’t actually submit my corrected thesis with that title but I might has well have!

A little over nine months ago, I successfully defended my PhD thesis with major corrections. And then, just a month ago today, I submitted my corrections.

A total of 15,414 additional words and 70 pages over what I’d love to say was a six month period…but due to procrastination? More like a two month period. Oops.

I will say that the support I received during my corrections period was great – my supervisors were always there to discuss changes, and to provide support if I felt as though a suggestion did not entirely fit with my vision for the thesis (and to tell me when I was getting a bit too carried away as well!). And, similar to my actual viva, my external examiners were extremely gracious with their time and advice – they allowed me to ask for clarification, they heard my justifications for modifying different aspects of the thesis, and they would also give general support for my well-being, suggesting approaches to handling the corrections in a way that wouldn’t stress me out too much.

So then…why did it take me so damn long to do the corrections?

Well…a couple of things: Stress. Fear. The real world (remember the pandemic that’s still kinda happening? stuff like that).

When I first got the official papers with all of the comments from my external examiners (mind you, I also knew the general gist of these comments already as we obviously discussed them at the end of my viva), it felt like someone hit me with a brick. Maybe this is more to do with my general lack of self-confidence, but anytime I get comments on something I’ve made, it’s hard not to take them personally! So seeing the comments written out, single-spaced and taking up about three pages? I felt sick. And so I avoided them, using a form of stress-fuelled procrastination to do literally anything else besides my corrections. Finally, I got a reality check in the form of an email from my supervisors, and soon enough, I was working on my corrections in a guilt-fuelled rush. By that point, I was able to actually reread the comments and fully digest them, and you know what? They weren’t mean, or aggressive, or overtly critical like I somehow managed to believe. In fact, they were written in a kind and supportive tone, emphasising that these comments were meant to add to my already good work, to fully flesh out my ideas in a way that actually showcases my abilities. Realising this helped me maintain a somewhat healthy work ethic, knowing that this was less about some weird form of “repentance” for my academic sin of misspelling the word “cave” on page 230 – this was about that finally push, supported by a team of more senior academics, from “student” to “expert”. Sure, it wasn’t the prettiest of labours, but I’m proud of the result. Not only did I (most likely?) fix my weird misspellings, but I also ended up having several new realisations about my work, further developing my conclusions in a way that I think has elevated my original findings into something better than before. But also, I had a lot of misspellings…what a betrayal from Spellcheck, am I right?

To end this blog post, I want to provide some completely unasked for advice for those of you in the corrections process right now:

  1. You’re Not Alone. I had this ridiculous notion that the corrections period was supposed to be this intense, solidarity process in which I reflected on my faults and tried to fix them for weeks on end. Yeah, that’s not actually how this is supposed to work, surprisingly enough! You’re still “allowed” to discuss with your supervisors as well as, depending on your particular university’s policies, your external examiners as well. In some cases this can even include sending drafted parts to your examiners for feedback (although again, check with both your examiners as well as your university’s policies). Even if your corrections aren’t necessary too extensive, it is probably worth maintaining some form of communication with everyone, especially as you will probably jump into working on publications after the corrections are finished, and often times the corrections themselves can provide better insight into what you might decide to develop further.
  2. This Should Be Collaborative. This is something I said regarding the viva as well, but despite having a reputation for being a particularly combative or frustrating part of the PhD process…it actually shouldn’t be! Obviously this is unfortunately not the case for everyone, but PhDs should be a period of collaboration – not only are you adding to your particular field, but you’re also gaining experience and improving your own skills. No one should be setting you up to fail! With that in mind, the corrections should be similar – it is about improvement. The goal should not be “how do I perfect this thesis” but instead, “how can I improve this in a way that shows off everything I have learned and worked for?” And, following the first point, your supervisors (and potentially examiners as well) should also be working with you under that same mindset.
  3. But Don’t Be Afraid to Disagree! That said, collaboration isn’t just about saying “yes” all the time! One of the most important things I learned was that at this point in my career, I can actually disagree with the comments. Unlike high school (where most disagreements with a grade resulted in being ignored or, at worst, further deductions…yikes), you are now at the point of expertise where your input matters – so use it! Obviously this is not to say that you can ignore all of your corrections and say you know better (I wish!), but you ultimately know your work best at this point. For me, a lot of my disagreements had to do with focus and flow, so I ended up placing new additions in a different section than the one that was suggested. So long as you can justify it, you should be good – but again, talk to your supervisors/examiners as well. You may know your work best, but they may have additional advice to help you truly demonstrate that.
  4. Record. EVERYTHING. No, not in The Room way. But another great piece of advice I got early was to keep track of the actual changes I made by annotating a copy of the comments form. Not only does this showcase how much progress you’ve made (a huge thing for someone like me who needs to have that bit of encouragement!), but it also lets you pinpoint to the examiners where you’ve made changes, and provide justification or clarification if you decide to modify one of their suggestions or ignore it outright.
  5. This Is Not a Punishment. I already touched upon this, but it bears repeating: this is not a punishment! Technically speaking, you’ve passed and – unless you manage to do something drastic to your thesis – you’re likely to end up with a degree after your corrections are done, regardless of whether they’re “minor” or “major”. But academia, being the way it is, loves to foster a toxic atmosphere of competitiveness and aggression (which frankly isn’t helped by the fact there are loads of academics and Reviewer #2’s that perpetuate that sort of toxicity), so it’s understandable why you may feel like you’re being punished or unduly criticised. Ultimately, this is about making you the best you can be – preparing you for not only publication but also for post-postgraduate life. Regardless of the stress, doing the corrections helped me recognise the actual merits of my work – something I had yet to really realise. For me, corrections weren’t about taking an eraser to my mistakes, but providing further supports and structures to the foundation which was my work, and preparing myself to build upwards from there.

Corrections can be scary, but they’re there to help you. You just gotta…you know…actually do them. At some point. Eventually.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

Well…I Submitted My PhD Thesis During a Global Pandemic. Now What?

Last Friday, at around 4pm, I officially submitted the final draft of my PhD thesis for my examiners.

And I feel…very not excited. Mostly relieved. Definitely anti-climatic, especially as someone who has watched friends in the past joyfully take photos of themselves on campus with their giant volumes of text, all bound and ready to be physically submitted. For me, submission was a 10 minute wait for my files to upload while I was in my PJs. Not exactly how I always imagined this moment.

Sadly, my final thesis was also 421 pages in total…just missed the funny weed number, folks.

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic hangs heavy over…well, anything that happens these days. In some ways, I was lucky that it happened at the tail end of my PhD, but there were still plenty of drawbacks. The lack of lab access was perhaps the most difficult obstacle to get over, as I was unable to go back for last minute checks and photos. There’s something extremely weird about submitting a 400+ page thesis about material you haven’t actually looked at in over six months.

After I submitted, I asked folks on Twitter what they did after their PhD submission. Answers definitely varied, but there seems to have been an emphasis on enjoying the increased amount of free time: whether that be travelling, discovering new hobbies, or just sleeping more. And, of course, there’s still work to be done: fellowships and post-docs to apply to, papers to finally publish…at the end of the day, it never truly ends, does it? And yet…

I think, above everything, I feel like nothing has fundamentally changed. And I don’t think that will go away even if my viva is successful and I’m eventually awarded my PhD. Why? Well…I wrote about this in another article that should be published soon, but what does a PhD mean in a pandemic? More specifically, what does it mean to me? As an unemployed migrant still trapped in the Hostile Environment, in a world that is facing a global pandemic on top of outright fascism and a climate catastrophe? To me, a PhD doesn’t mean much anymore – not if it can’t secure me employment, or help me retain legal status in the country, or provide me access to medication I need to survive, or to allay my fears of being separated from my partner. How much useful is a PhD when the job market – which was already grim to begin with – is almost entirely demolished?

Perhaps this is just me being pessimistic…or perhaps pragmatic? It’s genuinely just hard to feel any joy for my research, for the work I’ve accomplished despite everything happening in the world, when ultimately it feels like I’ve not changed at all. I’m getting just as many job rejections as I did prior to starting my postgraduate studies. I’m still on the same student visa, unable to work more than 20 hours a week, and with an expiration date that is very quickly coming. Sure, I might have some level of legitimacy after all this…but legitimacy won’t keep me warm at night, or fed throughout the week.

I guess its just a very bittersweet feeling, at the end of all this. I wanted to become an archaeologist at first because it seemed like all of my favourite parts of science and history combined into one discipline…and eventually, after years of facing racism, sexism, and ableism in academia, I just wanted to prove myself able to get a PhD. That despite archaeology being an overtly white and colonialist discipline, an Asian American migrant could become an expert in British archaeology. But at the end of the day, its still not enough to survive these unprecedented times. I don’t think I regret my studies, don’t get me wrong…but I also don’t really know what to do next.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

Archaeology in a Time of Crisis

“When future archaeologists stumble upon the archaeological record from this period, the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020, what will they find…?”

There’s probably dozens of archaeologists out there with something like that sitting in their drafts. Hell, I spent a solid 5 minutes considering it myself before promptly shutting it down. “Not everything has to be made into a case study” has become a familiar refrain on social media, but it bears repeating here too.

Not everything has to be made into a case study.

It’s wild to think about the future, about hypothetical situations like the one above, in a time like this. But as I attempt to return to my work – PhD research into faunal remains used in funerary and ritual blah blah blah – I can’t think about the past either.

I’ll admit an archaeological and academic sin: I’ve kinda stopped caring about my research right now. Most of my research related books have been tossed aside, despite the vast amount of free time in lockdown I now have to read and notate them all.

Instead, I’ve turned to books on radical theory and praxis. Today alone, I finished my reread of Joyful Militancy by Nick Montgomery and carla bergman. As of the writing of this blog post, I’m nearly finished rereading Emergent Strategy and will next reread Pleasure Activism, both written by adrienne maree brown. I count these three as among my favourite books of all time, and reread them constantly.

Why? Because they give me hope. Because they imagine futures where we all live. Because if I’m gonna read theory., I want to read about the theories of transformative justice and emergent strategies, rather than theories behind taphonomic analysis.

I don’t want this to sound like I’m giving up on my academic work – on the contrary, it’s a place to centre myself during these times. Like a slab of marble that I’ve been slowly whittling away at for years to create an artistic masterpiece, I’ve been working on this thesis for so long that it feels foundational. It’s a part of me at this point, like it or not.

But I’m much more than that, too. I’ve spent most of the past year and a half trying to find the balance between procrastination and overworking. For PhD’s, this can be a difficult thing to do – the overworking culture is not only actively promoted within academia, but also actively rewarded too. Even now, folks are trying to find ways to continue ridiculously high levels of productivity…everything is fine, nothing has changed!

Since the pandemic hit the U.K., I think I’ve been forced to find that balance. Because at this point, that’s all I have with regards to responsibilities – I’m currently unemployed due to school closures, I have no social commitments as gatherings are banned…all I have is my research.

But not really. I spent an hour writing about a certain assemblage of faunal bones, and then got bored and went to water my plants and read a little. I came back to work eventually, but only when I wanted to. It felt…nice? Radical? Okay, maybe not radical, that sounds depressing…

I have no idea why I am writing this all down into a blog post. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to get this stuff out than have it rattling in my brain all week. Maybe I just want to be reassured by others that things will be okay. Maybe I just like attention – okay, that last one is definitely true.

It’s a difficult time for all of us, for others much more than the rest of us, and for a select few, not that difficult at all. But it’s also a particularly weird time for those of us who are trained to stick our heads and hands into the past, who end up overshooting and going straight to the future when we’re told to move beyond all that. It’s either “what do archaeologists know about pandemics in the past” or “what will archaeologists know about this pandemic in the future”…I think, for many of us, the present is the most difficult time to be in.

But we’re there now. Might as well embrace it.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

OM NOM NOM (Part Two) or Did I REALLY Use That Same Old Bad Joke To Introduce A Post on Butchery

Okay…I know I said that I wouldn’t use that extremely bad, extremely old joke to introduce a blog post…but this one is basically a companion piece to the previous OM NOM NOM post on gnawing, so it doesn’t count…I think.

Well, I promise I won’t use it again after this, okay? Okay.

Anyway, let’s talk about butchery.

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Various animal bones that show evidence of butchery.

“Butchery” is basically what zooarchaeologists call any physical characteristics that may indicate that the bone has been modified by humans. There can be many reasons why bones will be modified, but most commonly its for consumption. Here’s a brief overview of three common butchery marks that can be found on faunal bone in the archaeological record:

Cuts

Cut marks look like thin striations in the surface of the bone. They are mostly associated with activities like skinning/de-fleshing. Based on other characteristics, zooarchaeologists can determine whether a cut mark was made by a stone blade or a metal blade. Stone blades create shallow v-shaped marks with parallel striations (Potts and Shipman 1981), while metal blades will made deeper, slightly angled v-shaped marks (Greenfield 1999).

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Cut marks on the surface of bone (Photo Credit: B. Pobiner)

Chops

Slightly different from cut marks are chop marks – these are marks that were made by blades that hit the bone at a perpendicular angle, causing a V-shape that’s much broader than a cut mark (Potts and Shipman 1981).

chopmark,white
A chop mark found on the shaft (Photo Credit: CG Turner 1999)

Marrow Cracking

One very specific form of butchery that’s pretty easy to identify is marrow cracking or marrow extraction. Marrow is a valuable product that can be extracted from various bones simply by breaking into the shaft. We can recognise bones that have been cracked or butchered for marrow by the fractures and splintered fragments left behind (Outram 2001). Depending on the tool used to break the bone, “percussion notches” can also be found along the fractures.

bones6
Various animal bones that have been broken for marrow extraction (Photo Credit: Uamh An Ard Achadh/High Pasture Cave 2005)

Obviously there’s much more when it comes to butchery marks, but these three are arguably some of the common forms of butchery that you run into as a zooarchaeologist. To be honest, there’s something really wonderful about finding bits of butchery when you’re excavating – running your fingers along the striations in the bone, it’s amazing to think that hundreds, thousands of years ago, someone created these marks…probably with a stomach as hungry as mine, too.

I’m gonna be honest, I get so hungry when I work with animal bones sometimes…is that weird? It’s weird, right. Hm.

References

Greenfield, H.J. (1999) The Origins of Metallurgy: Distinguishing Stone from Metal Cut-marks on Bones from Archaeological Sites. Journal of Archaeological Science. pp. 797-808.

Outram, A.K. (2001) A New Approach to Identifying Bone Marrow and Grease Exploitation: Why the “Indetereminate” Fragments Should Not Be Ignored. Journal of Archaeological Science. pp. 401-410.

Potts, R. and Shipman, P. (1981) Cutmarks Made by Stone Tools on Bones from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Nature pp. 577-580.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

Anarchy in the UK…Archaeological Sector? A Brief Introduction into an Alternative Approach to Archaeology

Today’s blog post comes from a paper I presented at the 2018 Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference – you can find the full text here.

If you think about the word “anarchist”, you probably have a very specific image that comes to mind – some sort of “punk” masked up and dressed all in black, probably breaking windows or setting fires. And while that may be accurate praxis for some who wave the black flag (and also completely valid!), I’d argue that is doesn’t necessarily do the actual concept of “anarchism” justice…although, to be honest, I do love to wear black clothes

So then…what is anarchism? And how can it relate to archaeology?

tag2018(3)
A slide from my original TAG 2018 presentation on Anarchism and Archaeology showing various images of what most people consider to be “anarchist”.

To use Alex Comfort’s definition (1996), anarchism is “the political philosophy which advocates the maximum individual responsibility and reduction of concentrated power” – anarchy rejects centralised power and hierarchies, and instead opts for returning agency to the people without needing an authority, such as a government body. Anarchy places the emphasis on communal efforts, such as group consensus (Barclay 1996).

So, how does this work with archaeology? Why would you mix anarchy and archaeology together? For starters – this isn’t a new concept! There have been many instances of “anarchist archaeology” discussions, from special journal issues (Bork and Sanger 2017) to dedicated conference sessions (see the Society for American Archaeology 2015 conference). There have also been a few instances of anarchist praxis put into archaeological practice: for example, there is the Ludlow Collective (2001) that worked as a non-hierarchical excavation team, as well as the formation of a specifically anarchist collective known as the Black Trowel Collective (2016).

To me, an Anarchist Archaeology is all about removing the power structures (and whatever helps to create and maintain these structures) from archaeology as a discipline, both in theory and practice. We often find that the voices and perspectives of white/western, cis-heteronormative male archaeologists are overrepresented. Adapting an anarchist praxis allows us to push back against the active marginalisation and disenfranchisement of others within our discipline. This opens up the discipline to others, whose perspectives were often considered “non-archaeology” and therefore non-acceptable for consideration by the “experts” (i.e. – archaeologists) In Gazin-Schwartz and Holtorf’s edited volume on archaeology and folklore, this sentiment is echoed by a few authors, including Collis (1999, pp. 126-132) and Symonds (1999, pp. 103-125).

And hey, maybe logistically we’ll never truly reach this level of “equitable archaeology” – after all, this is a long, hard work that requires tearing down some of the so-called “fundamental structures” of the discipline that have always prioritised the privileged voice over the marginalised. But adapting an anarchist praxis isn’t about achieving a state of so-called “perfection”; rather, it’s a process of constantly critiquing our theories and assumptions, always looking for ways to make our field more inclusive and to make ourselves less reliant on the problematic frameworks that were once seen as fundamental.

It’s a destructive process for progress…but hey, isn’t that just the very nature of archaeology itself?

screenshot_2019-01-08 (pdf) black flags and black trowels embracing anarchy in interpretation and practice
Enjoy this poorly Photoshopped emblem of Anarchist Archaeology!

References

Barclay, H. (1996) People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy. Kahn and Averill Publishers.

Black Trowel Collective (2016) Foundations of an Anarchist Archaeology: a Community Manifesto. Savage Minds. Retrieved from https://savageminds.org/2016/10/31/foundations-of-an-anarchist-archaeology-a-community-manifesto/.

Bork, L. and Sanger, M.C. (2017) Anarchy and Archaeology. The SAA Archaeological Record. 17(1).

Collis, J. (1999) Of ‘The Green Man’ and ‘Little Green Men’. In Gazin-Schawrtz, A. and Holtorf, C.J. (editors) Archaeology and Folklore. Routledge. pp. 126-132.

Comfort, A. (1996) Preface. In Barclay, H. People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy. Kahn and Averill Publishers.

Ludlow Collective (2001) Archaeology of the Colorado Coal Field War, 1913-1914. Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past. Routledge. pp. 94-107.

Symonds, J. (1999) Songs Remembered in Exile? Integrating Unsung Archives of Highland Life. In Gazin-Schawrtz, A. and Holtorf, C.J. (editors) Archaeology and Folklore. Routledge. pp. 103-125.

 


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

On Weird Animal Bone Science, or How I’ve Become Accustomed to Watching Fish Bones Dissolve in Acid

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably have a good idea of what zooarchaeology is (and if you’re new, feel free to read that post here). But it’s not just about looking at animal bones and identifying them…well, okay, it’s a lot of that. But there’s lots more to it than just that.

Let’s get scientific, shall we?

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A series of fish bones dissolving in acid to prepare for collagen extraction for stable isotope analysis.

Back in the United States, I was introduced to archaeology as part of the humanities – my BA degree was in classical archaeology and anthropology, so I didn’t really get much training in the practical aspects of the discipline, let alone any of the scientific approaches to archaeological analysis.

Cut to a few years later and I’m desperately trying to relearn what an electron is! That’s not really an exaggeration, either – by the time I was in my MSc program for Archaeological Sciences, it had been probably five years since I had my last science class. It was definitely a struggle at times, but completely doable with an extra bit of studying and work towards understanding and grasping concepts that seemed so far out of my reach when I first began.

Even though I knew exactly what I was getting into, it was still a bit of a surprise to me that by the end of my MSc year, I was in the lab doing independent work for my dissertation research. I was investigating fishing activity in the Orkney Islands, using scanning electron microscopy (or SEM) to examine small fish vertebrae for evidence of consumption (digestion, burning, butchery), and stable isotope analysis of carbon and nitrogen to see whether or not these fish were locally caught and contributed majorly to the inhabitants’ diet. I spent most of my summer watching fish bones dissolve in the isotopes lab, extracting collagen, and using the biggest microscope I’ve ever used in my life – it was certainly a change of pace for someone who, just two years ago, was writing ethnographic pieces as part of my anthropology degree!

So, if you’re looking into archaeology as a career and feel as though you’re lacking in your science training, fear not! For starters, archaeology is a vast discipline that draws from both the humanities and the sciences, so it isn’t necessary, although it is probably helpful to have a more rounded idea of the field as a whole. But if you’re really interested in the science side and feel woefully ignorant, I’d like to believe that I’m an example of someone who was completely science illiterate who can now comfortably refer to themselves as an archaeological scientist. It’s totally possible!

To wrap-up, here are a couple of examples of utilising archaeological science for the purposes of zooarchaeology – of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list at all, but these are arguably the most popular scientific approaches to zooarchaeological research:

  • Stable Isotope Analysis

Stable isotope analysis isn’t a new method – its origins can be traced back to the 1970’s – but its still a popular and useful tool for utilising faunal remains and furthering the amount of information that they can provide. Isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, strontium, and oxygen can be measured through this method and used to investigate past diets, subsistence strategies, and migration of both humans and animals from the archaeological record. To analyse stable isotope levels, collagen from the bone must be extracted and placed within a mass spectrometer to isolate the isotope ratios for measurement. This method is one of the best ways for zooarchaeologists to connect their faunal bones to the “bigger picture” of the archaeological context of their site, in particular, stable isotope analysis can reveal the finer details regarding the relationship between humans and animals in the past.

  • Zooarchaeology By Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS)

ZooMS is arguably one of the most useful advancements in archaeological science, specifically for zooarchaeologists. This method allows for better identifications of faunal bone, especially smaller, more fragmented pieces of bone that may be utterly unidentifiable by the human eye. The way ZooMS works is based on the concept that species have certain protein sequences that correlate specifically to themselves. ZooMS allows for these sequences to be isolated and measured – this provides us with a sort of “code” that correlates to a species, allowing for identification. Although not perfect – this method is not always reliable with regards to identifying between two very close species (for example, differentiating between a wild and domesticated version of the same animal – see: wild boar vs domesticated pig) – it’s still a huge improvement in confident identifications for faunal bone analysis.

  • Ancient DNA (aDNA)

Ancient DNA is one of the more recent developments within archaeological science – by utilising the DNA recovered from archaeological remains, archaeologists can examine how processes such as domestication affected the genetics of animals in the past. aDNA, often paired with other morphological analysis, can provide archaeologists with clear patterns regarding genetic modification over time and track morphological variation that could provide more detail into how animals adapt to their ever changing environments. Given how new this method is, I’d argue we’ve only really scratched the surface with what zooarchaeologists can do with aDNA – be on the lookout for new breakthroughs and amazing research coming out of this field in the near future!

References

Anonymous. (2018). Palaeobarn. School of Archaeology: Research. University of Oxford. http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/palaeobarn.html

Higham, T. (2017) Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry. Science Learning Hub. https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/videos/1606-zooarchaeology-by-mass-spectrometry

Madgwick, R. (2016) “No Longer Do Archaeologists Have to Rely Solely on Seeds, Bones, and Shells”: Isotope Analysis is the Future of Environmental Archaeology”. Environmental Archaeology. Association for Environmental Archaeology. http://envarch.net/environmental-archaeology/no-longer-do-archaeologists-have-to-rely-solely-on-seeds-bones-and-shells-isotope-analysis-is-the-future-of-environmental-archaeology/


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

Digging While Depressed: Struggling with Fieldwork and Mental Health

This post will be focused on dealing with mental illness, so if issues related to depression and anxiety are triggering to you, please feel free to skip today’s blog. Take care of yourself.

A few weeks ago, I was in Scotland doing fieldwork for the first time in years. Prior to this trip, I was under the impression that it would be a difficult one: I have a fear of both heights and enclosed spaces, so the idea that I would need to traverse steep paths along cliffs and work in narrow caves wasn’t particularly inviting to begin with. But I made the decision to go and excavate. Long story short, after a disastrous first day involving multiple injuries, a trip to the local hospital for x-rays, and an ill-timed panic attack climbing back up the steep side of a cliff, I asked to stay at our base camp to do faunal bone analysis rather than risk my mental and physical health getting to our excavation sites. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this was falling into a depressive episode after a few weeks of being indoors doing work.

Long time readers of my blog will know that I’ve been upfront about my own mental illness in the past. In particular, I’ve talked about the way mental illness affects my work as an academic. However, one thing I’ve never talked about (or really considered, to be honest), was how mental illness can affect one’s fieldwork, as well as how fieldwork can exacerbate the negative effects of mental illness.

Physical health and safety has always been the forefront of conversations regarding fieldwork, no matter what science you practice. However, there has been less attention given to mental illness, at least from what I’ve experienced. I started the #DiggingWhileDepressed hashtag during excavation to get the conversation going and was surprised at how many similar stories I heard on Twitter. It’s understandable, though, given the ubiquitous nature of fieldwork – you’re often isolated from your usual support group, and although you may have good relationships with your academic and research colleagues (as I do! again, my supervisory team is so supportive and generous with their help, I am forever grateful to them), it’s still not necessarily a group of people that you would confide your deepest problems and feelings to. Not to mention the fact that fieldwork (especially archaeological fieldwork) puts a significant amount of physical burden on you, which may make you feel worse, mentally.

With the advent of the #MeToo movement and the pressure being placed on organisations to combat sexual harassment and assault during excavation, I’d argue that we’ve started to see real strides in expanding the idea of a “safe” workspace and fieldwork environment to include not just physical health and safety, but also mental and emotional health as well. According to some via the #DiggingWhileDepressed hashtag, commercial excavation movements have started to take notice of mental health during fieldwork, which is a welcome change. I don’t really have any answers to solving this issue – after all, I’m learning along with everyone else – but hopefully just the fact that we are starting to have this conversation is a sign of real change and movement towards safeguarding all aspects of health while out in the field.

Feel free to add to the #DiggingWhileDepressed hashtag – not just with regards to archaeological excavation, but any type of fieldwork or research work. Let’s keep the conversation going, whether you have a story to tell or advice to give – in solidarity, we can grow and help each other out. And feel free to contact me if you ever need someone to talk or vent to – obviously I’m not a health professional and cannot replace seeking professional help, but I can at least offer my ear and my support.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

The 2018 Excavation Season Wrap-Up!

I’m baaaaaaaaaaack! Missed me? Probably not, if you were following along with my project’s social media (Facebook, Twitter, and website).  For those of you who missed out, however, here’s a bit of a recap of the past three weeks of excavation at the Covesea Caves in Scotland.

So, the good news about my recent field work trip is that I got to experience some amazing sights and got a lot of data collection done towards my PhD dissertation.

The bad news is that most of those three weeks were spent indoors. Why? Well…

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Luckily nothing was broken, just badly bruised. Not pictured is the injuries I then sustained from falling down the stairs two days later.

And that was just Day One!

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Climbing down “the lummie”, aka “holding onto a rope and a ladder for dear life”.
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These “rock stairs” are deceptively easy looking – getting up them required a lift up for me!

So, here’s the thing about the Covesea Caves (the series of caves in Moray, Scotland that my current PhD research is based on) – they are known for being difficult to access. However, I didn’t realise until I finally went to visit them in person just how difficult they are to access! An average walk to our excavation site included a fair bit of hiking down a steep coastal path (which, as someone who is afraid of heights, was way too close to the cliff’s edge for me!). For some caves, we would have to climb down “the lummie” – a bit of a crevice within the cliff that included a climb down using a ladder and a rope. Other caves had a sort of “natural” staircase made of rocks that were simple enough to climb down – getting up was an entirely different problem, especially if you’re short like me. After that, it’s a long walk across a beach of boulders – which may be dangerously slippery if you’re unlucky like me and manage to go on a rainy morning.  On the first day, it took approximately a dozen falls for me to injure my elbow enough to warrant a visit to A&E (the emergency room). Thankfully, nothing was broken, but I still ended up working from our base camp for the most of the remainder of the excavation period just to be on the safe side.

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My makeshift “zooarchaeology lab” in our accommodations – on the left, my supplies are all on top of a washing machine.

Despite how unfortunate this all sounds, it actually ended up working in my favour. As a zooarchaeologist whose PhD work is focused on analysis of the animal bones from the Covesea Caves, it was much more productive for me to be doing a bit of assessment on the bones as they were excavated. Especially when the final count for animal bones just from this season alone was nearly 5,000 bones! And so I ended up taking over our laundry room and converted it into a makeshift zooarchaeology lab – don’t worry, I thoroughly cleaned it up before I left.

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A collection of faunal bones from Covesea Cave 2.

Unfortunately I can’t get into too much detail about the recovered bones, but I can say that things are getting pretty interesting with regards to my developing thesis. Let’s just say I’m literally drowning in cats. Well, later prehistoric skeleton cats.

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Yep, this is how dark it usually is when you’re excavating caves.

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I did make it to site one more time before our excavation season was over. It was one of the smaller, more narrow caves in the Covesea Caves, so it was a bit of a challenge for someone like me who, along with a fear of heights, also has a fear of enclosed spaces! But I actually found it quite nice and cozy to be excavated in the back of a cave that can only be reached by extensive crawling…see if you can spot me enjoying myself in the photo above!

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It’s me! Get me outta here!
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The entrance to the Sculptor’s Cave.

Accidents aside, it was completely worth the trip up to visit the Covesea Caves. The site has such a distinctive environment that most likely would feed into how past peoples would experience and interact with the caves, it would be impossible to fully understand the archaeology without experiencing it first hand. I’ve visited and worked on a few archaeological sites in my lifetime and to be honest, it is hard to top the sort of emotional impact that standing at the mouth of the Sculptor’s Cave gave me.

Plus, it was a gorgeous place full of amazing sites so…definitely worth a few falls!

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The rock arch outside of Laird’s Stables.

If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

On Excavation Season, or How to Battle the Great Outdoors With a Trowel

It’s just about excavation season for most of us in archaeology! I will be excavating for a few weeks so this blog will go on a bit of a hiatus until I return – until then, here’s a few tips for anyone about to set off on their first excavation this summer.

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A busy day excavating the site of Swandro in the Orkney Islands.

The weather is getting warmer, which means for many of us archaeologists, its excavation season! Some of you might be about to set off on your first excavation as well, and I can understand if you’re getting a bit nervous…about a month before I was off to my first excavation (also my first trip abroad!), I nearly got cold feet and cancelled. But thankfully I went ahead and basically changed the direction of my career after that – I don’t know if I’d be a zooarchaeologist in the UK right now otherwise. So for those of you who may be freaking out a bit about your first excavation, here’s a few tips that might make things go a bit more smoothly!

  • Check, Double Check, and then Triple Check Transportation

Some archaeologists have an easy commute to their sites, but most of us have a fair bit of travelling to do to get to where the excavation is happening. So be sure you have your travel plans locked up! Especially if you’ll be doing international travel – it probably sounds dorky, but I literally travel with a folder full of my paperwork (flight tickets, hotel bookings, visa information, etc.) these days. My first excavation included a series of missed flights that ended up costing me an extra $250, so I am also very strict on being at the airport early. But hey, better safe than sorry, right?

Also be sure to figure out how you’ll be getting to your accommodations for the duration of your excavation, or if you’re supposed to be meeting your team somewhere. There’s nothing worse than getting stranded at an airport…

…yes, I do know what that feels like, thanks for forgetting to pick me up, Mom.

  • Pack for the weather…

Depending on where and how long you’re going, you’ll want to be sure to pack for any sort of weather you might run into! Especially if you’re travelling far enough that there is an extreme difference in weather between your places of departure and arrival. In general, though, you’ll probably want some waterproof items of clothing (you can also buy waterproofing spray/liquid as well – in my experience they have been handy in a pinch). Even if it’s a warm summer, you might want to also bring some outerwear just in case – better safe than sorry!

  • …but also pack for the work.

Between your rain coat and parka, however, make sure you pack your work clothes too! Let’s be real: archaeology is dirty work. Even if you have access to the best laundry services on site (I wish!), you probably don’t want to wear your favourite clothes to site. I personally rock some cargo trousers and a tank top when I excavate – oh, and with a jumper too. Layering is your friend, so be sure to bring tops that can easily be layered for any situation. Be sure to check what sort of footwear you’ll need as well – most excavations will require that you have steel toe work boots.

  • Remember to cover up your trowel!

This is a pretty simple tip, but it’s also easy to forget! If your trowel doesn’t have a case or cover, it might be a good idea to wrap it up in a bag. Otherwise you may find your trowel has done some damage to your favourite clothes while in your luggage. Or, if you’re me, find yourself sitting on your trowel and getting stabbed in the butt. Ouch

  • Pack. Unpack. Pack.

This is a basic travel tip that I follow for anytime I need to pack for something. I’m notorious for bringing way too much, so to minimise the extra stuff, I’ve taken to packing up my suitcase, unpacking, and then packing again with some items removed. It may be a lot of work, but you’ll be thankful when you don’t have to lug around a 100 lb suitcase across an island to find your accommodations.

  • Relax and enjoy yourself.

Fieldwork is a lot of strenuous work, but don’t freak out! It’s a learning experience, so don’t feel pressured into being a perfect shovel bum. Ask for help when you need to, take breaks when you can, keep yourself safe and relax! You’re contributing to some great archaeological work, it’ll be an amazing experience.

Oh, and definitely take advantage of days off. Explore the area, do new things, just enjoy while you can!

I’m off for excavation for a few weeks, so see you when I’m back! If you’re interested in my excavation, feel free to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress. We’ll be blogging about our work and posting lots of photos!

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Sorry to everyone whose face I’ve blurred out but let’s just focus on how stylish I am on site.

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If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.