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.

When the Stress of the PhD Meet The Anxiety of the Visa: On International Postgraduate Studies, Financial Anxieties, and Everything Else That Scares Me

This week I had scheduled a different blog post to be published, but I felt as though it didn’t seem right to not write about something that has been on my mind lately.

And by “lately”, I mean “for the past few years”.

As many, if not all, of you know by now due to reading this blog and/or following my daily Twitter rants, I’m an international student. Since moving to the U.K. in the autumn of 2015, I have been on two different visas and had spent lots of loaned money to maintain my residence here.

There’s recently been a lot of discourse surrounding the precariousness of early career jobs in academia, and for good reason – the further marketisation of higher education is leaving more and more post-PhDs out in the cold with only poorly paid, short contract jobs to live on. Those of us in the middle of PhD research have extremely bleak futures ahead of us if this continues.

What hasn’t gotten as much attention (at least, as far as I have seen) is the plight of those of us who are battling the dire circumstances of the academic job market and the burden of being international.

Let me first say that despite the difficulties I have faced, I am undoubtedly one of the luckier ones. I’ve had the ability to take out federal student loans to cover my costs, as well as financial help and general support from friends and family from both sides of the Pond. Coming from the US, I most likely had less hoops to jump through to get my visa, in comparison to many others.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a huge burden on my life. Besides worrying about my current PhD work and the near future of having to look for postdocs afterwards, I also constantly have to worry about meeting the conditions for my visa.

Will I have enough money saved up to afford all of the fees for applying for a Tier 2 visa? What if the NHS surcharge continues to double, as it is scheduled to do in the upcoming year? How many days have I spent outside the UK and is it enough to eventually deport me?

International academics are expected to constantly keep track of these ever changing laws and policies, which results in many of us in constant fear of the Home Office, even if we have filled out all the paperwork needed and have everything taken care of. It’s so easy for them to make a small change that will turn out world upside down!

That sounds like an exaggeration but I’ve experienced it myself. Progressing from my MSc to my PhD, I was, at the time, still on my first visa from the Masters programme, which wouldn’t expire for another 6 months. Prior to this, the rule was that you could apply for a new visa within the U.K. as long as your current visa had not expired. Unfortunately for me, this had recently changed, and so I was booking an extremely last minute flight back to the US to apply for a new visa. A couple thousand pounds later, and I was sorted with a new visa – but financially, I have yet to truly recover from that last minute trip.

And, of course, it’s not just about the financial burden, either. Contrary to popular belief, most of us who study and live in the U.K. for several years end up cultivating a life and family here. That the Home Office (and other institutions apparently) believe we can uproot our lives, tear ourself away from the people we love and abandon the places we call home, just because we lack the funds to match the ludicrous fees and financial objectives, is utterly ridiculous at best and outright evil at worst.

I have spent many nights, awake and afraid, obsessively reading the guidelines for visas and immigration laws. As someone who already has depression and anxiety, this has caused my mental health to often dip dangerously low, to levels I haven’t experienced since prior to being diagnosed and medicated. But it’s a real, tangible fear that many academics, who already experience the burdens of a hostile environment in higher education, always have on their minds alongside every other problem.

Unfortunately, I can’t really offer any answers or advice for this sort of thing. It’s an issue that, alongside precariousness of early academic careers, must be talked about more in the public discourse. And I guess that’s all I can do, really – tell my story, remain public about the challenges I face, and hope that I can at least be one voice that won’t shut up about this problem.

To end this rather unfunny and serious blog post (shocking, I know, but I applaud anyone who has made it this far), I just want to point out a few great resources for more information on precarity, mental health issues, and international academic costs:

  • The Mental Illness Factory – A great piece by Mimi Petrakis on the current mental health epidemic in academia, especially for postgraduates
  • The Precarious Postdoc – Some really valuable research by Sophie A. Jones and Catherine Oakley who have been interviewing and surveying the situations of postdocs in the humanities and social sciences.
  • International and Broke– A fairly new Twitter account run by international academics employed in the U.K. that shares stories of the difficulties that other international academics have experienced in trying to stay and work in the country.

A Few Tips for Conferences When You’re Super Anxious All the Time Like Me

Hi, it’s your friendly neighbourhood academic with anxiety here to talk about one of the scariest things in academia: conferences! Unfortunately for many of us, “traditional” academia requires that we make appearances and presentations at conferences (even though they’re expensive…and we don’t always get the financial help needed to attend…and it takes time off from our research which is already limited to a specific time frame…well, that’s a conservation for a different day).

At this point in my life I’ve attend many conferences. I’ve also presented at many conferences, both papers and posters. And there’s definitely been a range of experiences throughout…from getting so nervous during a paper presentation that I start making self-deprecating jokes that fall flat and make things a million times worse, to giving such a great paper that I actually receive a couple of collaboration opportunities from it.

So with conference season in full swing, here are some tips from my own personal experience on how to best combat anxiety and stress in a conference environment:

A recent conference poster I created and presented for last year’s Association for Environmental Archaeology (AEA) Conference.

Bring a Friend/Co-Author

Probably one of the easiest ways to make going to conferences less stressful is to have a friend or supportive colleague with you. You could see if any peers in your department want to co-author a paper/poster or tag along – splitting the costs will make things cheaper, plus you have someone you at least know around (and can maybe get to know a bit better, too!).

If I’m travelling solo, I will usually make a beeline for people I recognise during tea breaks – usually that’ll get you introduced to a couple of other people, which I will promptly add to my mental compartment of “People Who I Will Cling Onto If I Don’t Know Anyone Else“. While its great to network and make connections with people outside of your institution, its also good to develop a friendly and supportive group of similarly minded people that are on similar conference circuits as you – it definitely makes finding seats at lunch less awkward, that’s for sure.

Recently, I actually managed to convince a friend from the US in a completely unrelated field (creative writing) to co-author a paper for last year’s Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference. I’m not sure if I would have been as calm presenting my paper in front of some of the most important figures in my field of research without her by my side.

Nothing like tricking a non-archaeologist friend into writing and presenting an archaeology paper with you!

Take Advantage of Scheduled Social Events

Many conferences will also include events, like field trips and dinners, alongside sessions. If you have the means to attend one of these events (unfortunately most cost money), they could be low-key, informal environments to socialise with other conference attendees. For example, field trips to local museums and monuments can provide great ice breakers for conversation among academics you don’t know.

I’ve had some excellent luck where I’ve gone on a conference field trip, made friends with some attendees, and had them come to my session the following day for support – it really helped to see some friendly, familiar faces in the crowd!

Plus, it’s just nice to see the sights – here’s me taking time off from a conference in the Orkneys to visit Yesnaby.

Remember to Get Their ‘Deets’!

This is mainly a tip for general networking, of course – but if you end up connecting with attendees during the course of the conference, be sure to swap contact information. I’ve ended up staying in touch with many people I’ve met through conferences, which has led to the increase in familiar faces in my audiences when I’m presenting papers. Of course, there’s also opportunities for future collaborative research (and, if you’re really fortunate, employment) with people you meet at conferences, so you’ll definitely want to be able to keep in touch somehow.

It may seem a bit silly and unfashionable these days, but it can still be handy to have a few business cards on hand! Exchanging business cards with someone is an easy way to quickly get contact information, or to introduce yourself without awkward small talk – plus, it feels very adult and cool. Many universities have business cards available for postgraduate students, but if yours does not, there are many cheap options online for printing your own.

Eat your heart out, Patrick Bateman. Maybe not literally, though.

Look into Alternate Conferences

If you’re looking into presenting at a “traditional” conference (read: in-person conference with poster and paper sessions in front of other academics) and are nervous about speaking in public, I would suggest you start with submitting and presenting a poster. In most cases, I’ve found that poster presentations won’t give you the impression that you’re being left to the mercy of a huge audience the way that paper sessions might. There’s still a bit of public speaking involved, of course, but its certainly a bit more informal than presenting a paper.

If that still feels a bit daunting (and I don’t blame you, believe me!), you could also look into something that’s recently become more common – alternate conferences! In response to the financial and environmental burden of “traditional” conferences, many academics have been experimenting with alternative approaches. For example, Twitter conferences have become more popular recently; for example, look through the #CAATCO hashtag to read through paper presentation from the CAA Twitter Conference, which was held in conjunction with a more traditional conference.

For those with anxiety, alternative conferences that allow you to present papers in a safe and comforting place, such as the comfort of your own home, may be a good compromise. With more academics looking to utilising the Internet to its fullest potential, these kinds of conferences may become more prevalent in the next few years – stay tuned!

I recently presented a paper at my very first Twitter conference hosted by the CAA (Computer Applications in Archaeology) – and did so while riding a bus! Super easy.

Doctor, Doctor, Gimme the News: Bone Assessments in Zooarchaeology

Today I wanted to give you all a sneak peek into my current work – although I will admit that this is a bit more of a mundane part of my research. But zooarchaeology isn’t always exciting…sometimes it’s playing Bone Doctor and assessing bags and bags and bags and bags of bones!

Bags and bags and bags o' bones

Last week, I’ve spread over one hundred bags of bones across three desks. Why? Well, on one hand I like showing off my assemblages and work to my fellow PhDs in the office. But I also find it the easiest way to place everything in order of context.

Again, you may ask…why?

Bone assessments are quick (well, relatively speaking, I guess!) ways to, well…assess your bones! Prior to an in-dept investigation, a bone assessment allows me to get a general idea of what kind of animals may be represented in an assemblage, how the bones look, how they’ve been preserved, and how they’ve been treated. Of course, I’ll be doing a more focused identification and examination of each individual bone later on, but these bone assessments are a great way to get an idea of what I’m looking at.

Bone assessment form

Walking around my bags and bags of bones with a clipboard and bone assessment forms in hand kinda makes me feel like a doctor, really! Well, I guess in this case I’d be a veterinarian…and a really bad vet if I’m working with dead animals.

Basically, with these forms I sorta sketch out a picture of the assemblage – what sort of animals can I identify by eye? How many? What parts of the body do they represent? Listing things like colour, preservation, and characteristics like gnaw marks or butchery also allows me to get an idea of what these remains may have possibly been the result of. Is there many instances of gnaw marks from a large predator? Maybe these remains mark the end of one of their prey! Is there many butchery marks and charred bone? Perhaps this is the remains of a feast!

Yes, the chicken scratch you see here is my handwriting…I guess that really makes me more of a doctor, huh? The photo above is me attempting to make sense of the bone assessments – this includes tallying up total numbers of animal and element identifications, giving a (very) rough chronological order of the context numbers, and listing out the major characteristics I saw in each period. This way, I can really visualise the shifts and patterns that the assemblage forms as time passes from one period to the next.

I know this wasn’t the most exciting post this blog has seen, but I want to show off all aspects of zooarchaeological work! And that includes some of the less exciting things…however, I think bone assessments are really interesting – they almost give you a sneak peek into whatever you’re about to dive into for the next year or so! And while I don’t want to get into too much detail…I think this is going to be a really exciting and interesting assemblage of animal bones.

From the Question Bag: Fish Remains in Scotland

James Green asked: I know in the US South amia calva is one of the most common fish remains found in sites. What is the most common there?

Well, as someone who seems to have been knee-deep in fish bones since 2014, I’m glad you’ve asked! Let me preface this by saying my area of expertise is North and North-east Scotland – so the Orkney Islands and the Covesea Caves. And this is based on my experience as well! So I might miss out on some more common fish finds. But here are the common fish remains that I seem to run into time and time again.

Atlantic Herring (Clupea harengus)

Atlantic herring

The bane of my zooarchaeologist life…the reason why I strained my eyes during my masters dissertation…the fish that made me hold my breath while I worked because a sigh could easily send the vertebrae flying…let me present to you: the Atlantic herring.

Not necessarily something I find in abundance at my sites, but I’ve found a couple (read: about one hundred bones) here and there. It’s also found on the other side of the Pond!

Pollack (Pollachius pollachius)

Pollack bones

Not necessarily the bulk of many of my fish bone assemblages, but I find that the pollack shows up time and time again – especially pollack vertebrae! Of course, the vertebrae of  a fish are some of the most durable parts of a fish’s skeleton – that’s why you will see them more commonly than other, more fragile bones.

Whiting (Merlangius merlangus)

Whiting bones

Similar to the Atlantic herring, the whiting has also caused me much distress due to the tiny size of its bones. Very common in some Iron Age contexts that I’ve worked in, the bones of a whiting are so small that I’ve had to use a scanning electron microscope to analyse them for butchery marks and signs of erosion! Not to mention the many hours I’ve had to move their bones around with tweezers…fish bones are surprisingly hard work.

Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua)

Atlantic cod bones

Last, but not least – especially not least – is my good friend, the Atlantic cod. Surprisingly one of the most common fish bones I find at sites! So common, in fact, that it’s the easiest fish for me to identify by eye. But maybe that’s not so surprising – after all, cod is still one of the most popular fish for food! And I don’t blame people, I do really enjoy fish and chips.

Remember to send me any questions or topics you’d like to see me cover about zooarchaeology or archaeology by contacting me!

On Imposter Syndrome, or What Are We Even Doing?!

With my transfer report coming up within the next month or so, things have been pretty stressful over here. Unfortunately I find myself not having fun poking around things in the lab, but pouring over drafts and corrections and trying to synthesize my transfer report*. So I figured this might be a good time to talk about imposter syndrome in academia – something that I suffer from a lot lately!

Imposter syndrome, for those who don’t know, is basically the feeling that you’re a fraud, no matter how many achievements you have. It is by no means only restricted to those in academia, of course, but I feel like it is quite common amongst graduate students and early career researchers.

In my opinion, the PhD (specifically the early years) is like academic puberty…you’re transitioning from a taught student to an “expert” of sorts, and the transition can be very awkward and weird! It’s easy to feel as though you’ve somehow cheated your way here at times. After all, I was just a student the other day! And now I’m giving lectures, presenting at conferences, answering questions from people whose work I’ve quoted in undergraduate papers – what the hell is going on?!

One of the best ways I’ve started to combat this feeling is by actually going through my drafts – yes, I am confessing right here that in the past, I’d skim through the comments of my drafts, if I even wrote one at all. Especially in my undergraduate years, I was a big fan of “one and done” papers – to some success.

But in the past year or so I’ve actually looked at the transformation of my drafts and lemme tell you – I can see my progress, clear as day. It’s slow, but I can gradually see myself getting more confident in my writing with each draft. And just having physical  evidence really helps me see that I am, in fact, achieving something.

Obviously imposter syndrome manifests in different ways for different people, but here’s my personal advice: go back to old drafts, old papers, whatever you have. Maybe its your masters dissertation you handed in just last year, maybe its your high school science paper. Compare it to whatever you’re currently working on – how far have you come? What progress have you made? Even if its the tiniest bit of progress, its still progress.

And if you don’t have written work to look at, try simply reflecting. Where were you last year? Three years ago? Five years ago? Even just last year I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me I would be presenting my work at conferences across the UK, or establishing myself as a science communicator on social media (although I’m still a baby at that!).

We’re not frauds! We’re learning and progressing and becoming the best we can be! Let’s give ourselves a break, shall we?

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This is basically how I feel at all times…an 11 year old presenting her science project at the middle school science fair.

*For those who don’t know – a transfer report is basically moving from the MPhil to the PhD. In my case, it basically shows off everything I’ve done in this first year: literature reviews, methodology chapters, analysis of bones, and what I plan on doing for the next few years of the PhD.

On Getting Through Bad Days, or How I Almost Set My Flat On Fire

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about mental health in academia. I didn’t really expect to write another post in a similar vein so soon, but I had a bad day today.

As always, if this sort of content makes you feel uncomfortable, please skip! I don’t mind.

I occasionally get hit with bad bouts of anxiety and panic attacks. This morning, I had a little incident (and learned a bit about proper candle safety) that set me off for the rest of the day. My thoughts were racing, my chest was pounding – you get the idea. I decided that today was not going to be very productive and took a mental health day.

Having to deal with bad days, regardless of how they manifest, is not only a major part of your PhD – it’s a part of your everyday life as well. Here are some tips that may help in the event of a bad day in the face of a mountain of work:

  • Take A Break – This is probably the most important advice I can give. If you get hit with a bad day in the office or the lab, take a tea break or a walk around the building, whatever might help you clear your head for a bit. As you take your break, you may want to…
  • Gauge Your Productivity – When you’ve been dealing with anxiety for as long as I have, you get pretty good at recognising how you’ll probably end up feeling for the rest of the day. If you feel as though you won’t be able to keep your mind on task, you might want to think about…
  • Taking a Mental Health Day – Remember that you should never have to put your academic work above your health in any case, so drop your supervisor a note if you need to and take the day off. Do whatever you need to chill out – watch some Netflix, read, whatever you need to do. But also…
  • Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself! – Whenever I need to take a break or a day off, I immediately feels guilty and start beating myself up over it. Maybe it’s a bit silly, but it’s also quite a sad indicator of our society’s standards: it’s much more the status quo to be overworked and tired and stressed out, isn’t it? Again – your health is so important. Remind yourself that you are taking the time to yourself to heal and feel better so you can be focused and productive tomorrow. Now, if you’re still feeling a bit guilty, however…
  • Work Light – Sometimes I can’t shake feeling guilty for taking a mental health day. So, a compromise: find something productive to do that isn’t so strenuous on your brain. Perhaps it’s just reading an article and taking some notes, or proofreading a chapter. Even doing a tiny task may make you feel productive, while keeping yourself more relaxed than you would have been with a full load of work.
  • Just Breathe – Of course, I write this all with my own life in mind – I am lucky to have a very supportive system at my university with some stellar supervisors and mental health resources. Unfortunately, not everyone out there may have that luxury. So if all else fails? Just remember to breathe. I know mindfulness may be a buzz word these days, but taking a few minutes or even seconds to breathe and centre yourself might help for a bit.

Remember, in the very wise words of my supervisor: your PhD is not a race. Take each day at a time; I know it’s tempting to thinking of the future and oh god I have to finish this dissertation in HOW long?! but ultimately that’s not necessarily productive. Just close your eyes, breathe, and think: I will be fine. Things will be okay. And keep moving.

But only when you’re ready.

Research and Wine

On Getting Started in the Field: An Origin Story

After getting asked about hidden treasures and dinosaurs, the next most common question is, “So how did you even decide to become an archaeologist?”

It’s pretty simple, really. After I first saw the Indiana Jones films as a kid, I immediately went into my backyard and dug a 1 foot deep hole. I then proceeded to go to my best friend’s house and also dig a 1 foot deep hole there.

No one was particularly happy about my new obsession with digging holes at the time, if I’m being honest.

In school, I found myself drawn to subjects such as biology and history. I also realized that I’ve got a knack for learning by actively doing things. Combine those three together and next thing I know, I’m trying to explain to my guidance counselor what archaeology is.

I suppose I was lucky – I knew exactly what I wanted to do early in life and was stubborn enough to keep at it. I’ve also been lucky enough to have been in the type of circumstances that allowed for many valuable teaching experiences prior to graduate school (i.e.; easy access to museum/museum jobs, opportunities to get training through school programs, etc.).

But if I learned anything, it’s that with a little luck and a little stubbornness, you too can find yourself in Scotland, far from your hometown in New York, being looked at as a peer in the field that you’ve loved since you were making a mess in the backyard as a kid.

A (good?) photo of me from my first ever excavation during my undergrad

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