On Liminality: Space, Time, and Identities

The following is the text from a talk I gave during the ‘Spring into Science: Queer Representation in Researchseminar series at the University of Oxford. I haven’t really talked much about being a queer archaeologist and as someone who often uses self-reflection to spur on discussion, I feel like I need to rectify this. Thanks again to the Department of Biology’s LGBTQ+ Group at the University of Oxford for inviting me to start off their seminar series! You can watch the recording of the talk here.

Imagine that you’re entering a cave on a sunny, warm summer day. There is a swift, and distinct, change in the temperature as you walk into the darkness – a cold, dampness that cuts through to the bone. The lack of internal light immediately plunges you into darkness as you journey further into the cave, and the inherent stillness and silence means any noise you make is amplified twofold. If the Underworld exists, this is likely where it would be situated. And yet, if you simply turn around to face the entrance of the cave, you are greeted by a completely different setting; you can see the bright sun, the clear blue skies. By walking back to the start, you can already feel the warm air, hear the natural noises that one associates with the outdoors. But stop right in the middle, between the entrance of the cave and its deeper chambers – here, you’re in between what can only be described as two completely different worlds.

This is a liminal space – and its where I exist, as a researcher and as a queer, mixed woman.

I think I knew that I was queer quite early in my life – one of my first crushes on a girl was probably at some point in primary school, and my upbringing in theatre and dance circles introduced me to gay culture very early in my life. But despite this, I really struggled in a comfortable identifier for the way I felt; by the end of high school, I think I may have told one or two people that I was probably bisexual, but otherwise I kept to myself. It has only been recently that I felt confident enough to claim “queer” as an identity, but I also never really “came out of the closet”; it was more like a quiet shuffle into the world. The people who knew me knew, and that was always enough.

To be fair, personal identity has always been difficult for me to parse – although I’m mixed race, growing up in a predominately white town on Long Island, New York meant that I was always read as completely Asian, or at the very least, non-white. Most of my childhood and teenage years were spent trying to assimilate into the whiteness that surrounded me, and thus I forgo much of my cultural upbringing in exchange for acceptance. And yet, there was never true acceptance among my white peers – I continued to bear the brunt of racist jokes and harassment from others, regardless of how much white eyeliner I used to make my eyes appear “less Asian”. So perhaps it is ultimately unsurprising that this disconnect would become further entrenched into my psyche and disrupt my understanding of other aspects of my identity.

It wasn’t until I began my PhD research (Fitzpatrick 2020) that I began to understand and confront my multiple identity crises. My project was centred around the Covesea Caves situated on the coast of the Moray Firth in north-east Scotland. Archaeological excavations within these caves have revealed what has been interpreted as a later prehistoric mortuary complex, where intricate funerary rites were likely performed among and with the dead. This was further complicated by the presence of both human and animal remains, suggesting that ritual activity was also occurring, perhaps connected to the funerary practices of these later prehistoric peoples. As a trained zooarchaeologist, my role in this research was to examine the faunal remains from the Covesea Caves and decipher their relevance to human activities within the caves; this would be determined through a combined approach of focused taphonomic investigation as well as comparative analysis with the human remains from the same sites. The resulting interpretation revealed a complex narrative, in which the Covesea Caves were an importance space for ritual and funerary activities from as early as the Neolithic to as late as the Post-Medieval Period.

The Covesea Caves were considered to be liminal spaces, potentially as an area in between the living world and the world of the dead (Brück 1995, Brück 2006, p. 302). This was established using the definition by van Gennep (1960, p. 21), in which he describes liminality as a transitional state between separation from one world, and incorporation into a new one. This definition was particularly useful with regards to the funerary character of the Covesea Caves, as rites for the dead were often used as a means of transforming the body from something “unclean” into something “purified” for transport into the underworld (Parker Pearson 1993, p. 204).

What made the Covesea Caves so unique, even among other liminal spaces, was how its liminality was not defined to just spatiality; they were also spaces of temporal liminality, in that the archaeological record revealed significant, intentional intermixing of material from different periods by human visitors (including modern day visitors, who often left behind items upon a makeshift “altar” in the Sculptor’s Cave). Even the overall characteristic of the caves can be considered liminal, in that it was somewhere between a place of ritual activity and the more mundane, domestic behaviours of later prehistoric life; this is something that has been noted by other archaeologists, particularly Richard Bradley (2005), as something which cannot be so neatly described as one or the other. Ritual practices were part of the domestic sphere during this time, and as such we find these liminal spaces in which both characteristics are present.

The intersections of liminal identities within the Covesea Caves resonated with me, as a person of similarly intersecting identities. As I continued my researched and developed my interpretation, I was able to see how difficult it was to place the sites into any particular classification – were they simply funerary sites? Or ritual sites? Further analysis of faunal bone from the Covesea Caves further complicated my initial assumptions – if use extended to the Post-Medieval Period, was this still a “later prehistoric” site? Given the evidence of bone modification and potential feasting activity, are the caves actually more domestic in character than originally assumed? What appeared to be contradictions were actually part of a complicated identity, one that reflects the realities and messiness inherent in life. And thus, I saw myself in these caves, and realised that I was also complicated and messy – and I embraced this. For me, this was embracing queerness as a form of liminality.

I should note that I’m not the first (nor will I be the last) to use liminality as a framework for identity, particularly in queer theory. In fact, liminality is arguably a vital component of queer theory; as March (2021, p. 455) describes it, liminality “brings together queer ways of thinking through unboundedness, spillage, fluidity, multiplicity, and processes of contingent, non-linear becoming, as well as the relations of power and regulation that seek their stability or closure”. Liminality has been used to situate discussions of sexualities (e.g., Whitney 2001), queer identities (e.g. Walsbergerová 2017), intercommunal marginalisation (e.g. Gorman-Murray 2013), and the intersections of queerness with other modalities (e.g. Punt 2008, Sinopoulos-Lloyd 2017). But above all, liminality is a form of resistance “to assimilation, essentialism, privacy, and heteronormativity” (LeMaster 2011).

Embracing the liminality of myself as allowed me to embrace queerness as my main identifier – sure, if you asked me to give it a proper name, I’d say that I’m most aligned with pansexuality. But being able to identify as queer, in all that the word entails, has been much more freeing. In living through queerness and the liminal spaces that encompass the rest of my life (and, in this case, research), I see boundless potential for further reconciliation with the past and growth for the future.

References

Bradley, R. (2005) Ritual and Domestic Life in Prehistoric Europe.  Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge.

Brück, J. (1995) ‘A Place for the Dead: the Role of Human Remains in Late Bronze Age Britain’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 61, pp. 245–277.

Brück, J. (2006) ‘Fragmentation, Personhood, and the Social Construction of Technology in Middle and Late Bronze Age Britain’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 16(3), pp. 297–315.

Fitzpatrick, A. (2020) ‘Ritual and Funerary Rites in Later Prehistoric Scotland: An Analysis of Faunal Assemblages from the Covesea Caves’. PhD thesis, University of Bradford, Bradford.

van Gennep, A. (1960) The Rites of Passage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Gorman-Murray, A. (2013) Liminal Subjects, Marginal Spaces and Material Legacies: Older Gay Men, Home and Belonging. In Y Taylor and M Addison (eds) Queer Presences and Absences: Genders and Sexualities in the Social Sciences. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

LeMaster, B. (2011) Queering Imag(in)ing: Liminality as Resistance in Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 8(2), p. 103-123.

March, L. (2021) Queer and Trans* Geographies of Liminality: A Literature Review. Progress in Human Geography 45(3), p. 455-471.

Parker Pearson, M. (1993) ‘The Powerful Dead: Archaeological Relationships between the Living and the Dead’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 3(2), pp. 203–229.

Punt, J. (2008) Intersections in Queer Theory and Postcolonial Theory, and Hermeneutical Spin-Offs. The Bible and Critical Theory 4(2), p. 24.1 – 24.16.

Sinopoulos-Lloyd, P.A. (2017) Queer Futurism: Denizens of Liminality. Queer Nature. https://www.queernature.org/queer-futurism-denizens-of-liminality

Walsbergerová, T. (2017) Labels and Beyond: On Queer Liminality and Fuzzy Edges of Identification. Re: Views. http://reviewsmagazine.net/labels-and-beyond-on-queer-liminality-and-fuzzy-edges-of-identification/

Whitney, E. (2001) Cyborgs Among Us: Performing Liminal States of Sexuality. Journal of Bisexuality 2(2-3), p. 109-128.


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.

Surviving a PhD Defence at the End of the World (aka at the End of 2020)

I had originally planned on writing this blog post shortly after my defence (known as a viva here in the UK) back at the start of December, but life got in the way…and by that, I mean my job closed down due to the pandemic and we moved house and then the holidays arrived and I was trying (and failing) to get my visa extension application submitted prior to the end of the year…yeah, sounds like 2020, doesn’t it?

My set-up for my viva: a can of soda to make me feel even more sick than I already did, my sticker-filled notebook with a dozen pages of viva-specific notes, my personal copy of my thesis with so much highlighter/notes/sticky notes weighing it down, and a positive, feel good message of encouragement to myself (“You can do this, bitch!”)

Similar to how I felt when I submitted my PhD thesis at the end of September, I didn’t exactly feel as celebratory as I probably should have felt…I mean, I did celebrate, of course. There was a lot of wine and takeaway and enjoying the start of my post-PhD life, but it didn’t feel like the end of anything. And that’s true in some respects – I still need to do my corrections, of course, which consists of about 10,000 additional words in the next 6 months. But what I always felt would be a huge milestone felt more like a single stepping stone.

And there’s probably a few reasons for that, of course. Yes, 2020 was the Year from Hell but let’s be honest, the only new thing it brought to the table was a global pandemic. That’s not to minimise the effects (which are still ongoing and likely to continue far beyond 2020) of coronavirus, but rather to say that it ultimately intensified things that were already in play: austerity, racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, class warfare…the list goes on. Before I even started my PhD, I knew I was taking a risk – academic archaeology jobs in general are not plentiful, much less so for immigrants. But I wanted to continue my academic journey to the “end”, aka the PhD, and I wanted to remain in the UK for as long as I possibly can alongside the family I’ve created since moving here in 2015. As we leave 2020 behind, I find myself looking at an even more diminishing job market, saddled with student loan debt and the ever present threat of the Home Office still at my side.

It’s difficult, at least from my perspective, to then see my PhD as a jumping off point for bigger and better things when I have no idea what the future holds – not just for me, but for everyone, for the entire world. And that’s not to say that I won’t continue to try, either; alongside my corrections, I will be shopping a postdoc idea around in the hopes of getting funding for it here in the UK (or at least get the funding for a pilot study). I’m gonna fight like hell to continue to do what I love – to research, to explore our past and how it connects to the present and the future, to showcase how much we can learn from the dustiest, tiniest bones hidden away in a museum collection somewhere. But I’m also absolutely terrified at the same time, and I doubt I’m the only PhD student who feels that way right now.

I don’t want this post to be so negative, though! I should emphasise that I absolutely loved doing my viva. My examiners, Dr. Hannah Koon and Dr. James Morris, were so accommodating and nice! They went out of their way to make the viva a productive conversation that made me feel just as smart and professional as they are, they never asked “gotcha!” questions or tried to make me feel unwanted or unworthy of the PhD. To be honest, I don’t think I really felt like an expert until my viva, and it is definitely thanks to the care and kindness they provided during the examination. And this also made for my results – major corrections – to not feel like a major failing! They stressed it was about improving my work, and that made sure I was an active participant in discussing what exactly needed work. It was a fantastic three hours (that honestly flew by!) and I want to reiterate just how thankful I am to the both of them that my viva was such an enjoyable and productive experience.

I also want to thank everyone who reached out to me prior to the viva with advice, and let me pay it forward by providing some of my own tips for surviving the PhD viva below:

  • Yes, reread your thesis! I did not (and still do not) want to ever look at my thesis again, but if you do anything prior to your viva, I would at least suggest reading it once more. Not only is it good to have a refresher (I know people who waited 6+ months to do their viva) of what you actually wrote, but you may already have had enough time away from it to see places where you could improve (and thus prepare ahead of time for when your examiners likely bring it up).
  • Look at your last few drafts. Connected to that last point – it might be worth rereading some of the comments from your last few drafts. Obviously depends on your supervisors, but mine were always quite good at pinpointing potential talking points for my viva, even months and months away from the actual examination. Ultimately you cannot predict what will and won’t be asked at your viva, but the more prep work you’re able to do, the better.
  • Remember: It’s Your Viva. Something I was extremely appreciative of during my viva was the ability to take the first 10 minutes to present the major findings of my work and the key themes of my thesis. I’m aware that not everyone will get that luxury, but I think it does speak to something that you should strive for, if possible: setting the agenda. It’s your viva, ultimately, and although your examiners will be the ones asking the questions, remember that you can lead the conversation where you’d like. And that of course includes everyone’s favourite phrase: “That’s an interesting question, but it is beyond the scope of this research.”

Have a Happy (and Safe) New Year, Everyone!


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.