Reflections of a new lecturer on the Day of Archaeology 2013

Collaborative video about our Heritage Practice module and BA Heritage Studies students at York

I’ve participated in the Day of Archaeology** since its initiation two years ago, when my post (also see my 2012 post here) coincided very closely with my appointment at the University of York (UK). I have often struggled to summarise my day-to-day professional activities because, as I’ve discussed before, they are diverse and not evidently recognisable as the stereotype of ‘archaeology’. I adore my work because of such diversity—it is always different, it is of-the-moment, it is linked to so many exciting people (curators, designers, IT experts, archaeologists and heritage officers, media specialists, journalists, etc.), it is incredibly public, and hence it comes with a deep feeling of being engaged in something that truly impacts upon other individuals. Our great Cultural Heritage Management and Digital Heritage students have themselves been very successful in progressing to jobs with a comparable degree of variety and influence.

But the struggle to encapsulate my work has only intensified as my career has developed, owing to the fact that academia pulls you into so many administrative roles that push far beyond one’s expert interests. As a result, my days often entail (among other things) hours of email-writing and phone calls, organising courses and modules and reading lists and guest speakers, coordinating rooms and equipment and related specialist infrastructure, negotiating opportunities and insurance and accommodations and tools for the teams that I supervise, and reading drafts of others’ research.

It has been brokering this explosion in duties that I have found an especially difficult aspect of academic life, because it tends to pull you away from the very thing that is most inspiring to you—and, indeed, the thing that you are actually recognised in the wider world for: your own research. Some aspects of the job help to reinforce or elaborate your research, including preparing for teaching, in that they demand that you scour the literature and critically interrogate the emerging scholarship. But other aspects seem a million miles away from study and discovery and analysis and the other energising components of the research process.

These points have been on my mind lately as I take advantage of the couple of months of the year outside of the term-time calendar when I have more freedom to invest in my own research endeavours. I leave for Çatalhöyük next week with my great team from York, Southampton and Ege University in Turkey; our Gender & Digital Culture project is really starting to blossom (we were featured on Wednesday on the London School of Economics’ Impact blog!); I have a couple of articles and chapters now in press, and two grant applications out for review; and I’m coordinating some new projects/events for the upcoming year. But much of this work has only come together with substantial support from others: colleagues, research assistants, friends, etc.

My greatest learning experience of 2012-2013, then, has surely been in navigating this collaborative form of practice, because it has necessitated a complete shift in my intellectual mindset. As a student, I was trained to work independently—a not uncommon predicament for humanists. I would do my own study, analyse my own data, and write up my own work. However, as I’ve developed as a scholar, it’s become clear that not only is such an approach actually impossible for me now, but it was also a questionable way to have been educated in the first place. It’s questionable both because professional life demands that one be adept at collaboration, and because the best ideas and scholarship come about through learning with and from others who see the world in different ways.

The whole nature of how I intellectualise has had to change in order to accommodate this collaborative shift—and it has been a real and profound challenge for me. I’m having to teach myself how to relinquish control to others. I’m having to recognise that I can no longer do everything on my own and that I have to trust others to carry projects forward in my absence and help me. I’m having to learn to be comfortable with the fact that sometimes my role is now purely one of project manager, but that even here I can make a difference. Such a change in perspective has also meaningfully impacted on how I teach others, because I am concerned to ensure that my students don’t get educated in a vacuum, expecting that scholarly life will or should be an isolated activity. From my experience, nothing is more misconceived than the trope of the academic as a solitary figure. You are constantly surrounded by people—whether physically or metaphorically—who need things from you and vice versa. It’s a disservice to perpetuate the notion that independent, single-authored research is the paragon of scholarship, not least because even when such research is published, it always comes about through engagement with others. It’s also a disservice to budding academics to insinuate to them that such a model of practice is even plausible, because what results is real disconcertion when everyday reality—the multitasking and administrative load, etc.—proves it impossible and your whole epistemological outlook on research is then forced to change.

On this Day of Archaeology, when I’m preparing to take my team out for fieldwork next week, and working with my colleagues on multiple other projects, I’m very reflective about its collaborative essence. Collaboration is what sums up my activities today, and it’s what now characterises me as a scholar. And, honestly, I can’t imagine good research coming about in any other fashion.

**This post is reblogged from the Day of Archaeology site:

The ‘real’ archaeologist redux

I’ve been hoping to do a follow up post concerning my commentary last month on the “real archaeologist,” but the start of term came upon me and I’ve been left breathless from it.  The wealth of responses that I received from that post, however, demands some kind of reply, as I heard from people via my blog itself (see comments below), Facebook, Twitter and email, and the magazine Current Archaeology also unexpectedly solicited comments through circulating my blog to its Facebook and Twitter readers.  References supplied to me by Harriet Deacon, Nigel Jeffries, and Charley Young, among others, really struck a chord and have led me to rethink and expand some of my original articulations about the ‘definition’ of an archaeologist.  Perhaps more profoundly than anything else, I was impacted by the number of non-archaeologists who got in touch to say that their experiences were identical to mine – that they too had been ostracised in some way from their own field of practice based on some kind of prevailing (but unsubstantiated) discourse about that practice – that they too knew exactly the feeling of standing at the centre of a disciplinary turf-war whose ramifications were likely more detrimental than meaningful to the discipline, and whose effects on oneself could be demoralising.

The real archaeologist
The real archaeologist retweeted

Honestly, I was overwhelmed by all the responses that I received.  The past few months have been among the most difficult of my life as I’ve been planning/implementing three new modules (what North Americans would call courses!), running two Master’s programmes, leading on a couple of other relatively major administrative duties in my department, and working on my various research projects simultaneously.  I’m aiming to do a series of separate blog posts in the near future about the experiences of a new lecturer, building upon one that I did back in April, but the support that I received from my discussion of the ‘real archaeologist’ did much to inspire me and stretch my thinking on the topic.  Thank you so much to everyone – it means a lot.

This week I was generously approached by the editors of the department’s one-of-a-kind undergraduate-run journal The Post Hole to write an article for an upcoming issue (probably in the new year) that follows up on the conversation about the ‘real’ discipline of archaeology.  I’ve been experimenting a lot in my teaching recently with blogging and using related social media to broaden classroom work and stimulate critical thinking, and so I’m keen to ask others to consider sending me further material to add to the article (with full credit of course!) – or, alternatively, to consider sending your own articles about the subject to the editors for review.  The journal is open-access and welcomes contributions from anyone around the world with an interest in archaeology.

I’d like to keep the conversation going, and to that end, I’ll leave you to contemplate a quote from a 1972 article that a friend and current PhD student in Classics & Ancient History at Exeter, Charley Young, referred me to – “New roles for the amateur archaeologist” published in American Antiquity 37(1):1-2, 1972:

More than anyone, the amateur is the local watchdog. His is the responsibility and the pleasure of safeguarding the archaeological resource. In this sense, the amateur may protect the basis of the science – the cultural residue itself. Ofttimes it lies in a field just outside his door, or in a river bottom just across the county. For the devoted amateur it is sacred ground and he cannot rest when it is threatened. And when it is, he must call upon all his decision-making faculties to decide whether he can handle the site himself, with his fellows, or whether it should be referred to those with more technical and theoretical abilities. In this stewardship role, the amateur is on the front line of archaeology. He is the sentry who often must make a general’s decision.

In other news, Matthew Johnson’s and my article on the archaeological illustrator and artist Alan Sorrell was recently published in British Archaeology magazine.  Grab a copy at your local news stand! And with much support from Tom Smith at the university, I’ve set up live-streams for our departmental heritage seminar series, YOHRS.  The first of these, a brilliant talk by Sharon Macdonald on museum shops, is now available here.  The next talk takes place on Tuesday, starting 5.30pm GMT.  Please tune in.

Happy Halloween!

Who exactly is a ‘real’ archaeologist?

Me at BSR
Loitering around the imposing facade of the British School at Rome (photo by me)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the nature of the archaeological professional. This has been prompted both by my own efforts to navigate the unwieldy world of academia, and by an article that I finally finished for the Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology (Springer) on ‘Professionalisation: The Consolidation of Archaeology as an “Expert” Knowledge.’ Last week, I organised an event at the Society of Antiquaries of London in memory of the prehistorian John Davies Evans (1925-2011), a man who perhaps perfectly encapsulates the fact that an archaeologist is a multifaceted character—not easily defined by one single skillset or aptitude (look here to find video and slide coverage of the event, including me chairing it).  Evans was a researcher, an excavator, a photographer, a teacher; but he arguably spent the majority of his career in an office: working as an administrator at the helm of some of the most prominent archaeological organisations in the world.

This week I’ve been in Rome poking through the archives of the British School at Rome where a series of similarly diverse individuals have come together over the past 100+ years (since its foundation in 1901) in the constitution of archaeological expertise (among other forms of knowledge).  These individuals include everyone from artists to photographers to field surveyors, historians, conservators, and architects.  What the School cultivates is scholarship via human exchange and interface which, to be honest, is really the means by which the best research always evolves: in interaction with people whose different thoughts/acts on the world make you, in turn, think/act differently.

The topic of crafting disciplinary expertise is one that is close to my heart, primarily because of the number of times that I have been teased for “not being a real archaeologist.” I’ve reflected on this issue elsewhere (see here) and I’ve never really understood what people mean when they say this, because I haven’t yet seen the rulebook where “real archaeology” has been universally defined and accepted.

I think these people are just acting on the fact that I’m easily riled up (it’s true!), but such comments are made so frequently that I think them deserving of interrogation.  I assume that their origin relates to the issue of excavation and working with stone tools—i.e., that because I no longer excavate or study stone tools (although I’ve done both, and indeed, I’ve held jobs as a collections specialist processing stone and other archaeological artefacts, as well as a zooarchaeology lab assistant processing animal bones), I therefore don’t count as an archaeologist.  When I circulated an advert for an excellent project that I’m excited to contribute to – Archaeologists Anonymous – (and, yes, I’ve purposefully chosen not to stand anonymous!), someone I don’t know made a comment that they were too busy to participate because they were off doing “real archaeology.”  What I understood this to mean was that they were busy with a commercial archaeological job that was demanding, constricted and relentless (not entirely dissimilar to my own academic archaeology job, I would suggest).  However, what I couldn’t follow was why it was necessary to disparage involvement in the project based on an assertion that it wasn’t legitimate archaeology.

The nature of ArchAnon is just that – to open up discussion and debate about the field of practice.  So I want to extend that debate here by reflecting on where this idea of a ‘legitimate’ kind of archaeology comes from and in whose interest it is maintained because (1) I don’t believe it is productive for the discipline; (2) there is no evidence that a ‘real’ archaeology has ever or will ever exist; and (3) I think it potentially destructive to the field to endorse a cramped and confining view of the profession.

If we look back at the history of the discipline there’s good evidence to suggest that the concept of a professional archaeologist never really took hold until the 1960s-70s.  Around the world, university training programmes for archaeology didn’t emerge until about the turn of the 20th century, and throughout the first half of that century, many of those who enrolled on such programmes tended to go on to curatorial positions.  It was in museums and learned society organisations where much of the early classification and conceptual work that now underpins archaeology came about; and it was at meetings, via publication, and in exhibition spaces (local and international) that the circulation of such work made it accessible on a wider and wider scale.  There is little evidence to suggest that excavation is the defining feature of the discipline (for example, see Lucas 2001); rather, what ties together all those people over recorded history (going back at least 4000 years) interested in old human things is not digging in the ground, but collecting objects or working with collected materials.  Indeed, it is collecting practices that seem to have driven excavating and surveying activities, and these practices were never limited to stone tools, but began with efforts to gather all-encompassing cabinet-of-curiosities-type assemblages, and slowly narrowed to focus on all configurations of human material remnants and representations (e.g., images) of such remnants.

At no point has there ever been a single form of archaeological practice – indeed, this is the nature of professionalisation itself: it is ever-evolving, as is the expertise from which it grows.  And it is such open-endedness that arguably makes the discipline sustainable.  Presumably those who refer to ‘real archaeology’ do so as a form of boundary patrol – something that is also fundamental to profession-building and the demarcation of specialist knowledge.  But what archaeology offers – as it has always offered – is a diversity in method and thinking that gives its students transferable skills related to assessing human circumstances in the past, present and future (see Schofield 2012 for discussion of such skills). This diversity makes the discipline far more relevant to the world than some constrained body of practices that have never (across the entire history of antiquarian studies) actually characterised our work.

We need to challenge the idea that there is some “real archaeologist” out there to which we must all conform. We need to do this not only because the idea is, in fact, baseless, but because it works to restrict the nature of what’s possible via our practice.

On that note, I’ve got a case study coming out in my colleagues’ forthcoming volume Visual Research: A Concise Introduction to Thinking Visually. Please check it out!  My article on archaeology’s professionalisation will be published sometime in the next few months, so you can read more about the development of the discipline there…

LUCAS, G. 2001. Critical approaches to fieldwork: contemporary and historical archaeological practice. London: Routledge.

SCHOFIELD, J. 2012. The best degree? Current Archaeology 270: 48-49.