Yet, can I really call myself an archaeologist these days? If I break down my day to day activities, archaeology is frequently thin on the ground. In my lecturing capacity, I focus a lot on cultural heritage, with an emphasis on museum management more than anything. In the last two weeks, I have also (for financial reasons) worked as a ‘food demonstrator’ (whatever that is) and pursued my artistic ambitions, selling several paintings at a craft fair. As far as November goes, archaeology has probably been at the very back of my mind.
That being said, I hold two degrees in archaeology, have practised my craft in the field for the better part of two decades, contributed to internationally regarded fieldwork projects, yet done my time in the trenches of contract archaeology as well. I’ve enjoyed the relative archaeological limelight of working on excavations in the Paviland Cave, and unearthed a megalith in Avebury, yet I’ve stood out in the rain for a week watching a JCB slug away at the ground where there might have been a medieval ditch, but where ultimately there was nothing. For some though, this wealth of experience is simply not enough, so why not?
Archaeology has long been a contentious field of employment, or interaction perhaps in this regard. We, and yes, I do count myself in this archaeological community, are tremendously possessive of our field. We are always looking to encourage participation, but frequently hesitant to allow the title of ‘archaeologist’ to be too liberally distributed. No doubt most archaeologists, however valid that title might be appropriated, have at some point looked on another calling themselves an ‘archaeologist’ and been immediately dismissive of their claims. That person does not have a degree in archaeology, or does not have enough degrees in archaeology, or has the degrees, but does not have the experience I do, or they have the experience, but not enough of it, or they have more experience than me, but not in the right kind of archaeology... So it goes on.
You can sympathise with many in these debates. For those in the world of contract archaeology, you have a community that is overworked, for relatively limited pay, working in challenging conditions, frequently in scattered locations. It’s hard, uncertain and an unforgiving experience. But is it an experience any more or less valid than those enjoyed by those who venture into the field during the summer months?
In 2014, I directed two archaeological excavations, one in the summer, one in the winter. As rains lashed in, few could accuse me of shirking my fieldwork responsibilities in less welcoming weather. Yet, that is the very accusation I have faced from a contract archaeologist, who dismissed my status as an archaeologist, because I tended to do more fieldwork in the summer than the winter, no joke. Truth be told, I very nearly died while conducting a standing archaeology buildings survey in the middle of autumn, when a storm lifted a complete roof slate, dropping it and shattering inches away from my unprotected spine. If it’s challenging working conditions which validate the archaeologist, I’m one of the most archaeological archaeologists out there.
What those in academia do have is far more limelight than those in other sectors of archaeological engagement. There can be no doubt that those in the contract sector are among the hardest working, yet undervalued contributors to archaeology in the United Kingdom today, and that has been the situation for some time. That being said, lashing out at those who are not working in those conditions, is not going to secure any sense of sympathy, or validate their status as archaeologist over anyone else, indeed, it probably does quite the opposite.
One of the joys of archaeology is its versatility. It attracts and employs such a diverse range of individuals, and creates a myriad of jobs and responsibilities, that one completely valid archaeologist, will be unrecognisable from the next. That tensions and jealousy exists is frustrating. At a time when a Tory government is doing its best to marginalise our field, and archaeology courses struggle across the country, this is really the time to be drawing together, not pulling apart.
So, I am an archaeologist, and proud. I fully acknowledge there are people working hard in archaeology around the country, and the world, who are lucky enough to get to do it more often than I do. But they are not any more or less an archaeologist than myself, they simply are, as I am, archaeologists. Perhaps we would do well as a community, to worry less about competing over who owns the title, or does the most hours in the field to earn their status, and concentrate a little more on celebrating our collective efforts. We do far more damage to our field by giving into petty bickering over who is more of an archaeologist than anyone else. Let’s use those trowels for what they were intended, and excavate, rather than trying to poke each other’s eyes out! Ours is a field on the fringes, and at a time when the sector is being pressurised from all directions, it is a field which needs unity and harmony more than it does yet another shouting match.