Archaeology is something I have been interested in since I was a small child - it was one of my dream jobs. I loved the idea of being outside all day and able to connect with history in such a literal and physical way. I minored in Archaeology when studying for a BA, but chose not to focus on it as I did not think it would give me the best employability prospects! However, in the spirit of 25before25 I went on my first dig.
Click the button to read about my experience on an excavation and views on if I think Archaeology is right for me
Click the button to read my interview with a group of Archaeologists to learn about why they chose this career and what it takes to be an Archaeologist
Where better to launch 25before25 than in somewhere like Transylvania, Romania.
I turned up sleepy-eyed at Cluj-Napoca airport, which I did not know how to pronounce before arriving (I later learned it was Cl-oo-ge Nap-oh-ca), expecting to see Dracula and Vlad the Impaler style tourism everywhere. Whilst I am sure there are parts of Transylvania where this is the case, I am afraid to say I saw not even a suggestion of oversized human canines. But more of that will be discussed in the soon-to-be-launched travel blog.
So I have spent the past two weeks trying out my childhood dream of being an Archaeologist in Sarmizegetusa (pronounced Sar-meez-eh-ga-two-za, affectionately nicknamed Sarmy) on an excavation of the Governor’s Palace at Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa, the capital of Roman Dacica.
I was the only member of the British contingent to have never participated in an excavation before and to have no idea what I was doing. There initially was very little explanation from the excavation supervisors, partly due to a language barrier. It was essentially ‘here is a shovel and pick axe – dig down there’. A naïve observation, but I did not think an excavation would involve so much pure digging, I assumed there would be a far greater amount of kneeling on the ground and trowelling to closely examine everything, stratigraphic layer by layer. I was not expecting to pick axe and shovel for 4 days straight without finding anything whatsoever.
During these first days I questioned what I had gotten myself into. Beyond the standard existential crisis that comes with quitting a promising career with no alternative plan - now a normal thought - I questioned whether Archaeology was right for me. Did I really want to spend my life digging holes in the dirt? Whilst I was enjoying being outdoors and the physical nature of the work, it was far from intellectually stimulating or inspiring.
However, some noticeably improved biceps, and a lot of sweat, toil and mud later, I learned that all this hard work had been needed as the top meter of soil on the was part of several ‘disturbed’ layers, meaning the artefacts in the grounds were not in context due to later digging or farming. Therefore, we needed to dig solidly to reach the lower layers, as they were far more meaningful.
A basic example of Archaeological Stratigraphy, but you get the point. The older, and therefore deeper, layers are the ones we want - which means lots of digging.
Once I understood the reasons for the hard graft and when we finally reached the right layer, several meters down from the surface, my perspective changed completely. Within a few hours an oil lamp, a hair pin and a ceramic face appeared, along with ceramic pottery, painted plaster and bones aplenty. A few of the floor tiles were found with finger prints and animal paw prints in them, from 1,800 years ago.
This was far more what I had in mind and I found it instantly rewarding – all that digging was worthwhile. The idea that no one has seen this object since the 2nd century AD and that I had the honour of being the first person to touch it – that is surely enough to capture most people’s imagination.
But more than anything else, it was the human connection that I found most inspiring, as whilst the architecture tells us a huge amount about Roman society, bricks and stone do not hold the same amazement as placing your finger over the fingerprint of someone who lived 1,800 years ago. Seeing how people lit their homes and tied up their hair, how they painted their rooms or even scratched some graffiti into the plaster, connects you to history in a way that no book can.
It is a special experience when your trowel first touches an artefact in the soil, looking at an object in a museum does not even compare.
How Well Do I Fit Archaeology?
Archaeology ticks many of my boxes – it allows for a substantial amount of time outdoors if I were to be a practical, rather than solely theoretical Archaeologist. Equally, if I were an academic or commercial Archaeologist it would of course be extremely intellectually stimulating. I could travel the world when excavating, and there would be plenty of problem solving and variety. We also had lectures on how technological innovation was beginning to change the way Archaeological excavations are being done – something I would be fascinated to explore.
But I had to question, as an Archaeologist would I be adding real value to society? Would I make a difference and leave the world a better place? Unless I discovered the next Tutankhamen or Pompeii (I think we can assume I won’t), I was not certain that I could answer 'yes'.
So I asked the Archaeologists I was working with what their answer to that challenge would be. Among many reasons, they pointed out that I would be working towards preserving the cultural heritage of that society and could contribute to constructing the narrative of the site/culture/era I was studying and lecturing on, which would be there to inform future generations.
There is something very human about wanting to know your roots, where we are from and how similar or dissimilar we are to our ancestors. This knowledge is intrinsically valuable and Archaeology is one way of showing that. In a way, that is far more of a strategic or 'bigger picture' contribution than helping those alive in my lifetime. But, I am still uncertain if it is the tangible impact that I think I want to make and I am not sure if this is quite what I had in mind, when I said I wanted a career where I could think strategically.
Perhaps it would be what I made of it though. For example, a Professor at my old University theorises that early humans crossed to the Americas over an ice bridge from Spain. An idea which currently seems a little eccentric, could make many North and South Americans stop and think again about their identities on individual and national levels, if it could be proven. The implications on the present day could be huge and it would force Historians and Archaeologists alike to re-examine all of American history and pre-history through a completely different lens.
The final question I had to ask was whether I was passionate enough about this to dedicate my life to it? It would be ridiculous to spend all the time and money studying for an MA and PhD in Archaeology, if ultimately that is not what I wanted to do for the next couple of decades at least. I now know that for Roman Archaeology, the honest answer is no. But there are other areas that fascinate me - Egyptology and Hominid evolution especially.
We don’t yet have an Egyptologist Mary Beard!
Whilst it ticks many of my boxes, it does not tick some very crucial ones – or at least, not in the way that I think I want. But as I have previously mentioned, the idea of a portfolio career really appeals to me so perhaps it would be possible to pursue Archaeology as part of that.
So 6 ticks and 4 question marks. It is therefore firmly going in the maybe pile - for now.
Digging Deeper: Are Archaeologists Legitimate Treasure Hunters?
It rains a lot in the Carpathian Mountains. You can see the storm clouds roll over the top of the hills, threatening any fair-weather archaeologists in the valley where Sarmisegetuza is nestled, far below.
Unfortunately, on several occasions I was part of that group of fair-weather archaeologists. In my second week of digging, we ran for shelter under the tin roof where we ate our meals, and as we dried off the conversation turned to my colleagues’ reasons for being archaeologists.
As I have already discussed in my earlier article, Archaeology is in the ‘maybe’ pile for me, but I have now had some more time to reflect on my experience in deepest, darkest Transylvania and the conversations I had.
‘Discovery! Variety! Being outdoors! It’s romantic!’ were just some of the reasons thrown at me when I asked why they chose archaeology. The mixture of practical and intellectual was also pretty high up. Money was mentioned, and the group laughed at the irony; archaeology is a not a profession you choose if you want a swanky city life.
One of the academics supervising the excavation, Dr Ioana Oltean (pronounced Yo-ana), gave me a more in-depth answer by telling me about her interest in stories. ‘Not in the names and dates, but in what actually happened and how people lived in a different era. I wanted to see what was next.’ This I can certainly relate to. I was the nerdy child who was enthralled by history, and took it one step further by writing stories set in the periods I was most interested in (you can tell I was never one of the ‘cool’ kids!).
Ioana then started explaining how she was also fascinated by ‘mysteries, puzzles and detective stories’; she loved reconstructing a picture though finding the right evidence, and the final thrill of solving the problem. It turns out, to be Indiana Jones, you actually need to have a good dose of Sherlock Holmes in you. Who knew?
For Ioana, another major driver was the travel. Growing up in communist Romania with its closed borders, it meant she had only been able to read about going to other countries. In the post-communist era as the borders opened, archaeology gave her access to the world and exposed her to people from different cultures and communities.
Finally, I asked the lead professor of the excavation, ‘why archaeology?’ Prof Diaconescu is a world renowned archaeologist of the Eastern Roman Empire and is the type of person whose very presence commands instant respect. This is a particularly impressive trait, as he looks like the Father Christmas of archaeology - think St Nicholas in Indiana Jones’ clothes. In a slow, rumbling voice he explained that every morning, even after a life dedicated to the study, he still thinks ‘maybe today I will discover something fantastic. Maybe today I will find something beautiful and unique, something that will completely revolutionise our understanding of this topic.’ That hope has kept him going in the years in between those rare finds. This was clearly a person who cannot wait to get up every morning and go and do his job, despite having done it every day for fifty years. That is an exceptional and powerful thing.
There were enthusiastic nods around the table, all agreeing that this dream of finding something truly spectacular and game-changing drove them every day. This is the feeling of longing for finding buried treasure and that is something that archaeologists (or at least these ones) get to have bubbling inside them every single day. How many people in this world are paid to feel that!?
So does this make archaeologists legitimate treasure hunters? In a word, yes. Treasure hunters with morality and a deep sense of responsibility, but that are still driven by the glamour of the idea of buried treasure (even if they know they can’t keep it).
In the interest of not glamorising archaeology too much, there are some downsides worth mentioning, though many are true for academia more widely. Getting PhD funding can be a challenge and needing to do at least four of five years of further education on top of a BA means that many of life’s milestones are delayed. Getting a mortgage is difficult and many choose to put a hold on having children until they are more financially secure. Academia can also be pretty cut-throat as work is often personally driven and you are in direct competition with your peers, though this varies depending on subject area.
There is also the option of becoming a commercial archaeologist, conducting fast-paced excavations ahead of building projects by private companies. However, I have yet to meet someone who works in this area so I have not focused on it here.
I also touched on how archaeology can make a difference and contribute to society in my previous article, but I think there is more to be said on this. Never before had I considered how widely this profession can impact. Archaeologists often provide evidence in court for helping local communities prove they are native in North and South America, which can grant them a protected status and give them land rights. Archaeology can bring tourism into an area, along with the associated jobs and money as local people help out on digs and provide services to the sudden influx of tourists. This is beneficial to everyone involved as it strengthens community ties as well as increasing the chances of the site being properly protected and preserved for future generations. Then there are the fun things like advising in TV and film productions (or even participating, if you’re on Time Team).
So, tempted by archaeology as a career? If you consider yourself a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones, then this is certainly the career for you.
Read more articles in the blog.