Tag Archives: Excavation

You’re an archaeologist? Really?

I wanted to title this blog ‘How to Bluff Your Way in Archaeology’ but that would almost be plagiarism, but I am happy to admit to being inspired by the small and very funny book by Paul Bahn ‘Bluff Your Way in Archaeology’. As you read you may well think I have lost the plot in my little lockdown world, this is not the case (well, not entirely). The following is a tongue-in-cheek consideration (I am basically taking the mick) of the archaeological profession and it is not intended to offend. After all, if you can’t laugh at yourself then who can you laugh at. If you do get offended easily and do take your profession seriously then I would suggest stop here and read no more…

Lets begin at the outset in saying that to be an archaeologist is to be an accomplished bluffer. I can already hear the sharp intakes of breath as archaeologists around the world start formulating their arguments, some will even be nicely presented with bullet points and the occasional funny quote (only ever occasional because it is a serious subject, after all…) and which won’t necessarily be funny to the average person but instead will demonstrate how clever the speaker is.

Now let me qualify that first statement with my own presentation duly littered with funny quotes and memes, (I do this because I can, this is my blog…).

In the majority of cases every archaeologist begins their career as a student and it is here where our life long pattern of bluffing is established. A student must effectively bluff his or her way through numerous years of study, convincing lecturers, Professors and supervisors that they have read the book list, they thoroughly understand what theoretical archaeology is and they can be trusted with a trowel at the next training dig. The universities are themselves places where the student can learn from the best bluffers in the profession.

Lecturers and other academic staff are so good at bluffing that it is almost impossible to tell they are doing it, in fact I am sure they’re not even aware of doing it. On a daily basis they manage to convince students and those not of their pay grade that they actually know stuff when in fact they had only just read up on the subject the night before (I speak from personal experience here…). The senior members of staff are the best bluffers as having already laid the foundations of a good bluff they merely need rest on their laurels watching with glee as others attempt to climb that mountain.

Beyond the university walls there are generally speaking three types of archaeologists. The professional archaeologist (white collar, slightly better paid, tied to the spreadsheet type) who can also lay claim to be a professional bluffer. The need in this day and age to tender for jobs, apply for grants and funds means that in order to make some form of career out of that university degree one’s projects are always ‘crucial to our understanding’ or ‘vital in furthering our knowledge’. Classic bluffer language meant to impress those with the cheque books.

The second type heavily rely on the first for their job, they are the field archaeologists. Their unique take on the bluff begins the moment they start working, whether it is bluffing their way around a piece of equipment they’ve never actually used before or bluffing the boss that it’s not a fresh break/they haven’t been slacking its just a very complicated site or simply bluffing friends and family about how interesting their job is…

Field archaeologists do precisely what it says on the tin, they work in the field digging or surveying archaeological sites. When seen in public they may be mistaken for the local homeless, excavation is not conducive to cleanliness and they wear their dirt with pride. A good bluffer on excavation will always comment on how straight (or not) other diggers trench walls (known as sections) are, or quite literally lose their tempers when someone walks on their newly cleaned surface. The latter is a big no-no and an experienced bluffer will know to ask first if it is okay to enter a trench – earning them much needed brownie points.

The third group are the theoretical archaeologists (they are also sometimes attached to universities mainly so the university can bluff everyone into thinking how academic and clever THEY are). This type has taken the role of devil’s advocate and run with it so far that even the devil has lost sight of the objective. In essence they do not or will not obtain their own material/data so in order to cover up their own inadequacies they question the validity of everyone else’s work. So they ask questions such as how well was the site excavated? Is the sample representative? They publish large quantities of material usually collating and condensing everyone else’s hard won data. This type can be recognised by the excessive use of jargon and large words that mean very little; a heavy reliance on mathematical equations and complicated diagrams. All of which are smoke and mirrors designed to hide their own inadequacies.

All of this is fine and dandy but what are the practical aspects of bluffing your way in archaeology? Well in truth this can be boiled down into two points – the way you look and your attitude…get these right and no one will know you don’t have that degree.

What does an archaeologist look like? This will depend slightly on gender and age – beards are common as are spectacles; a field archaeologist will generally have a very basic wardrobe with sturdy footwear; a ruddy complexion with a touch of sun/wind burn adds to the authenticity. When on a dig be sure to wear the same t-shirt for at least three days in row. Newbies are easily spotted (and derided) based on their cleanliness and the size of their trowel – a good bluffer would have ensured that their trowel was suitably worn down prior to arriving at the dig. The more academic archaeologists are usually the bespectacled type in clothing that wasn’t even trendy in their grandparents day. They often looked confused when approached by the enthusiastic student and will be carrying a collection of papers with hastily scribbled notes that mean nothing to anyone who glances that way. This type of bluffer will always be in an immense hurry and when asked to do something will always forget citing how busy they are and they’re so sorry they’ll get onto it straight away – they don’t…

If at anytime you are asked to contribute to a conversation here are a few things to remember –

*When talking to anyone who knows nothing about archaeology and excavation it is important to emphasise that it is the processing and analysing of the data collected which takes the longest amount of time – the digging is but a small part of a larger picture.

*Desirory comments about the latest Daily Mail or BBC archaeology headline is acceptable in all circumstances. As is wondering out loud who their source of information was and why do they not employ a journo with some archaeological knowledge.

obviously not a real headline…but not too far off…

*In any conversation that focuses on individual treasures (particularly when questions of monetary value arise) it is important to let everyone know that you do not approve – a loud sigh usually works well – before launching into a lecture on how archaeologists dig not to find things but to find things out. At which point it is also acceptable to walk away muttering about context…

*When asked why you do archaeology be sure to smile and then tell a story about how as young child you found an interesting flint arrowhead (or whatever is appropriate to you) and so begun your life long passion for the subject. A really good bluffer will be able to produce said arrowhead from their pocket with a whimsical smile. Apart form this good bluffers can talk endlessly about their passion for the subject (don’t forget to get really animated) and how they long to contribute to our understanding of the past. Because lets not forget no one does archaeology to get rich.

*You must at all times pour unadulterated scorn on any who ask about the monetary value of an object and show absolute contempt for ‘treasure hunters’ and the History Channel – I may have repeated myself here…

*Finally, a really good bluffer will be found at the pub – if you’re in the UK – otherwise anywhere there is a plentiful supply of alcohol, preferably cheap…

A good bluffer will already know this and will be happy to point it out to newbies on site…

There is so much more I could wax lyrical about regarding bluffing your way in archaeology (thank you Mr Bahn) but I won’t (phew!) Please do remember that this is my own feeble attempt to get a laugh and if I have failed and you do find yourself a little bit offended perhaps a pint at the pub might help – after lockdown that is…stay safe.

Ahuahu – Archaeology on Great Mercury Island.

Yesterday was the first day of New Zealand Archaeology Week, it is the first time in New Zealand that archaeology has been celebrated with its own ‘week’.  As part of this celebration of the past I attended a lecture at the Auckland Museum about the long term archaeological project being undertaken on Great Mercury Island entitled The Changing Face of Archaeology – The application of technology to the Ahuahu Great Mercury Island Archaeological Project.  The lecture was delivered by Louise Furey, Rebecca Phillipps and Joshua Emmitt.

Great Mercury Island is situated off the east coast of the Coromandel Penninsula and as the name would suggest is the largest island in the Mercury Group.  The purpose of the project is to examine the history of the Maori occupation on the island.  As an island it provides the ideal opportunity to study a landscape as a whole and how people utilised and interacted with the landscape over time.  This post is not a comprehensive study of the archaeology of the island, it is only a brief foray into what is a complex landscape.  I have included links for those who wish to do read more about the work that is being carried out by the archaeologists.

Mercury Island Chart Picture

There is certainly plenty of archaeology on the island to keep the archaeologists busy for quite some time.  Of that which is visible above ground there are twenty-three Pa (defended sites with ditches and banks), large areas of gardens (recognisable by the lines of cleared stones), kumara storage pits, stone working sites and shell middens.  As recent excavations have indicated there is even more evidence lying beneath the surface.

Prior to the current project the island was subject to two other single event excavations.  The first being undertaken in 1954 in the early days of New Zealand Archaeology by then then newly appointed lecturer in archaeology at the University of Auckland Jack Golson.  With a party of archaeology students he excavated a terrace on the Stingray Point Pa (Matakawau) identifying two kumara pits, each pit had more than 80 post holes suggesting a long period of rebuilding the roof structures.  Golson’s work was never published although this is soon to be rectified.

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A reconstruction drawing of how such storage structures may have looked like.

In 1984 Professor Geoffrey Irwin of the University of Auckland excavated a Pa in Huruhi Harbour. In 2009 a sever storm eroded about ten metres of sand from White’s Beach to reveal a shell midden and a rich charcoal layer.  Bones from dogs and fish were found within the midden which was dated by radiocarbon to c.1400AD.

From 2012 the University of Auckland and the Auckland Museum have been working in conjunction with Ngati Hei on the previously mentioned long term project.  The island is visited on regular basis with the main excavation season being held in Febuary, which is also a training dig for archaeology students from the university.  The lecture held yesterday focussed on some of the finds from the excavations such as the large quantities of obsidian flakes some of which come from as far afield as Taupo, Mayor Island and closer to home on the Coromandel Peninsula.  Although work/research is still ongoing it is becoming clearer how important Ahuahu is in our understanding of the early prehistory of New Zealand.

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Field School Dig Diaries

Because ultimately excavation is destruction it has long been universally acknowledged how important it is to record as much detail as possible.  In the past this was often a labour intensive activity, if done at all.  Today’s archaeologists now have a raft of technological tools at there disposal and at Great Mercury they are taking full advantage of what is available.  The technology being used on site to record every find, feature and layer includes total stations, laser scanners and drones are in everyday tools for these excavations.

You Tube has several video’s of work being done on the island – the following are links to a couple to get you started if you are interested.

Daily video diary

Archaeology is Amazing

On the Auckland Museum website there is also information on the project  – Great Mercury Island Expedition.

The Making of Maori Society

Variable horticulture within a small garden on Ahuahu