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Sureyya the Shovel Bum

Sureyya's Journey, Part 8

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Beginning Excavation at old Champoeg townsite, Champoeg, Oregon 1973

Beginning Excavation at old Champoeg townsite, Champoeg, Oregon 1973

John Atherton

Several years ago, Australian Sureyya Kose decided to switch her boring Information Technology career for a life in archaeology. She's been telling us her story ever since, in hilarious and poignant letters from the field. In Part 8, Sureyya describes how she spent the last year trying to get work experience in the field, and braving the world of contract archaeology.

Sureyya’s Journey

For some reason, archaeologists are terrible at maths. That's what I've found anyway--myself included. Several times now a few of us have sat back on a dig, thinking about how to calculate the hypotenuse for a grid. Site directors included - across different cities. I think it's the best kept (until now) industry secret and it's rather funny actually.

In this post I'll be talking about fieldwork and how some universities ill-prepare you for the big bad world of consulting archaeology and a career in archaeology in general. It's nearly graduating time, I'm in my last semester and boy is it tough to decide what to do next. It all concerns field work.

That's what I have been up to since my last post--field work, and questions such as 'What is Archaeology?' have taken on a completely different bent. It has come to mean the calculation of yes, the hypotenuse of grids, stringing up 1 x 1 meter, 2 x 2 or 2 x 1 or 5 x 5 or even 0.50 x 5 meter grids, whatever fits the purpose of the excavation. Taking level readings, drawing mud maps and sections and plotting artefacts using a GPS with odd glitchy software. It has meant surveying or walking up and down a paddock for days trying to spot stone tools. It has meant careful excavation with surgical tools or hurried salvage work with a pick-axe and mechanical hoe. All things I had no idea about, until I volunteered my services as an able shovel bum. The learning has been invaluable but it also comes with pain.

Archaeology is Pain

Yes, Pain. Archaeology is a heavy, hard slog of a job. Nobody tells you that. I haven't read that in one text book. There are no sections on 'How to nurse a crook back'. It's basically the work of a day labourer. Watch any arch movie or documentary and you see the locals digging away, toiling against the harsh earth, and you always overlook them. Well those workers in my neck of the woods are now impoverished students trying to gain some experience. My hat goes off to those workers, as great archaeological discoveries were only possible due to their hard toil in the hot sun or cold for weeks on end with meagre wages or rations. The glory usually goes to the archaeologist who sits idly by. Carpal Tunnel on your wrists from trowelling across the hard earth, dust and dirt in every place imaginable (I was crunching sand/dirt with my lunch more than once) and the ever present sun burn across your back, arms and neck. All this fun wasn't being had in a comfortable academic field school either, where things are explained to you and the day goes forward like a lesson from a chapter book. It was within the world of consulting archaeology. It was work, and most of the time, very little was explained apart from 'dig over there, in 10 cm spits, tools are over there.' ...ah what's a spit? And how does one dig one?'

First Digs as a Shovel Bum

During my first dig, I had a clue via text books, but had never actually dug one out. The books explained more or less with the 'layer cake' analogy and all was okay, but I had so many questions and felt I could not really get a full explanation and predominantly had an eerie feeling that the site managers had no interest in questions whatsoever and would rather I shut up and dig. Well I dug alright. I dug my heart out and nearly did my back in, as I had no idea what the required speed was and wanted to make a good first impression.

In consulting archaeology, speed is always looked on favourably. By the time I was 70 cm in with only my head peeking out of the trench I looked up to ask the site manager if I was going at a good pace. She said 'yeah, good' and that was it for the rest of the day pretty much. No instruction, or encouragement, I was pretty much ignored.

It was a company, not a university, and they were there to get the job done and leave, not teach undergrad students how to dig. I felt a little ousted as they were paying me a meagre $30 a day. It was a remote location, so it put me out of pocket to boot. My first dig experience saw me very sore and a little bitter, not to mention confused. I was even more confused when I realised it was actually pretty tough to find these digs and be let on.

Getting the Next Dig

The industry works on word of mouth quite often and my next dig came by the help of a friend who had also gotten on to the dig by another friend, who had been happily chatting away at a coffee shop when spotted.

It's not exactly an interview system, where you submit a resume and wait to be called. More luck of the draw. On this dig I gained invaluable experience writing up context sheets, interpreting the geology of the site, excavating 1 x 1 test pits and surface surveys. I found archs are also terrible at geology, that is the fabrics that make up stone tools. Wet and cold weather aside it was valuable and paid a reasonable wage. It involved sieving thick clay through a 5 mm mesh and was by far the most frustrating part of the job. After a week of this, morale was pretty low and a resourceful and helpful fellow, (the mechanical hoe digger) allowed us to use his wet sieving equipment with high pressure hoses included. It was an absolute God send.

More of Sureyya’s Journey

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