The embodied experience of the archaeologist

It’s 5:30am. You stumble out of bed, almost trip over your work boots in the dark and stagger to the bathroom. The ‘clean’ t-shirt you slip on was washed by hand and your work trousers have a few mysterious marks on them you hope no one will notice. Before leaving for a day of fieldwork, you obsessively check your bag for all the essentials: large hat, sunglasses, sun cream, trowel. That last item is especially important. When you were in London it was often your mobile phone that felt like it was an extension of your self-now the trowel has truly taken its place. If you lose your trowel, you may as well have lost a limb.



I’m currently on a research dig in the Cyclades. Obviously I’ve been doing a lot of archaeology and thinking in archaeological terms, but I’ve also been considering the actual experience of archaeology itself. After all, any archaeological project isn’t just undertaken in the trenches. The archaeological ‘experience’ also manifests itself in other ways; in the trip to site every day, disagreements and new theories discussed over dinner, visiting museums and new archaeological sites on days off.


The embodied experience of the archaeologist on site is obviously very much dependent on the nature of the local topography, geology and fieldwork that they are undertaking. I’ve had to acclimatise to working in very windy conditions and on a steeper incline than I ever have in my commercial work, for example. I’ve also been using a Total Station much more frequently than I ever have before, which has meant that a lot of my ‘embodied’ experience of archaeology has involved how I position myself in relation to the Total Station tripod, carefully moving the dials so as not to affect the levelling of the machine.


Wherever you are doing archaeology, much of the embodied experience of it can be characterised by the mundane small details such as the habitus of a morning ritual that I mentioned above. This can involve the routine packing and unpacking of equipment, checking that batteries are charged and that the obligatory cheese and tomato sandwich is safely stowed.


The question is, where does the archaeological ‘experience’ end if it doesn’t do so in the trenches? When you’re on a research dig in another country such as the one I’m on now, the archaeological experience is also inextricably linked with the local area. After being out in the field, I usually take a trip to a local bar which I’ve been to so many times that they know my order. The various restaurants and bars that our team has visited in the town act as landmarks in my mind, places where we are generally recognised as ‘the archaeologists.’


I recently saw a post on Facebook in which archaeology was described as a ‘lifestyle’ and I suppose to an extent that’s a definition I would agree with. Like many other professions, the experience of being an archaeologist is made up various routines and habits. However, the nature of our work means that there is continually a new ‘normal;’ we are constantly adapting to new challenges, discovering new archaeological features and reevaluating our findings. There are always consistent threads of practise in archaeology, but it also requires great physical and intellectual stamina in the face of new surroundings and data.


Archaeology can involve a kind of nomadic lifestyle. You wear dusty boots, live on a shoe-string budget and attempt to ‘walk in the shoes’ of people long dead in places you’ve never been before. The embodied experience of the archaeologist involves not just the relationship with their trowel, but also with other archaeologists and the landscape that you traverse every day. It would be impossible, and foolhardy, to make any grand generalisations about the embodied experience of archaeologists save for this-it is reliably changeable.


Expect the unexpected. And cheese and tomato sandwiches.

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