Thursday, 26 January 2012

Archaeology: what NOT to wear

I confess that the sheer quantity of designer leisure and sportswear that confronted me, as I entered the lecture theatre, took me quite by surprise. The first three rows of seats were a dizzying wash of primary colours and brand logos. Despite the fact that those occupying the seats behind were obscured by a lethal combination of big hair and progressively poor lighting, I had the nasty feeling that the dress code throughout the room was the same.

I took a deep breath and walked up to the lectern.

I know things have changed a lot since the 'glory days' of spit-first-ask-questions-later archaeology, but I was a little unnerved by just how un-fieldwork compliant the first year appeared to be. I fumbled for my data stick (never a good thing in a darkened space) and attempted to log into the network.

I glanced up.

Seriously, were these people aware of what archaeology was all about? Were they expecting long periods of time out on site? Did they know anything about the vagaries of the British weather? Smiling feebly, I returned to the computer and entered my password. I had only met the first year once before this lecture, but I was sure that they hadn't been so....well, so damned fashionable.

Archaeologists have never really been fashionable - fashion is something they've never really got.

Even in the world of popular fiction, the choice of attire for those of an archaeological persuasion is straight forward: dust-covered pith helmet, sweaty shirt (open to the groin) and unfeasibly baggy, khaki-coloured shorts.

No one has, in my recollection, ever asked why the antiquarians and treasure-hunters of film and TV require such enormous amounts of camouflage clothing (though presumably it has something to do with not wanting to be seen by the public whilst out on expedition). The pith-helmet, short shirt and long shorts are, of course, part of a fashion stereotype not just of the archaeologist, but of the colonial explorer in general - in fact early 20th century Tarzan movies often give the impression that at least half of Africa was populated by dusty, arrogant, pith-helmeted types (which, for all I know, it probably was).

It is the archaeologist, however, before Indiana Jones first donned his leather jacket and battered fedora, who kept the pith helmet alive throughout countless cinematic expeditions. This particular and distinctive piece of antiquated headgear has, if anything, become the lazy pop-culture shorthand for the adventurer archaeologist. Put one such item upon the head of a televisual, cinematic or cartoon character, and the implication is clear enough: this person is on an 'EXPLORATION' to seek out liberal dollops of ‘TREASURE’.

The pop culture academic archaeologist, on the other hand, has never really worried about how they should look or what they should wear on a dig, mostly because they don't actually ever do any digging themselves (what's the point when you have a large native workforce to exploit?). The majority of those appearing on film or TV seem to feel secure in corduroy or tweed and sensible shoes, looking out at the world through steel-rimmed spectacles (probably in order to confirm just how much reading and research they do).

In the REAL world, however, the clothing choice of REAL dirt-based archaeologists is a little different. Few (if any) wear pith helmets. Some may secretly hanker after the jacket and hat of Dr Jones

or the tight-fitting Lycra of Ms Croft

(not me you understand - Lycra does nothing for me), but the majority of those engaged in archaeological fieldwork are usually (and sometimes quite distinctively) marked out by the almost obsessive tribal use of disused, multi-pocketed military attire (derived from former eastern-bloc and NATO countries).

You weren't a REAL archaeologist if you didn't possess at least one pair of German issue combats (complete with groinal air holes), a Middle-Eastern style scarf or bandanna (to protect against dust storms), a Soviet style hat (with ear flaps), a fearsome pair of (steel-toe capped) boots and an obscure Slovakian shirt with bizarre (and largely incomprehensible) central logo.

Oh, and multiple facial piercings. Lots of multiple facial piercings.

When I first visited the academic institution where I now work (in the late 1980s), there were only two types of course being taught on campus: Archaeology and Business-related studies. This created a form of fashion-apartheid in the student cafeteria, between (so it appeared) the power dressed young conservatives and the down at heel left wing militia. The two sides, comprising the "[insert expletive] suits" and the "[insert expletive] pony-tails" eyed each other suspiciously from opposite sides of the room. Between them lay an unspoken but clearly defined 'no-man's land' into which it was dangerous to venture. The atmosphere was heavy with menace (and the fumes of burnt-pizza). 

Of course, it's all different now - the diversity of courses developed here through the 1990s heralded a new age of expressive freedom: a clothing ceasefire. Thanks to this fashion glasnost, all manners of dress are acceptable and permissible and no one appears in any way constrained by taste or decency. Course-based acculturation is, however, still detectable, and those students enrolled upon specific programmes of study soon loose whatever unique markers of identity they once had, shedding former tastes in favour of the more unified dress code of their respective subject area. Hence it is possible to detect a herd of business students, the odd gaggle of of media students, a posse of sports students or a diatribe of archaeologists or geographers. Subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) clues are clearly evident to the seasoned observer. 

I suppose that's why the crowd facing me in the lecture theatre that morning made me feel so unsettled. They did not fit the stereotype; they did not compute. Fortunately, the first slide of my talk (a very realistic (and unfortunately very naked) portrait of a 1st century Roman emperor) seemed to cause a degree of consternation within the group.

A thought occurred to me: "What lecture are you expecting today?"

An over-scrubbed type in a lime-green ski jacket and wrap around shades offered me a way out: "Media Production."

I grinned insanely (in retrospect probably a bit too insanely - for the front row were now visibly edgy) and turned to the door. A very tanned lecturer with bleach-blond hair, wearing a bright yellow hoody and skinny jeans, was just entering the theatre.

I acknowledged his presence with a wave and added: "They're all yours."

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Trench Lyrical

Archaeologists, as I'm sure I've already noted, are at their most dangerous when bored. Evidently, in this current economic climate, there's a lot of boredom around, as can be seen in normally vibrant email discussion groups, now packed to beyond bursting point with the collected wifflings of minds caught in vegetative limbo (and, yes, I realise that I'm sailing perilously close to the classic 'pot-kettle-sooty-bottom' interface scenario here). To give you one example, a recent discussion thread generated considerable (and rather heated) debate, not because it dared to consider whether archaeology had a future, or whether too many museums were closing, whether there was a 'decline' in ethical standards, whether loss of funding for projects would harm the historic resource, the nature of mass unemployment, the destruction of cultural treasures or any other of a million pressing pressing current concerns. 


The furore developed from the fundamental lack of agreement over which pop song contained the best archaeological-related lyric. 

I suspect that my annoyance came not from the trivial nature of the discussion (let's face it most web-based content (and I do include myself here) is a thinly-disguised form of angst-removal-therapy), but from the fact that the songs chosen for consideration were all trippy-hippy-lovey-wovey 70s uber-guff of the most annoying "give petits pois a chance" variety. Surely, I thought as I felt myself being inexorably dragged into the debate, there must be something better; something that more succinctly sums up the glorious futility of archaeological excavation against the odds; something more stridently "Archaeo-anarchy in the UK !" than "(I can't get no) Stratification"; something more "Smack my Ditch up" than "The Paviland Lady in Red".

Then it came to me. 

The (criminally) overlooked JG Thirlwell

(a.k.a. 'Scraping Foetus off the Wheel') on his 1985 album NAIL, had a rather wonderfully morbid ditty entitled 'Descent into the inferno' within which the following gem may be found:

"Don't excavate if you ain't diggin for gold
Cos it's a long way up when you're SIX FEET UNDER
Under a pile of HUMAN DEBRIS
A life fulla LIES and S*** and RUBBLE
You wanna save yourself the trouble"

Hearing Mr Thirlwell again, I'm suddenly back in a world of watching briefs in freezing hail bucketing ice from machine-dug trenches cut down through layer upon layer of Victorian housing debris and the accumulated bottle-glass detritus of urban life....

....happy days.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Found Anything Yet (part 2)?

It happened again.

Last week a journalist asked me "what's the most exciting thing you've ever found?"

I know I shouldn't get upset, but, as I've noted before, it's the sort of question that defies any reasonable answer. I 'ummed' and 'ahhed' and tried to fob him off with a comment to the effect that "all archaeological finds were exciting", which is true, although, I suspect that in retrospect it probably sounded quite trite. There is, after all, an incredible thrill on finding something, even a lowly struck flint or pot sherd, that has lain undisturbed (and unseen by human eyes) for millennia. I don't really care what the find is (and ok gold or silver would be nice, if unlikely), for it is a vital clue to understanding the past: a critical piece of the 'impossible jigsaw of time'.

The journalist, however, was not budging. "No, your BEST find, something which changed your perception of the past; something that really excited you". I could see that my idea of excitement was probably different to his, so I took another gulp of tea. My mind was reeling from the inability to conjure up some discovery from my past that both he and his audience would judge to be 'amazing': the sort of thing that a man of my age really ought to have found by this late stage in his career. Trouble is, I have yet to locate a Crystal Skull or unearth the odd Cradle of Life or Ark of the Covenant. Certainly nothing that the movie industry (which continually moulds both the public and media perception of archaeology as a profession) says I ought to have back home in my own private museum.

I cleared my throat.

Ok. Mile Oak, East Sussex Late summer 1989. Here I was in charge of overseeing a JCB mini digger cutting trenches across a chalk valley as part of an impact assessment for the A27 Brighton Bypass (now hacking its indiscriminate way through the South Downs). Two days in and we had found very little. With half an hour to spare before the end of the last day, I got the JCB driver to cut one last trench. Fortunately this came down on a prehistoric henge monument with a rather fine, if small, monolith originally set up within what turned out to be the north-western entrance to the site. The henge was a totally unexpected discovery and the monolith remains, to date, the only standing stone recorded from the South Downs. Mile Oak was also the site where I found my wife to be (not with the JCB).

Interestingly, if people ask (as they now rarely do) what my favourite find whilst working on Time Team was (yes I was there for 3 years - mostly hiding behind the camera), I'm afraid it is another monolith (nothing Freudian in all this I hope). This particular upright came from within the entrance of Migdale henge, Highlands in Scotland and, like Mile Oak, was an unexpected discovery. There was a great scene (lasting about 9 seconds) in the final TV programme where, with 30 minutes of daylight left on the last day of filming, I single-handedly lifted the stone (contrary to appearances it was exceptionally light) and set it back in the entranceway, patted it then collapsed (off camera) into a little heap. There was, I recall at the time, some talk of fixing the stone in place, as a tourist / henge worshipper / heritage feature, but I think it was finally reburied back in the hole from which it had come. Looking through the henge, as the sun began to set on that last day, past the stone and down the length of the Loch, I felt a tear spring to my eye (the whisky helped).

I came back to reality with a jolt and realised that I had been staring off into the middle distance. The journalist was looking at me in a slightly curious yet concerned way. I smiled.

"Stones then..." he said matter-of-factly, "you found some stones..."

I could see that he was not impressed.

"Standing stones" I corrected.

“Standing stones that were lying down" he nodded, as if that made all the difference - An embarrassing silence fell between us and I noticed that he had stopped writing in his note pad.

"Anything else?"

Friday, 13 January 2012

Just Say 'No'

As a child I was pretty damn sure that I never wanted to have a job which entailed me having to wear a uniform. Don't know why, perhaps I just hated conformity and never wanted to "work in a shirt with my name tag on it"...or a tie...what is it about ties? Flap, flap, flappy things that end up in your soup, fly round your face in a high wind (blinding you or some innocent passer-by), get caught in doors or retracting car windows or, worse, make a sudden bid for freedom down the most insanitary of toilet U-bends (not pleasant if you're trying to park a custard at the time). I always feel close to the point of utter strangulation on the odd occasion that I do wear neck furniture. Perhaps these feelings can be traced back to my school days (Patcham Fawcett Comprehensive....effectively (and comprehensively) pummeled into rubble in the early 1990s), where ties had to be worn and top-buttons rigidly fastened, even during the hottest of summer days. Perhaps if I had a past life regression I could put additional spin on the phobia (especially if there was, in my murky medieval past, a tale of garroting, hanging or auto-asphyxiation?)...who knows? Anyway, I can remember as a child, way before a love of dead civilisations wormed its way into my head, clearly NOT wanting to ever be in a job where there was a dress code; where someone else ultimately controlled what you could and could not wear.

So I became an archaeologist.

Trouble is, as with any profession, archaeology has its own rigid rules of dress; I just didn't know it at the time. Now I've been in the profession for a while, I know the codes and regulations well and, perhaps rather sadly, realise that I have, indeed, conformed to a dress stereotype....

.....for well over 25 years.

At university in the mid 1980s, a friend and I (Iain McGuinness, where are you now?) created a poster based on the 'Heroin Screws You Up' campaign, a bizarre government sponsored TV initiative whereby the dangers of drug use were highlighted by poor fashion sense and loss of bowel control...... anyway, to cut a long (and I suspect inordinately tedious) story short, we created a poster campaign of our own demonstrating the dangers of archaeology through the devolution and degeneration of 'Paul' (don't ask me how we settled on that name), a neatly attired, bescarfed and blazered sixth former, who, in his innocence, gets caught up in a life of mud, flint, pottery and taphonomic processes, slowly loosing his dress sense, his scarf, his grip on reality and (finally) his hair, gaining in the process spectacles, a beard, and (in a final indignity) a pair of super-soiled shorts, which he takes to wearing at the most inappropriate of times. A caption at the top of the poster, written in what appeared to be Paul's own blood, oozed the warning "ARCHAEOLOGY SCREWS YOU UP - JUST SAY NO !".

Sadly I didn't heed my own warnings and I am now what I feared most then.....

........I am Paul.