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."


  1. Ahh classic mix up...

    Remember Miles they would have been more scared of you than you of them. I know I am!

    As a fellow archaeofashionist I was always strived to fall into the rigid ethos of beard, unwashed sweaty garments, unkempt hair and over use of the words 'is that it!' every pay day.

    After all my brain is far to engaged in contexts and the historical relevance of things to be clogged up with the mundane notions of clothing and cleaning and food, and all that nonsense.

    Maybe with a touch of colour, some aviators, a Nike tick here a Nike tick there, maybe just maybe we will shake off our regular ribbing that our common ancestors are broke pirates or the French.

    What should an archaeologist do to keep up with fashion Miles??? I was thinking of having a hair cut, but thats just a dream....


    1. Never ever cut your hair....!

      Don't think I've ever consciously owned anything with a Nike tick (though have worn the odd real tick - curse you red deer!).

      "What should an archaeologist do to keep up with fashion?" - Best advice = stay exactly how you are and let fashion catch up with you.

      Gok Wan moment over....

  2. Heh, this gave me a right giggle! You'd probably be a bit thrown by the current Fieldwork Society from Cambridge... During the week, it's all boat shoes, tight red jeans, button-ups, and navy jackets with the lads and colorful leggins, skirts, and wooly jumpers for the girls. Stick them on the field, though, and they're just as combat-booted and army-surplus-trousered as the rest! (With the requisite layer of dirt over it all, of course.)

    1. Ah yes, archaeology is the great army surplus fashion leveller. It wouldn't surprise me if NATO is kept financially secure thanks only through the sale of second hand combat trousers to the archaeological world !