Monday, 1 February 2016

Cocktail Party Archaeologist

A slight divergence from my planned blog series, this is a response to Doug’s Blogging Carnival about the Grand Challenges for Archaeology.

As a current PhD student in archaeology, I see many grand challenges within our field. For me personally the main one at the moment is finding a job. I have had many a depressing conversation with colleagues about the vast swathes of funding schemes and academic institutions we have been applying to. The conversation often ends with the proposal of an eccentric and somewhat desperate plan B: designing academia related monopoly games, writing Persian poetry themed children’s books, starting up a gourmet popcorn stand, or my personal favourite, joining a hippie commune and sailing around the Greek Islands. All fantastic ideas, but not exactly what we have spent many years and often a lot of money training to do.

Now I am not suggesting there are no jobs, nor am I claiming that archaeologists have it so much worse than everyone else, but as archaeology is my field, it is a problem I am over-exposed to. It doesn’t help that people outside our field don’t quite know how to place us. In a sense we are a very practical discipline, trained in specific methods meant for a very particular professional context. However, at the same time our field is seen as quite interpretive, artsy, adventurous, outside the professions associated with everyday needs. This puts us in somewhat of a predicament, endlessly floating between a vocation and recreation in public perception.

The case in which this becomes most evident is the cocktail party conversation. By this I mean the inevitable exchange that occurs when you meet new people in a semi-formal setting. They ask you what you study/research/do, you naturally answer ‘I am an archaeologist’ and their most likely response will be something along the lines of ‘oh I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was a kid’ or ‘oh I loved Jurassic World’ or ‘oh so you are basically Indiana Jones, defeat any Nazis lately’. This conversation does not have to be at a cocktail party of course, for me it occurs pretty much everywhere I go.

While I understand that my non-archaeologists conversants are trying to be nice and find a talking point, on a bad day I feel a bit slighted by this comment, like it demeans my chosen career path as something that should be done as a hobby rather than a profession. Archaeologist suddenly gets thrown in the mix bag of childish dreams along with becoming a princess, cowboy or space pirate. Ok so I guess astronaut is in there too, and that job is pretty hard core, but the subtext remains ‘I wanted to be an archaeologist, but then I grew up’. Very few people when they meet a lawyer will say that they always wanted to practice law while growing up. This subtext often has more to do with a general misunderstanding of what the discipline entails. I mean let’s face it if any academic actually ran around Indiana Jones style they would have been sacked for unethical acquisition of finds, forgetting to put in a risk-assessment, failure to publish and avoidance of administrative duties.

This entire episode brings up a number of challenges for the discipline:
  • -          How can we keep young people interested in archaeology beyond their childhood daydreams?
  • -          How can we show that a training in archaeology makes you employable?
  • -          How can we help the public to understand what archaeology really entails?

Two key pathways to solving these issues are education and engagement. We can keep people interested and teach them what archaeology truly is about by integrating it in general curriculums and organizing outreach projects with communities. We need to highlight how the discipline of archaeology remains relevant today and how it contributes to communities. There is also a need to show that the skills taught in archaeological training are in fact highly transferable. The more the public understands archaeology and what it entails, the more people will see archaeology as a viable career option, the more employers will also take it seriously.

Achieving these changes involve a transformation in the discipline’s own internal thinking process. We can no longer afford to do archaeology for its own sake. It isn’t like last century, these days there are far less wealthy amateurs willing to invest all their money in uncovering a mummy. The process is much longer, the methods more rigid and the cost higher. Archaeology requires collaboration, it requires justification and communication to a wider audience, not just journal publications and textbooks. 

Archaeology is a subject that seems to naturally interest people, this is something that can be tapped into, not in a populist way, but in one that is genuine and unpretentious. It should be an attempt to mutually share knowledge with others, not to manipulate them. While many scholars are moving towards a more open, public oriented approach, it is a process of ups and down, successes and failures. However, I think it is one that is worth striving for, even if only to get a different response to my career choice at a cocktail party.

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