Field School

Archaeology: What People Hear vs. What Actually Happens

During the summer after my freshman year, I’m going to spend three months excavating Neolithic domestic structures at Çatalhöyük with my professor! 

What People Hear

I’m going battle soulless looters over rare and priceless statue of Çatalhöyük’s more revered deity, while dogging bullets fired by the lawless militants  who swarm the site once a week just for the hell of it. My peers and I hatch a brilliant and daring plan to overcome those dastardly militants and cowardly looters.  As we begin to overtake these fiends, the national military intervenes and drives out the hooligans for good. We are given special peace-keeping and artifact stewardship medals of honor from the president of Turkey. We remain friends with him to this day; he endorsed me on Linkedin for “archaeological heroism” and as “guardian of the past.”

What Actually Happens

You are soaked in your own sweat after digging, hauling, and sifting artifact-less dirt to “level-out” the unit for 9 hours a day while the experienced graduate students excavate the “important stuff”, aka pottery sherds and the occasional animal bone, or whatever is directly relevant to your professor’s research. You’re living in the middle of nowhere, so you get fazed every single night and the next day, everyone can smell you as you sweat out the alcohol from the night before.  You can’t remember the last time you bathed in warm water. Also, you will probably accidentally damage the most important artifact found in the site.

This semester, I am going to be a research assistant in my professor’s lab! 

What People Hear

While studiously examining bones under a microscope during a late night shift, you suddenly discover a metacarpal from a very early Australopithecus that proves Australopithecus afarensis’ (aka Lucy’s) ancestors were almost bipedal. You immediately call your professor at 2am with the news. He rushes to the lab, squeals with excitement, and calls up the Leakeys (old family friends and colleagues of course), Svante Pääbo of the Max Plank Society (he is a friend too, obviously), and National Geographic with the exciting news. NatGeo flies to your lab the next day to conduct an extensive interview about the discovery. You, your professor, and the toe bone make the cover of October’s issue. You are co-author on your professor’s journal article and graduate schools are begging you to join their cohort.

Just some BFFs. Casual.

What Really Happens 

You pretty much spend 7 hours labeling photos taken from your professor’s past 13 excavation season. After labeling photo # 75489, you realize that you skipped the number “3” and have to start over. You never meet the Leakys. Once you tried to talk to Svante Pääbo after one of his many talks, only to say “you’re cool” and then bolt, because your brain decided to fall out of your head. NatGeo doesn’t know who your professor is. Graduate schools have no idea who you are.

This summer I am working on my senior thesis in Ecuador at a site that is over 1,500 years old!

What People Hear

My team and I will trek through the Andes when, suddenly, there will a massive rockslide. We will manage to dodge what surely would have been instant death by ducking into what we believe to be a cave. Once inside, we  discover a classic Inca-style doorway, through which is a great masonry chamber. All along the walls are gold and silver statues, copper and turquoise jewelry, and intricately woven textiles. At the end of the hall there will be a figure sitting upright, with its arms crossed over it’s chest. It was wrapped in the richest robes and draped with precious jewels.  It is a mummy! We realized we had discovered the tomb of the long lost Inca emperor, Atahualpa! We reach out and touch the figure. The moment our hands touch the dry skin, there is a loud rumble. The chamber is about to collapse! We grab the mummy, my team manages to grab all the artifacts, and we escape unharmed. I will write my thesis about the miraculous escape and fill the document with amazing photographs of my amazing discovery. I will not only receive the highest honors my university offers, but also receive several tenure track offers at the best universities in the world.

What Really Happens 

You spend seven weeks with your head inside a tiny tomb pulling out thousands of disarticulated bones in the middle-of-nowhere South America. You are torn between excavating as many bones as possible or carrying only what you can manage because, guess what! You’re about a 45 minute walk from the field house in 3100 meter high mountains. After excavating, you spend months writing you thesis about what you found, only to discover you found basically nothing. You are a fit of nerves. Instead of spending the weekend before your first draft is due to your adviser, you go to Mardi Gras with your friends instead. By the end of the semester, you hope to at least get the basic “honors.” Somehow you manage that. You step out in to the world with glorious optimism only to realize absolutely no one wants to hire you. To cope with unavoidable doom, you go back to Mardi Gras, the only place where the world makes sense.

…head first into tarantula's nest? cool beans.

…head first into tarantula’s nest? cool beans.

I was accepted to a PhD program with a stipend and research assistantship! I can’t wait to get started! 

What People Hear

I am an exceptionally talented, special, and brilliant scholar who is excited to contribute to the treasure trove of anthropology knowledge. With my work, I will enrich our daily lives with profound and nuanced investigations of human nature in the past, present, and future. I will talk about my fascinating research documenting the reciprocal trade and gift-giving interaction networks among the remote smale-scale societies living in the Amazon rainforest in order to expand students and the public’s perception on our modern-day economic systems and social media networks. I hope my research will elucidate the trajectory of our technologically advance society.

What Really Happens

After accepted into your graduate program, you experience about three months worth of unprecedented elation. The sky is bluer, the grass is greener, and you happy-hour beer tastes richer.  You arrive to your new campus, positive, hopeful for the future, and with what the more seasoned grad students will call, “an obnoxiously annoying spring” in your step.  The first day of class, you realize that while you were the smartest anthropology student in your undergrad’s department, so was everyone else. Suddenly you realize, “omg I have to actual research what I said I’d research” and “how do you write a grant? Say ‘gimme money plez? kthanks?'” After the first several meetings with your advisor, you realize that you somehow tricked a handful of real adults into giving you money to read about cemeteries and obscure theories written by long-dead anthropologists. What is a lit review? What is savings? When is happy hours? Who am I? You are completely befuddled (yes, befuddled).


10 Field School Experiences

10. Your shower routine will change along with your previous definition of “shower.” No longer is a shower a cleaning device spewing warm water; during field school it becomes an atavistic mechanism with less water pressure than a drought-stricken stream and with only two temperature settings: Artic-iceberg and not-so-much-Artic-iceberg.  You will come to realize that the shower’s water will never actually clean the dirt and grime from your body; it will only congeal with the aforementioned dirt and grime to form a mud paste.  You disembark from the shower, put on “clean” clothes, only to realize that you are neither cleaner nor dirtier than before; only wet and slightly colder. And on that note…

9. Clean clothing will become a foreign concept.  Your jeans or pants will have this immortal life—there is no amount of stainage that can mortally wound or kill them.  You worry that your clothes will begin to smell, only to realize that field school is this equalizing world, a place where everyone’s level of stinkage and stainage is distributed fairly and homogeneously.  Excessive and bold patches of sweat, food, and mud stains become some sort of Medals of Honor.  You proudly show off a huge dirt patch on the front of your shirt as you recount the harrowing tale of you crawling face-first into the debts of a tarantula-filled tomb barely escaping from the clutches of the poisoned fiends with the ceramic shard…and your life.

8. You will encounter some of the world’s most dangerous and obnoxious wildlife.  The air is filled with these tiny gnat-like bugs, but you realize they are in fact biting flies only after a swarm of them attack your momentarily exposed ankle.  Local workers will casually inform you that they passed a 2 meter long python on the way to your operation.  Students and instructors will play cruel, cruel tricks on you that involve your beloved dark-brown fedora and a dead tarantula the size of a fist.  You would think that the living humans would band together to fight these deadly foes instead of terrorizing others for the sake of a laugh and squeal, but they do not.

7. You forget that the world consists of other people outside the circle of your 20-or so cohorts.  Though they begin as strangers, soon they become something like a family, complete with squabbling, tears, laughter, and bullying.  Another student drinks the last of the boiled water without refilling the container, so you passive-aggressively “forget” to make her mayo-free tuna for lunch.  There is no concept of personal space; you frequently wake up snuggling the person in the sleeping bag next to you.  After it happens three times, you stop feeling awkward and just go with it.  You have your special trowel, bucket, notebook, etc., that you guard will your life and dare anyone to try to take it from you.  Instructors place bets and which students will hook-up first.  Students rank the hottest boys/girls.  Once you leave the field school and find yourself surrounded by other people, you are overwhelmed, your senses overstimulated, and you have a complete melt-down.

6.  Common manners and decorum are long forgotten.  You eat with your hands, talk and crew with your mouth full, and scratch like no one is watching (but really, everyone is, it’s just no one cares).  Discussion on your and other’s gas and bathroom activity is not only common, but expected.  It’s just weird if you don’t talk about it…like do you think you’re something special, huh?

5. People who you normally wouldn’t consider attractive are suddenly gorgeous.  Be it fellow students, instructors, locals…everyone.  It’s the goggles phenomenon, wherever you are, suddenly, without warning, you’ll accidently have on “insert state/country” goggles.  That annoying, creepy guy in the village who would make excuses to softly caress your shoulder or hands suddenly seems sexy and exotic.  Don’t listen to the goggles! They are lying to you! Quick, take them off before you do something you will definitely regret!

4. You find new and strange ways to release stress and procrastinate.  Activities include building fire pits, making songs about archaeology in the tune of classic Disney songs, stargazing, and playing pato, pato, ganso (duck, duck, goose) with the local children.  You find yourself engrossed in absurd conversations that are somehow about absolutely nothing, only to realize you started the conversation with, “hey guys, what is the Canadian NASA called? CNASA, right?”  But these things never hit the spot, so you just end up drinking.

3. And you drink. A lot.  You buy the cheapest beer by the box.  Beer helps you to divide you day into designated allotments.  Work ends, beer.  Dinner, beer. After dinner, beer. Almost ready for bed, beer in sleeping bag.  You spend the weekend nights inventing and playing raucous drinking games, which everyone will take seriously.  After you buy a few cajas, the local store owner will assume you only enter her establishment when you need beer, asking either “caja?” or “cerveza?” You accept that in her eyes, you will always be that girl/guy.

2. You become very invested in the lives of the locals.  Suddenly idle gossip and drama becomes huge, huge news.  You know all the dirt on everyone.  The locals then become super invested in you.  One of the store owners asks you how old you are, and when you say 22, she’ll shake her head judgmentally and ask you why you aren’t married yet.  She’ll try to scare you, saying that if you wait any longer, there won’t be any men left or you won’t be able to have children.  She’ll try to set you up with one of the local boys, asking you if you find any them cute, are tall enough for you, and would you like to have a local wedding.  Sometimes you’ll start chatting with a local, and accidentally share too much.  Then the next time so-and-so walks by, she’ll catch your eye and giggle knowingly.  Then you die of embarrassment.

1. You will count down the days until field school ends, only to wish it would never end.  Somehow, all the inconveniences and nonsense just becomes a part of life and without it, you feel lost, unbalanced, way too sober, and way too clean.