The mouse is my trowel now

The 2014 Day of Archaeology is meant be a window into the many lives of an archaeologist. It is an opportunity to share what we get up to in a typical day with other archaeologists and the wider world. It’s a fantastic idea and has been greeted with lots of enthusiasm. Although the day itself was on Friday 11th July, it happened to kick off the two week Festival of British Archaeology (on twitter as #FoBA) which ran from the 12th until the 27th July so it feels as though there has just been a month long celebration of all things archaeology in the UK. Sadly, July is over now and August just doesn’t seem to care about archaeology in the same way. It is with fond nostalgia that I look back to those heady days (was it only a week ago?) when there were so many amazing projects, activities, research and open days that it was hard to keep up with all the news about wonderful finds and experiences on offer.

There are loads of fantastic Day of Archaeology entries for this year up on their website already (you can see them here or on twitter using #Dayofarch). People have been digging medieval cemeteries in Italy or conducting underwater survey work off-shore from Guernsey. People spent the day working at Stonehenge or playing site code lottery amongst the archives. Many of them were outdoors in the July sunshine, actually digging. They were in a trench or in a museum (quite literally) touching the past.

Where was I and what was I doing? I was at my desk, attempting to bend ArcGIS, Filemaker and Excel to my will – or at least to get these computer programs to play together nicely (please?). And so how did I spend my Day of Archaeology 2014? I spent it consumed by blindingly hot raging jealousy of all those lovely people out in the lovely sunshine digging their lovely archaeology.

I should point out that I did spend many previous years working full time in the field, so I am no stranger to the dark reality of field archaeology in Britain – being mired in the depths of a claggy muddy hole while the English winter actively seeks to chuck as much precipitation as possible down the back of your neck. Back then, filling in some context sheets in the nice warm dry tea hut or writing up a site report in the office was something to look forward to. This exceptionally lovely July has quite definitely been totally out of the ordinary (and in fact digging in the extreme heat can actually be both risky and highly uncomfortable – no one wants heatstroke) but the fact remains that it was a lovely July to be outdoors investigating the past and I really wished I was somewhere out there myself. Sadly, I am almost entirely an indoor archaeologist these days; the mouse is my trowel now.

In reality, I actually do love what I do and the research I am currently undertaking. I don’t mind being indoors at my desk all day because the project I’m part of is amazing and interesting and fun. Both the Day of Archaeology and the wide range of work being conducted as part of the Festival of British Archaeology have highlighted for me the many different and marvellous ways in which people can explore our collective past and still call themselves archaeologists. So much of what counts towards being an archaeologist happens entirely in the lab or the library, at a desk or an archive, and even more involves understanding and manipulating data obtained from someone else’s time in the field rather than your own. Archaeology is at heart a collaborative effort between many people in many different roles. Some of the most exciting and innovative archaeological research happening right now is entirely computer-based.

But it can be difficult to really feel like an archaeologist when you are not physically engaging with the past, either through exploring and excavating features in the field or handling artefacts in the museum or lab. Modelling trend surfaces or creating spatial histograms just doesn’t have the same immediacy no matter how interesting it can be. It is somehow the actual material connection to the… well, the material of the past that helps create (for me) its significance.

I am not alone in this feeling. The objects, artefacts and various odds’n’sods remnants of the past that archaeologists study are often referred to as ‘material culture’. There is an enormous amount of work out there that discusses how we experience and understand material culture in the present through our senses and haptic perception (1). In addition, archaeologists have undertaken a lot of work exploring the relationship between people and material culture both in the past (how people in the past created, used and disposed of objects) and also in the present (how archaeologists recover, relate to and try to understand objects from the past). I find the concepts of materiality and material agency as the most useful tools in understanding the link between physical remains and our experiences of interacting with these remains; a really great introduction to these ideas can be found in The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies and the chapter titled The Malice of Inanimate Objects: Material Agency in particular is a great introduction to the topic and reviews the recent history of ideas that have contributed to current thinking about materiality and material agency (2). I believe as archaeologists we spend a lot of time thinking (over-thinking?) our physical connection to the world around us as a natural result of spending so much time thinking about the physical remains we find in the ground and how they connect us to people in the past. Despite all of that, there are many ways to explore past human societies and many of these do not require any direct physical connection to material from the past.

So although I am sorry to see you go July, I have decided that you can take my jealousy with you. I’m happy being the archaeologist I am. Besides, August seems pretty rainy so far. Perhaps it’s not such a bad time to be indoors after all…

**Edited to add: I have a busy few weeks ahead, but I will try and source some good introductory material (!) on materiality and material agency in archaeology that is open access and freely accessible to all. Any suggestions more than welcome.

1. A good introduction to the relationships between sense and archaeology might be this article by Chris Gosden, found in a special issue of World Archaeology on Archaeology and Aesthetics:
Chris Gosden (2001) Making sense: Archaeology and aesthetics, World Archaeology, 33:2, 163-167.

2. Andrew M Jones and Nicole Boivin (2010) The Malice of Inanimate Objects: Material Agency. In The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies. Edited by Mary C. Baeudry and Dan Hicks. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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