As I wend my way through graduate school, I have lamented at times that we’re not really taught how to manage excavations projects or people, and we tend to “grandfather in” field craft as was handed down from previous generations of excavations, whether or not it is appropriate to current knowledge in the field. Don’t worry, I’m not off on another rant about archaeologists digging in square holes, though I was sorely tempted to post something when that iPad in Pompeii link made the rounds–the pain in seeing that lovely stratigraphy mauled and then peered at through a screen to “aid interpretation” gave me the shivers.
Anyway, the sad news that came through last night that the “Hodder Team” at Catal was not going to be excavating this year meant that many of my excavator friends were out of a job for the season and now are looking for other opportunities. I have no intention of building on any gossip or going into unnecessary detail (sorry!) but the working model for excavators (the specialist teams are a whole different beast entirely) at Catal was different enough (at least to American excavations) that I think it deserves at least a bit of comment.
Each year, a few professional excavators from the UK (mostly) were hired to excavate areas of interest and to teach students how to excavate. Workmen were hired primarily to move dirt, sieve, and help flotation of samples. The workmen very rarely excavated, which kept them separate from the team most of the time (and I think robbed the students and excavators of a more immersive/interesting experience and language training, but it’s a difficult balance, for sure). The professional archaeologists were paid and generally had at least a decade of experience in single context recording–these people were usually excavation supervisors in the UK and were taking a significant pay cut to work on interesting archaeology. They provided Hodder with very detailed interpretations, experience, and excellent data. It was a complete re-education to work with them; these professional archaeologists are truly practicing a craft, one that is generally unappreciated by academic archaeologists. After all, we are they ones saying that “anyone can be an archaeologist!” and allowing children and volunteers (and graduate students!) to excavate our sites. The contrast between the “Hodder Team” and other teams at Catal who were primarily using student labor was striking and very instructive. Excellent data was important to Hodder, and he was willing to pay for it.
This is an interesting mini-trend, many of the same professional archaeologists were working in Iceland (before the crash), and now are working in Egypt and Qatar, on projects that have complicated stratigraphy and who need this kind of precise, excellent data produced by highly skilled professional excavators. They’re craftsmen and women who simply cannot be replaced by graduate students and volunteers who may have taken an archaeology class somewhere along the line. The excavators come back each year, providing a continuity that more transitory students cannot provide. Also, a new crop of excavators does not need to be trained to “see” and interpret the archaeology of that particular site, single context methodology and its translatability aside.
This is very much on my mind as I’m trying to get a new project together in Turkey. People need to get paid. There needs to be transparency in finances on excavations. But can I deliver?