A mile in the hiking boots of an archaeologist

If I were to answer the question: “What is fieldwork to an archaeologist?”, my response would have to be: “Well… what is the sea to Captain Jack Sparrow and Captain Hector Barbossa?”. While Maritime Archaeologists may have been tickled by that reference, I do realise that people who accuse archaeologists of being “grave thieves” found the mentioning of pirates ironic (And yes, I have been on the receiving end of this accusation numerous times). While we’re here, let’s address that.

As jolting as it is being finger-pointed as a thief, I as an archaeologist looking at the state of the practice (past and present), can understand the sentiment. Archaeologists venture out into the field wielding permits to displace the earth uncovering what’s hidden (sometimes laid to rest), often claiming that it is all for the betterment of society that we study the material culture of the past. We then head back into our labs to analyse by poking and prodding these finds to generate data that we write about in dissertations and articles, shared mostly amongst our science cohorts to gain degrees and notoriety.

But what good is all that notoriety when the society (especially the local communities whose backyards we rummage through) that we claimed we were doing it all for, do not receive that knowledge in a way that’s relatable to them? What growth is there for them?

For the most part, it’s not that communities lack interest in what archaeologists do because I myself have seen locals walk up to excavation sites to strike up conversations with us out of curiosity. This curiosity, however, is seemingly sometimes met with resistance on the part of archaeologists.

Some of my most (and I have a few) disheartening excavation experiences have been to witness several archaeologists make negative comments towards locals. Some of these comments have been demeaning, while others have been physically threatening. Now why would this be the case? Sigh.

There’s a certain level of entitlement that comes with the behaviour where strangers can descend upon the backyards of locals to learn about South African archaeology and yet be possessive of the sites and its finds when the opportunity to engage with the locals avails itself. What is not as sad but is also quite laughable is the fact that archaeologists can be this overbearing with excavation sites towards each other.

African archaeologists can attest to this when it comes to North American and European archaeologists that come on to the continent to run excavations all the while collaborations with African archaeologists are not being actively fostered. This behaviour is also identifiable on the publication level where African institutions are not afforded access to some African archaeological publications which are often based in Europe and North America.

Much like the glee experienced by Captain Sparrow and Captain Barbossa at just the thought of setting out to sea, I too experience some exuberance at the thought of embarking out into the field. The anticipation of what lies beneath, the thrill of wonder and adventure that comes with being in new open landscapes as well as the attainment of new knowledge is what comes with fieldwork.

This, however, is often met with a swift feeling of apprehension that stems from my past experiences in the field. I will share one such occurrence. It was in undergrad and we were out in the field (naturally), getting our first taste of an excavation. A student came to me and another student to complain about how badly sunburnt they were from the day’s work.

We sympathised with them while jokingly pointing out that we couldn’t relate to what they were going through. They quickly responded by saying: “Well at least with my skin I can tell when it’s dirty, you both can’t tell with yours!”

The other student and I looked at each other with great dismay that someone we had been interacting with for four weeks could have said such. It was from that moment that I realised that personalities can be quite unpredictable during field season. You often uncover the best in people but also unwittingly uncover the worst in them too. There is something freeing about those open landscapes. Perhaps too freeing.

As I move forward in my career as an archaeologist, I carry the good and the bad that I have come to witness in the field. I do this because the good helps me stay in the game while the bad reminds me that it is not supposed to be like this which in turn gives me hope for change and improvements.

There have been workshops and talks that have addressed some of these issues and while I am happy that the field of archaeology has taken an interest in tackling these problems (community involvement and transformation), we still have a long way to go.

To conclude this piece, I leave the words of Captain Jack Sparrow… “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem. Do you understand?”.

Ayanda Mdludlu is currently completing her Masters in Archaeology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Her specialty is lithic analysis, and she studies how stone tools were made in the past, how they vary across time and space, and what this variability means. Her thesis is investigating temporal change in stone tool technology through the Late Pleistocene and Holocene at Grassridge Rockshelter, Eastern Cape. She has abundant field experience, having excavated at several archaeological sites across South Africa.

This article was originally published on the North of Kuruman blog.