Author Archives: snarrkaeology

About snarrkaeology

Archaeologist. Manager of old data about really old things.

Sustaining in the Field

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Sardis Acropolis, a brilliant hike and an excellent metaphor

Oh yeah! This blog still exists! Sorry about that. Hope to get back on this digital horse and post more often again.

Yesterday I came across actress Stephanie Beatriz’s beautifully honest take on disordered eating and was vigorously nodding my head and mentally shouting YES, THANK YOU FOR SAYING THIS the entire time. Between this and the press surrounding the upcoming Netflix movie To the Bone, I decided it was about time I spoke up about something that I have struggled with for years: dealing with an eating disorder, and disordered eating, in the context of archaeological fieldwork. I am only one of probably hundreds of archaeologists and anthropologists that have struggled, and from what I’ve seen, I have yet to hear anyone discussing it openly. If I am wrong, please let me know!

In academic fieldwork (or hell, academic work in general), showing any kind of weakness, physical or mental, is discouraged explicitly and tacitly. Those of us who suffer from eating disorders or disordered eating are usually adept at concealing our issues, and the very nature of fieldwork can be a perfect storm of triggers, physical and mental. Fieldwork presents the ultimate internal conflict: needing it to move forward in our careers, while knowing it can exacerbate disordered and unhealthy behaviors. ALSO, on the darker side of it, the bizarre excitement over an opportunity to engage in the behaviors in a academically and socially acceptable way.

I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at age 13, went through treatment, and had been in recovery for a number of years when the disease reared its ugly head again in college. This coincided with my first fieldwork experience. At its worst in 2002 and 2003, I showed up to site, thrilled at the opportunity to engage in daily physical labor with a corresponding reduced food intake. I passed out in my own trench. And I easily deflected concerns. No one really confronted me about it, even though it had to be obvious.

By 2004 I developed more complicated health issues as a result of the eating disorder, but I continued to participate in fieldwork from the lab side of things. I slowly made my way toward recovery again, but I was constantly surrounded by triggers, the most difficult of which were field school students, every now and then, who were clearly suffering from eating disorders while on site. I became the default staff person to talk to these women because, “Well, Theresa, you’ve been through it.” At one point, I think back in 2009 or 2010, I finally had the courage to admit that I couldn’t play counselor. It was too triggering for me. I felt like a failure as a mentor, but it was necessary for self-preservation.

Even after reaching a fairly stable point in my recovery, I still associate summer fieldwork with my anorexia. It is a triggering experience at every turn. I love the work dearly, and I am at my happiest in nearly every respect when working on site, but it is only now that I can admit it only works for me in small doses. Do I miss spending full summers on site? Absolutely. Do I have the opportunity right now to spend more time on site? I do. Should I? I should not. And this summer is a prime example.

I signed on to go to Sardis for two weeks at the beginning of the season (mostly because I didn’t have someone to watch the cat for much longer than that, but thanks, mom, for covering the first half of June!), and members of the team were asking why I wasn’t staying longer. Heck, at first even I was wondering why I wasn’t staying longer. Then I realized what I was doing. Other members of the team avoiding carbs or leaving food on their plates sent me sailing right back into disordered eating before I could even realize what was happening. I had to hike up the Acropolis in the afternoons. I HAD to. I loved it. Then I realized I shouldn’t love it. And I was relieved to come back home when I did.

I’m discouraged that I still struggle with the same issues that have plagued me since I was a kid, but I am encouraged that I can recognize when I need to take care of myself. I’m heartbroken that I cannot fully participate in the field like I once could, but I am thankful I can still do some site-based work. Will it ever get better than this? Maybe. Maybe not.

In academia, we need to acknowledge it first.

 

Decline and Fall during decline and fall?

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Spotted in Verona in 2009. “Guasto” is another word for “broken”

Oh yeah. This blog. It still exists, I promise. Between working full time, teaching online, and proofreading on the side, plus…um…this election season, many things have fallen by the wayside.

Fall semester 2016 is the fifth time I have taught Roman Civilization online for the University of Massachusetts, and I must say it has been the most interesting semester to teach ancient politics and government. My course content is already created at this point, my schedule is set for what we read, our discussion topics, our assignment questions, etc., and I did not look ahead at all to see where particular content was going to fall in the calendar, relative to what would be going on: the three presidential debates, the actual election, etc.

Our discussion topic for the week that included Election Day? Women in ancient Rome. Did not realize that was paired up. On Monday November 7th when the discussion board opened, I saw the conversation going a particular way because I’d assumed, like mainstream media and the majority of my friends, family, and colleagues assumed, that we would have our first female president. On the morning of the 9th, I was reeling (as was a lot of the country) and then immediately nervous about the course. How was the discussion board going to go?  Posts are not moderated before they appear, so was I going to wake up to an angry mess I would need to untangle, to somehow keep us focused on the ancient material and remain neutral in terms modern politics so that all my students would feel comfortable posting?

In an online course like mine, you don’t meet your students in person, and they don’t meet each other. Spontaneous interaction doesn’t really happen, as our only real interactive component, the discussion board, is a highly edited, mediated form of communication. And I’m not always there to moderate right away.

Were there some angry posts? Sure. Did I need to intervene a couple of times? Yes I did, but it wasn’t because anyone was being disrespectful or unprofessional. Rather it was to elaborate on touchy subjects, like abortion, so that they could see that ancient understandings are not necessarily the same as modern views. They all stuck to the ancient material, but made fantastic connections with the modern world, and this continued for the rest of our discussion boards.

This past week was our last discussion, which included, of course, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. And again, I couldn’t have planned this if I tried, but the modern and the ancient lined up perfectly. Mary Beard’s Twitter interactions with UKIP supporter Arron Banks and her blog summary of the situation was PERFECT. My discussion topic was, essentially, Why study ancient Rome? Could not have driven the point home any better.

I feel guasto (broken) these days and am terrified for what the next four years are going to bring. Decline and fall? Quite possibly. But what we do here in the Humanities and Social Sciences is more relevant than ever. Even Twitter will tell you that.

Misery loves company

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I think we’ve all reached that point, one time or another

Well, not quite misery, but more like commiseration. Fieldwork in archaeology can break the best of us, but at the end of the day, it brings us all together in a way nothing else can.

A few days ago I tweeted (@Snarrkaeology) the above photo and it received more likes and retweets than anything else I’ve ever put out in the Twitterverse. It’s the top of a carbon paper catalog card from the 1966 season of Sardis for a little green schist sealstone that’s quite cute. I came across it while going over the catalog entries for a manuscript on Sardis’s Lydian phases (It’s going to be a big one! 700+ objects with full context rundown! Data will be on our website!) And I laughed. I laughed pretty hard, and I had to share it, knowing it would resonate with so many other archaeologists out there.

Green schist sealstone OR WHATEVER. If you look at the date of find, it’s August 8th. This is two months into the season, near the end. Now whether the recorder at the time intended it to read as we read it now (exhaustion, boredom), if it was an inside joke of some sort, or it was simply meant to indicate that they were unsure about it, we cannot know.

The beautiful thing in this, though, after the initial laughs, is that anyone who has worked in the field knows this feeling. We all love the work. We are happy to do it, and we know how lucky we are to do it. But after weeks of physical labor, heat, frustration, mistakes, ups, downs, tedium, abbreviated sleep schedules, etc…you hit a wall. You’re done. And the only thing you have left in you to make it possible to keep going is the commiseration of your colleagues over the absurdity of it all.

Sometimes you spend your afternoon feeling like Sisyphus, sweeping dirt off a dirt floor, straightening a baulk wall only to realize someone else has undercut it. Or you think an area is done, then come down on another feature you have to define and document. Or you’re in the lab and someone comes down with yet another box full of slag that has to be cleaned and catalogued, just when you thought you could shut down operations.

You break. Sometimes you cry. But most of the time, you and your colleagues find a way to laugh about the absurdity of it all. I don’t know how many times I just yelled at an excavator, “Why did you bring this down?! Can’t you just throw it in the woods??!!” Or I’ve made a preliminary catalog entry with “Amorphous terracotta SO WHO THE HELL CARES?” But then someone finds it and gets a good laugh.

I think every project’s documentation record has easter eggs hidden, whether notes in field books, labels in storage, or even little asides in the database. Weeks, months, years later someone comes across them, gets a good laugh, and immediately feels more connected than ever to their colleagues and all those archaeologists who came before.

I have left plenty of easter eggs of my own in 13 years at Poggio Civitate, and working with 59 years of excavation at Sardis, I’ve encountered so many more. Yes, we are all professional, precise, and committed to the proper excavation and recording of ancient sites. But we cannot forget the human aspect of the whole endeavor. We all need that good laugh after long days in the field.

Too soon?

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Program from the IDA meeting

Since presenting at the World Heritage Strategy Forum held at Harvard University a couple weeks ago, I’ve had a quote from the movie Jurassic Park at the back of my mind. Jeff Goldblum’s character, Ian Malcolm, says “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” And after reading about the installation of the Institute for Digital Archaeology‘s reconstruction of the Roman arch of Palmyra in New York, this quote continues to ring true in my mind.

I was surprised to hear about the Forum from a colleague via Twitter, and not from Harvard…where I work. Archaeology and the digital applications involved in it is my job, and I figured as an employee, I might be able to bypass the steep registration fee and attend. I was surprised and also thrilled when the director of the IDA invited the Sardis team not only to attend, but also to present. In three weeks we put together a presentation on the history and future of digital recording at Sardis, and at the Forum we found ourselves in good company. We met representatives from UNESCO, the World Customs Organization, archaeologists and cultural heritage representatives from Syria, Italy, France, the UK and beyond. There are so many people doing so many wonderful things in zones of conflict, natural disaster, and crisis. We learned about things going on at Harvard that we never knew existed. We made new contacts and learned about new technologies that may come in handy in our own work.

There were also a few moments that I can only describe as tone-deaf. I will not go into specifics. But one particularly problematic element looming over the entire Forum, at least for me, was the replica Arch of Palmyra. I had issues with the entire endeavor from the time I first heard about its installation in Trafalgar Square in London. Of course I am not the only one to criticize. There are major ethical issues at stake: is this too soon? Is cultural heritage disposable, in the sense that since we have the technology to create accurate replicas, that we do not need to worry about the originals? Why is money being spent on this when it could go to help efforts in curbing looting, or helping the thousands of people displaced by conflict? I decided to remain open, however, looking forward to hearing more about the genesis of the project, how it was executed, and how they envision it as a message.

And I was disappointed.

Yes, the technology was very sexy and fascinating. I was duly impressed. But it all ended up looking like a self-congratulatory, back-patting, neocolonial endeavor. It was unclear who, if anyone in Syria, whether archaeologists, heritage workers, or the general public wanted this to happen (“stakeholders” were mentioned, but no specifics). There were anecdotes about Syrians visiting the arch in Trafalgar square and praising it, but that was it. Who funded it? That also remained unclear.

Ethical issues of reconstruction, authenticity, and the ongoing war in Syria aside, my biggest problem is not the existence of the replica, not its technology, and not even its installation in entirely incongruous locations. It is the complete lack of context. In archaeology, context is everything, and the Institute of Digital Archaeology failed to provide context at Trafalgar Square and NYC.

This article by Claire Voon for Hyperallergic summarizes every last one of my concerns. There is no signage, no didactic material, no one there to explain to people why this replica stands where it does, or even that it’s a replica! The arch is not to scale. It was described as 1/3 size during the Forum, but I have seen 2/3 size reported in other sources. The arch is made out of Egyptian marble, not Syrian marble (for obvious reasons). Does anyone happening to pass by the replica know this? No. Anything to explain where Palmyra is? No. What existed and continues to exist there? No. What happened when the arch was destroyed? No. Why the the darn thing is standing in New York? No. Why this matters? No. Nothing.

Without context, this is a dead, fetishized object, and even though I do not support its creation on principle, this is an entirely missed opportunity for public education and real dialogue.

It’s too soon. The war in Syria is ongoing. So much rubble has yet to be cleared.

 

Card-Carrying and Proud

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My union card

Being a member of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers has been a blessing. When the University cut faculty and non-Union staff health care benefits, which I discussed in a previous post, we kept ours due to the power of the bargaining unit. Now that I am one year deep into a series of medical issues, I have realized that without the bargaining unit, I would either be in serious medical debt or have potentially avoided diagnostic testing.

Likewise, this summer/fall I have once again realized how incredibly important HUCTW is for me as a contract employee. My term ends in 6 months, and I have been told I will know “sometime this fall” whether my contract is extended, terminated, or I have been converted into a permanent employee. My department has requested I be made permanent, but HR and Central Admin have to clear everything first. “Sometime this fall” does not do me a whole lot of good in the Academic job market…when jobs, with incredibly involved, complicated applications, tend to be posted once a year. Starting now.

But a tenure track job buys five years of guaranteed employment. If tenure is not earned, you are out the door.

The benefit of the HUCTW is that I have people I can talk to who can tell me exactly what my rights and benefits are, who are there to advocate for me within a very overwhelming University system. This means everything right now. I know now that I’m not going to be left hanging; the support system in place helps me navigate it all and prepare for potential changes in employment status, or even to secure new employment.

At this point I don’t care about being vocal regarding these matters, about “damaging my chances for TT employment” by being open about labor issues. So many of us in Academia now are contingent employees, relieved to get even a semester’s worth of work, signing apartment leases that outlast our contracts and keeping fingers crossed something will come through.

Happy Labor Day, my academic and alt-academic friends. Fight for your Unions so they can fight for our benefits and security. We’re people, not just a bottom line.

 

“A Fail Shared is Not a Failure”

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An archaeology of infinite regression, celebrating 50 years of Poggio Civitate (I was shocked to see a giant poster with a photo of me from ca. 2010 hanging in the town of Murlo)

I’ve been following the Institute on Digital Archaeology Method and Practice at MSU this week, both on Twitter (#MSUDAI and @digitalarchaeo) and via their live stream on YouTube. And while all the talks have been wonderful, today I was particularly touched by Shawn Graham’s (@electricarchaeo) presentation on failure (the title of this post is from one of his slides). We don’t talk about our failures. We’re heavily discouraged to talk about our failures. And because of this, we rarely document our failures. And this in and of itself is a failure, because we are dooming ourselves, and others in our field, to making the same mistakes again.

There is also the issue of privilege when it comes to failure in Academia, Alt-Academia, and the greater Humanities and Social Sciences. A tenured faculty member can fail quite openly with very few, if any consequences for his or her career. Contingent faculty and those with contract positions (like yours truly) really can’t afford to fail openly. Everything we produce has to be perfect, functional, and necessary to the project or institution, otherwise we aren’t hired or re-hired. So we conceal our failures and scramble to turn them into successes. It’s the vicious cycle of Imposter Syndrome…the fear that if they see you blink, they’ll be on to you being horribly under qualified for your job. This is never true, but the majority of us in Academia experience it.

But you know what? Concealing failures is exhausting, and it does not help anyone, including our colleagues, projects, and institutions.

I cut my archaeological chops at the site of Poggio Civitate near Siena, Italy, an Etruscan excavation project that celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. And throughout my 12 years at the project I failed spectacularly, over and over again:

  1. None of us really knew how to use digital cameras or photoshop in 2003, and all of my garbage artifact photos had to be replaced almost immediately.
  2. I edited hundreds of images…but it turned out I was editing the thumbnails and I deleted the originals. This led to the director yelling at me and me crying hysterically for a period of time.
  3. Dropped and broke four previously-conserved terracotta roof tiles in one day.
  4. Put a pickax through the nose of a complete gorgon antefix.
  5. Failed to check the work of students doing data entry, leading to two full seasons of extra work re-inputting catalog data.
  6. Documented some, but not all of these issues.

A graduate student was at the site this year while I was visiting for the 50th anniversary celebrations, and she was doing “ethnographic” interviews about data management. I am THE person for Poggio Civitate, as my master’s thesis was a very practical analysis of the conversion of the excavation’s paper record into a digital one. And throughout this interview I felt pretty good that a lot of our process in the early 2000s was documented in my thesis…but I was also pretty worried about all the things that weren’t…many of which were fails. There is so much that only a couple people know, and I’m one of them.

Legacy data is always a problem with archaeological sites, especially long-running ones. It’s the data that is unintelligible to the outsider without knowledge of what can only be described as the “oral history” of the project. This information is not written down or codified, and I think a big reason for that is…it’s the information we’re embarrassed about. It’s the mistakes, it’s the wrong turns, it’s the corners we have to cut when working with a restricted budget and short amount of time.

We all say that you don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been. And we’ve all been failures. If we aren’t in positions to fail openly, I think it’s important that we at least try to document these failures in a sustainable way.

For those in secure career roles, can you help us by talking about failure more openly? If we can normalize it, we can have a much healthier relationship with our institutions and the field at large.

The bubble has truly burst

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Photo from my first time on site last summer at Sardis, with the Bath-Gymnasium Complex in the distance, center.

I was heading home from work on Friday and chatting with a friend via text when he just said, “Check the news.” And my heart dropped right into the floor. It was late at night in Turkey, and there was a coup, in the middle of the archaeological season for numerous projects. I cannot even count how many friends and colleagues are there, not to mention all of their friends and families, from the big cities to the rural sites.

Now what?

That’s the big question to which no one has any answers. Or at least, there is no consensus.

There have been a number of coups and coup attempts since the Sardis expedition began work in 1958, though from what I can see, none that began during the summer months. And now, I have never been so thankful for regular internet access and social media. I wrote last week about the “bubble” of being at an archaeological site for a summer and somewhat disconnected from the outside world. This summer, that bubble has truly burst.

Within minutes of learning about the coup, I had messages from a friend and from my boss that everyone was safe, and no one was going through the airports. I’ve been glued to my work email all weekend, combing Twitter after utter frustration with the uselessness of the big media outlets, and checking the State Department’s websites and feeds.

Now what?

Well, we work. We have a job to do, it is safe to continue on, so we do it.

I’m a new member of the team, but I have never felt so instantly welcome and appreciated among a group of people (who I’d never met in person before) as I did last summer. Camaraderie among archaeologists is a truly international phenomenon. These are my people, I love them, and I will continue to support them as best I can from here at Mission Control.