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.