Wishful Drinking: Alcohol & Archaeology

I was an alcoholic. Yes, I said it. Whoa. That feels awfully cathartic. I am now a recovering alcoholic (or the preferred the term teetotaller). Fuck, I’ve fallen in the trap like so many Francos before me have, despite my best efforts to moderate my drinking. But, I can’t blame my addiction on some sort of genetic defect, because most of my family can have a drink without making a complete brat of themselves or being a complete arsehole.

It had been a sordid secret of mine for so long that I never fully confronted what alcohol was doing to my mind, reputation, and self-esteem. Why? Because how else would I escape?  I had multiple issues with living in a world I didn’t fit in. I cared too deeply, a painfully shy introvert as a kid, who as an adult needed alcohol to “come out” of her shell. I cared what people thought of me, I wanted everyone to like me. I suppressed the nerdy side of me throughout most of my life, the weird girl who picked up bones in the school playground and wondered if she had discovered a new dinosaur. Or the kid who would run home so she caught the season finale of Dragon Ball Z. How does a person process the world around them without a light buzz throughout their day? Even if its with a (blistering) hangover.

My love affair with alcohol only fuelled my low self esteem issues. That guy doesn’t like me? Fine – I’ll have a whiskey, I failed my first year of uni? Fine – I’ll go out on an all night bender. Drinking was my only (known) coping mechanism. There was something rather reassuring about coping with an identity crisis in a midst of alcohol addiction – it gave me reason to drink even more!

When I discovered archaeology at the ripe old age of 25, I knew I’d found a part of me that  had been missing for so long. But archaeology had opened up so many drinking opportunities too. Any undergraduate student can tell you the mischievous they got up to during field school.  Or the brain crushing hangovers and trying to use a trowel the day after. During my undergraduate, I studied creative writing,  because you guessed it! Yes! I wanted to be a writer (I STILL am, just not just a pen for hire). I drank a lot there too, but it wasn’t shoved in my face like it was when I studied archaeology.

There were plenty of lectures, which you betcha had wine receptions. Oh and wine receptions were my kryptonite.  I could drink without having to worry about my poor student bank account. What a horror the day after when I learnt of all the embarrassing and nauseating things I said to some of the most esteemed professors in the discipline, and the futile attempts to avoid them on campus. There was a lot of ducking behind walls and 360 turns.

Separating my addiction and my passion became almost impossible, and the more I delved in this world of lithics and pottery, the more I found solace at the bottom of a glass. I had imposter syndrome once I had a couple of drinks in me I believed I came up with the most profound observations and theories. There goes that low-self esteem rearing its ugly face  yet again. But, don’t get this twisted, while self-esteem was a chink in my low-levelled armour I was my worst enemy.  I went to lectures drunk some times and despite my best efforts to hide it I probably stank of booze and made no coherent sense as I tried to form futile counter arguments on a paper I probably hadn’t read.

When I finally graduated my masters with a distinction (after taking six months off because my addiction had swallowed me whole) , I worked briefly as a commercial archaeologist and almost like an extension of university, the drinking kept going and going and going, and I found myself unable to hold trowels due to the shakes. Like journalism, which is a very boozy industry, so is commercial archaeology but instead of attending fancy press conferences with a free champagne bar, archaeology was devoid of free booze. So not only was I abusing my body, I also abused my bank account.

In the sober community, there’s not a clearly defined rock-bottom, like when you wake up in a parking lot wearing a pink wig stinking of fags. For me, and like so many recovering alcoholics (or teetotallers), it was multiple small events. There were too many times to count where I had crossed the line of assholery. A Jerkyll and Hyde scenario that was easy to fix, but my refusal to admit I had problem prevented any solution. Rock-bottom came in the form of not knowing how to process grief. I know – shit. Emotions had never been my strongest point. I am devoid of them, like a blackhole or so I’ve been told by many exes and former friends. I had a succession of friends who had passed on and my answer was to drink the pain away.

However, there is a magic moment when you realise you have a problem. Mine was sitting on the train home with a can of budweiser, a lady next to me had handed me a tissue. She looked concerned, not like I was going to nab her handbag type of concern, but the concern a mother has for her daughter. As I looked at my reflection in the train window, my eyes were red and puffy – I didn’t realise I had been crying. My body was trying to process the emotion of grief without even letting my brain know about it. I got off the train and decided enough was enough and at 31 I couldn’t carry on like this. The rest of the budweiser was tossed in the bin.

When I had decided to stop drinking, it was a minefield. How do I tell people? How do I avoid or attend the post-work drinks? I wanted to know how was it possible to stop drinking without thinking of my internal conflict with addiction. Firstly, I had to divide archaeology from my drinking, they had become too intertwined and murky that I might as well been drinking in the trench.

Archaeology wasn’t the cause of my addiction, but it did facilitate my urges. I made a very public announcement to friends and family that I had decided to quit the booze for good, not for a month, not for spring, forever. FOREVER. This admission was the best thing I could have done not only for myself, but everyone around me; no awkward discussions, no suggestions of drinks, no pretence from me.

Despite only being three weeks sober I’d discovered that I am immensely more happy about this new found freedom and less worried about the awful things I could possibly do. I also started loving archaeology again, I read books, attended all the free lectures London had to offer. I rinsed my British Museum membership, attended all the exhibitions I could, solo and with others. The desire to reconnect with the one part of me that I wasn’t actively trying to conceal from the outside world allowed me to be that young grad student again, that girl who on rare times didn’t attend lectures immensely hungover, who assisted professors with symposiums, wrote essays with enthusiasm. This was me NO is me, just minus my addiction.

 

 

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My love/hate relationship with UNESCO

I’d long decided that while in someways I hated subjecting archaeology to the realm of needless hierarchy, UNESCO or The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was a necessary evil. The list of world heritage sites now comprises of more than 1,000 sites across the world, and the list keeps growing with economically more developed countries obtaining relatively more listings.

When I worked at a UNESCO world heritage site, I believed like many that UNESCO was a privilege bestowed on some of the most important and well-preserved monuments in our history.  But, I soon became jaded when I saw the endless tour buses deposit overeager tourists on our doorstep early every morning.  There was a plague of invasive tourism that UNESCO bought along with the prestige. Naivety led me to assume that these initiatives unite people in a common effort to protect shared cultural heritage. While that may work in developed countries, the influx of tourists in countries that lacks the infrastructure to support them contributes to the deterioration of many historical (and natural) monuments.

This is what makes UNESCO status divisive;¬†like most things there is a negative side to every positive. While the UNESCO may damage archaeological monuments by promoting tourism, they have spared countless of heritage resources from the bulldozer. We should care about every world heritage asset not only only our own.¬† There is more to culture and our heritage than DNA, we construct our¬†identities from stories, objects and buildings that conjure up our ancestors’ past: their glories, tragedies, or simply¬†their¬†day-to-day lives. So when Penny Mordaunt suggested pulling out from UNESCO due to budgetary concerns, it felt like a betrayal not only to our national past, but the world’s collective identity as people.

Currently UNESCO has no clear guidelines or effective methods to control the commercialisation of world heritage sites, and its talk on sustainability is more a verbal exercise than enforceable. So unsurprisingly when the Trump administration announced its withdrawal from UNESCO, many had cited the reasoning was that it provided no real protection for archaeological and historic treasures.

Of course the reason behind US’s withdrawal from UNESCO was to convey a political message.¬† In¬†October 2011, UNESCO admitted the Palestinian territories to the organization as an independent member-state called Palestine. This triggered a US law which¬†cut off American funding¬†for any organisation that recognised an independent Palestine.

After studying archaeology for years, I’ve learnt that you can never separate politics and heritage, because ultimately heritage relates to people’s identity. Despite what World Jewish Congress (WJC) President Ronald S. Lauder¬† wants you to believe, ‚ÄúIn recent years, despite the best efforts of outgoing Director General Irina Bokova, UNESCO has strayed from its mission to preserve history and has allowed itself to become politicised, demonstrating a continuing and disturbing bias against Israel.‚ÄĚ

Take a look at other countries such as Egypt, where during a night of riots young activists formed a human chain around the National Museum that borders the square, helping security guards protect the treasures within. In places, where competing political narratives force the public to try and keep hold of their heritage. But it’s crucial to remember that largest part of UNESCO’s budget is spent on education initiatives in developing countries. Leaving UNESCO is not necessarily going to impact the heritage of the UK, but it would definitely convey a message of how disconnected we are with the  shared heritage of people around the globe. Political or not.

 

 

 

Passion is useless without strength

The depth and strength of a human character are defined by its moral reserves.
People reveal themselves completely only when they are thrown out of the customary conditions of their life, for only then do they have to fall back on their reserves.
– Leon Trotsky

There were so many times in my journey where¬†I reflected on my actions and my thoughts and wondered am I a good person? The journey that I’m talking about isn’t a literal one. It’s¬†a journey that a lot of people go through; its one of changing careers. I wasn’t happy being a¬†journalist, that’s why¬†against my better judgment I decided to pursue the idea of¬†becoming an archaeologist, a process which took almost 4 years. When I begun the journey I was filled with a lot of anticipation, aspiration and excitement. I was going to the university of my dreams, I was pursuing the career of my childhood. I’ve heard that saying so many times, “it’s the journey there that counts”,¬† but is it really? Did I go through so much anxiety, stress, regret, depression, self-loathing¬†for the end goal,¬†to achieve my¬†happy ending?

It was a journey that had been delayed for so long, while I travelled, dabbled in pursuing a writing career, settling down with my boyfriend. But despite this acknowledgement of time wasted, I¬†still wish¬†I had¬†gone about things¬†slightly differently. There were times where I almost had forgotten why I took the journey to begin with, as I fell in out of love with the subject (and with people). I dragged myself along at the worst of times I’m not even¬†sure if it was the PTB or god sometimes, but I often felt like I was being tested; there were plenty of tears, plenty of agonising decisions, insidious thoughts. The problem was someone had stolen my strength, I had lost it and without it I had become a bitter and resentful person.

‘Tis true; life happens, things change. While I was in the most distressing time¬†of my life, I’d lost that focus, the drive, hell I’d even lost the will to wake up in the morning. I wanted to avoid everyone, and all responsibility, and even worse I didn’t want to do archaeology anymore.¬† The quest had almost stopped, the drive within me had died.¬† Despite the bitterness I harboured towards many people, there was one person who made sure that drive didn’t die completely that anger and¬†resentment didn’t fully consume me.¬†He would accompany me to study at the British Museum, he would make sure that I had completed my assignments, he even helped me submit my dissertation.¬†I relied on his support because I knew deep down¬†strength isn’t something you are naturally affiliated with. Strength is something you earn, something you gain. Something you have to go through hardship to achieve. ¬†I needed someone who could allow that strength and perseverance¬†to¬†emerge once again.

When I look back even as recently as this year I wonder if the journey had changed me,¬†am I worse person than before? During the hardest of times, my passion and strength were replaced with anger and resentment.¬† It takes another sort of enemy –¬†yourself –¬†to make you change. While I blamed another person and¬† drowned in¬†self pity, almost allowing myself to be yielded to it.¬† My support structure, the one person¬†who had made me realise my own potential, who¬†encouraged me, once¬†told me, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”¬† He was right, there is great strength in allowing yourself peace.

 

Archaeology as my identity

Despite years of studying, months in a muddy field, and endless days counting fragments of bones in a lab, I was still not a professional archaeologist. And as I mingled with new acquaintances or bumped into old school friends I constantly referred to myself as an archaeologist. I felt like I was telling some insidious lie, and have perpetuated it throughout the last two years. I had tried and tried like most graduates to get a job within the heritage industry that paid more than just above minimum wage. If I complained, ¬†I kept hearing those words that archaeologists hate: “you do it because you love it” as if love alone could pay the rising interest on my credit card bills. But then I realised; that archaeology was more than just a way of paying the bills it was how I came to view the world; it had become my religion.

Archaeology goes beyond interpreting the material culture of the past, there is something about studying archaeology that changes your way of thinking in current society. You start to assess everything around you as though you were seeing it from the future, the questions of what, how and most importantly why become everyday occurrences. The need to constantly assess human behaviour becomes part of everyday life. It becomes just another cognitive function.

When I worked as an office worker, I constantly referred to myself as an archaeologist. This may be as some have pointed out as a form of self-validation, but to me it was true. I was never going to be the world’s best admin assistant, I was going to discover something no one had ever seen before, because archaeology was and always has been my end goal. Like those “writers” starting their first novel at a cafe, exchanging ideas with fellow writers. It’s the same premise, when you see another archaeologist drool over a piece of flint, or another jump for joy over a worked deer antler ‚Äď the only bone that has come out of a tonne of soil ‚Äď you start to understand what archaeology means, not just to our understanding of the past but to the people who do it.

In a modern world so fast and self-involved, I think we all feel a little disconnected from the past. My way of thinking has been shaped by my experience on the field, by my life counting bones, by the conversation post-lecture. Archaeology becomes more than just what we interpret about history but how it’s directly relevant to us.

Archaeology saved my life

My life wasn’t by any means terrible, but I had a number of my own demons to deal with while growing up. I had a constant urge to restyle myself, I had deep seeded insecurities from being badly bullied during primary school and secondary school. It wasn’t until the ripe old age of 27 silently twiddling my thumbs under the shrewd eyes of my therapist when I realised that much of my issues had stemmed from extreme bullying. These issues materialised in a constant fear of being judged, of being secluded, and ultimately of being abandoned.

I had tendencies of ‘running away’ when the tough got going, that’s how I dealt with my problems especially the bullying. This running away took me to Japan, where I lived for nearly five years. I had interests, but nothing that I felt utterly passionate about. Life became a cycle of dreary days and spiteful arguments. Not one thing in my life gave me any sort of satisfaction, especially my job. The cycle of running away had some negative impacts on my relationships and work. I had no clue what kind of person I was, because I was constantly running away from myself. My depression had become an aspect of my personality that many thought was just a quirk of mine.

After taking a job as a journalist, I decided to take the leap and study Archaeology at UCL, may be it was the thirst for some kind of adventure that I wanted. I knew my depression at this point had led me to believe that I was again running away from adulthood and responsibility. Whatever the reason I found a foundation in my life that I desperately needed. My first brush with university was nothing but a disaster of bad choices, misty regrets and unhealthy friendships. This time around, I focused on my work and allowed myself to be immersed in my own ideas without fear of rebuttal.

When my depression started to take a grip of me again, I found a sanctuary in the British Museum, learning a new aspect of an ancient culture to silent the dark thoughts in my head. Archaeology had given me a new lease of life, not an escape but a reason to stay. When my depression likes to rear its ugly head, (which it often sometimes does) at least I now have the tools to deal with it (no pun intended).