An Archaeologist Recommends, Quarantine Books – Must reads! Part 1

Like so many self-isolating, quarantining, social-distancing or whatever you want to call it from COVD-19. I have found myself comforted by the array of books on my dusty shelves. I’ve picked up books that I bought months ago and later discarded, I’ve re-read books that I definitely forgot about and like many others have purchased books that I’ve always wanted to read, but just never had the time.

So I’m pleased to outline some of my faves, these three books focus on archaeology/history. Have any books you can recommend a bored, creatively-starved archaeologist? Please comment.

1. Breaking the Maya Code by Michael Coe: The book tells the story of how a group of archaeologists with different expertise manage together to crack the Mayan hieroglyphs. It’s told in stylish prose not often seen in many academic books, and this is why it’ one of my favourite books. It’s THE book that got me serious about archaeology. It’s an easy read, and takes the reader into the thought-process of interpretation that many archaeologists shy away from explaining.

2. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari: While strictly not an archaeology book, Sapiens tells the story of the human race from its first origins in Africa all the way to the present day. Personally as an archaeologist who’s interested in the bigger picture, books like these always peak my interest. The author doesn’t shy away from explaining complex issues in a way which can actually be understood and comprehended by most people. The book is based on the author’s own opinions and thoughts about the human condition and character, which is welcoming change from most books dealing with the human history.

3. The Parthenon by Mary Beard: Beard can definitely be hit or miss. But the Parthenon is definitely a hit. The books gets into the details about one of the most famous buildings in the world. The book takes us back in time describing how the temple was constructed and uses throughout history. It’s the ultimate tour of the past and present state of this glory Acropolis.

The Archaeologist’s Ikigai (生き甲斐)

Like many within the current isolation bubble (COVID-19 for time-travellers reading this) I have turned to more soul-searching ways to burn daylight. I often find myself browsing through the various books on my wishlist on Amazon, looking for something that might answer the nonsensical questions buzzing around my weary mind.

I finally managed to get around Tim Tamashiro’s book on How to Ikigai. There are many ways in which I strive for a fulfilling life but like most I have found myself stuck in a rut, feeling the opposite – unfulfilled bogged down by societal expectations and entrenched daily routines.

Ikigai (生き甲斐, pronounced [ikiɡai]) is a Japanese concept that means “a reason for being”.

A reason for being is not as simple as it seems, because like most things our Ikigai is intertwined with modern day society expectations – paying the rent, having a family and public perceptions on what it means to be “successful”. That’s the problem for millions of people: how can you feel fulfilled when you’re constantly weighed down by burdens such as financial responsibilities and built -in routines – all of which dominate our lives?

Well let’s break it down: there are four parts to Ikigai, which roughly translates to:

  1. What do you love?
  2. What are you good at?
  3. What does the World need?
  4. What do you get paid for?

For myself the answer for the first question comes quite easily: archaeology. But does doing what you love translate well into doing what you’re good at? This is where for a long time I dawdled on the concept of Ikigai. What does being good at archaeology truly mean? Does it mean I understand the patterns of human behaviors? Good knowledge of human history? Or am I really exceptional at digging holes?
Before I decided to become an archaeologist, I developed a talent for understanding the detail, which made my articles about Japan and history insanely popular when I freelanced as a journalist. My sense of belief and purpose however still remained on an individual level, despite spending a lot of my young adult life in a country (Japan) that focused on the collective rather than the individual. But most importantly my talents didn’t necessarily connect with my passion.

After years of studying and traversing the perils of academia I soon realised that scholarly archaeology was nothing more than fanciful projects appealing for funding and getting lost in the bibliography of quite dull publications. For many of us archaeology is still entrenched in layers of jargon and dryness. While museums and television programmes allowed for the public to view archaeology from an outsider’s perspective the feeling of inadequacy still permeates people’s understanding – the leave it to the experts sentiment is felt throughout “amateur” spheres and casual participants. Is archaeology delegated to academic research in ill-forgotten journals? Yes, but it is also so much more, it’s about understanding our ancestors’ story. A story which in theory should be available to everyone.

The story is out there within the dusty books lying on library shelves, the unpublished papers saved on hard drives, and the bones left in boxes stored in forgotten archives. Our Ikigai is clear: the world needs for people to feel connected with their past. We need people to connect to their past just as much as they connect with their present and future. For the longest time in my life I was paid to write, to make the mundane interesting and informative, when I gave it up to pursue my passion for the human past I thought no more of connecting with audiences through the medium of word.

But the medium of word is flexible, it’s multifaceted, while many academics frown upon the flowery and indulgent prose littered in popular non-fiction it’s a tool, a weapon against the tedious monotone of academic writing. People might walk around the ruins of a fallen civilization taking in the awe and other-worldliness, but that’s no use if the visitors don’t understand it’s significance.

If archaeologists really care about the past and what it means then their ikigai needs to be conveying the story to the masses in every medium possible through art, film, prose, movies and virtual experiences like video-games. Without making it a niche experience or laughing it off as an amateurish hobby. We can’t all experience archaeology through the 10-year excavation process, but we can make sure that experiences are accessible and inclusive. Why can’t video games, movies, TV shows provide a sense of interaction with the past that many kids might not otherwise have?

We can try to align these conscience efforts with meaningful actions that will fulfill our lives, but we can’t do it on an individual level it has to be done as a collective, together as archaeologists we can encompass all the properties of Ikigai to tell a story not fully told.

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.

 

 

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 – the only bone that has come out of a tonne of soil – 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).