Archaeology: How uncovering hidden layers as a job affected my thoughts on my outward appearance

February 12 2014 | Guest post by Lex
Lex at work.
Lex at work. Not pictured: Her trusty archaeologist whip.

People love to hear that I'm an archaeologist, and I love to tell them all about it. Every day I have someone tell me that they "always wanted to be an archaeologist when they were small," and how lucky I am. And I am, I am truly lucky to be in a career that I love, and a career that often embraces my offbeat identity.

The interesting thing about archaeology (and I speak as someone who works in the UK, where archaeology grew as a discipline quite separate from anthropology, unlike in the US) is that it's quite an offbeat sort of job…

It's not particularly glamorous, whatever George Lucas would like you to think. You need to be a certain kind of person, particularly if you don't follow the academic career path.

If you work in what is known as commercial archaeology, particularly in the UK, you need to be okay with hard physical labour, out of doors, at all times of the year. Commercial archaeology works alongside the construction industry, when planning permission is dependent on an archaeological survey prior to the construction of a new building, or the digging of a new quarry.

To work in this industry you need to be okay with getting wet, cold, snowed on, sunburned, tired, and injured through too much digging. You need to be okay with matching the construction industry's very early starts, driving the dumptruck when the driver doesn't turn up, low wages (yes really, really low), turning up to a site with no loo facilities, travelling from job to job and not necessarily knowing where the next contract is going to be, essentially being nomadic, and all of this for the love of uncovering the past and getting a glimpse into the lives of people long gone. As a result, many commercial archaeologists are pretty offbeat people, who are prepared to put up with all this for the love of their job.

It can be a very hard life, and many people end up working like this for a few years after their degree, and then move on into other more stable jobs such as teaching, publishing, research or even completely different careers altogether. Handily a degree in archaeology is a great one as it contains so many transferable skills.

Of course, there is also the academic route, which is clearly the more stable option, but not for everyone. I ended up completing a PhD in Anglo-Saxon archaeology. I am one of those that have made the transition into a more stable and well-paid job in a university whilst continuing to work in archaeology. I am thrilled that I have been able to do this, but in the process, there is part of me that feels I have lost a portion of my offbeat identity.

The thing about archaeology — and a small survey of colleagues and friends confirms this — is that it's not just a job. It defines you. This is reinforced all the time by all those people that tell you it's their dream job. It's my dream job, and it's other people's dream job, and I am so glad I have been able to make a career out if it. But in turning towards academia I find myself feeling like I might be compromising my identity, both as an offbeat individual and as an archaeologist.

Although archaeology is an "offbeat" profession, I know that I will be judged on my appearance, just as I know that I must work extra hard as a woman in academia to prove myself. I tone it down for teaching, I tone it down for presenting at conferences. I tuck away my septum piercing, and I comb my hair down to hide my undercut. I have stopped dyeing my hair crazy colours. I don't do this to conform, but because I only want to be judged on the quality of my work and not on my appearance.

There will be plenty of people who disagree with me doing this, and encourage me to be true to myself. What I must point out is that for me, it turns out that defining myself by my outward appearance is becoming less and less important. I don't mean that I don't take pride in my appearance or that I don't care how I look. I do very much. But as I move into my thirties I have begun to realize that, unlike when I was a rebellious teenager, I can like what I want to like and be who I want to be without having to wear who I am on the outside.

This is not going to be the same for everyone, but rather it shows the reasons I had as a young person for dressing in a particular way — I needed people to know I was different, and that I belonged to a particular alternative group. My friends needed to know I was a totally dedicated rockin' metal chick with piercings and crazy hair. Being an archaeologist has proven to me that I actually do live in an offbeat way, and I don't need to show it on the outside at all times.

So am I no longer offbeat because my supposedly-alternative career as an archaeologist has made me "conform"? Not at all. I now understand what it means to live your life well, and to enjoy what you do, in the way that suits you best — whether it means that you accept the difficulties that looking "different" can sometimes bring, or if it means that you change your appearance to suit the occasion.

And while I do sometimes miss those brilliant looks from old ladies in the supermarket after work, jaw agape at my facial piercings, my new favourite thing is bumping into my students in full offbeat attire, on a night out, when they've only ever seen me in class. They love it, and I love it too.

  1. I was an anthropology major in college and had to do a few archaeology courses. Even though archaeology was not my concentration and I definitely did not go into a traditional anthropological field, I could relate to this article really well. My experiences as an anthropology/women's studies double major and now in essentially a "social work" sort of field helped me realize a lot of these same things about myself, that I didn't need to prove to other people who I was. Thanks for sharing!

  2. YES. It amuses me so much every time I bump into colleagues who know me in my extrovert, faux-Katharine-Hepburn Work Mode, and and they see the interesting makeup I play with, or the Goth Lolita who is my best friend, or whatever.

  3. We DEFINITELY need more posts like this. I love hearing about the unusual careers out there, off the beaten path! I'd contribute, but I'm very lucky to have a pretty standard job that treats me really well. So, people, write more like this so I can live vicariously through you until my skills/savings meet up with my fantasies!

    AND I love the commentary on professional attire and using it to your best advantage. I know I've wrestled with the issue, myself.

    • So glad you enjoyed my piece! I actually forget my career is more offbeat most of the time, as I'm so used to it and so much of what I do is so mundane, you wouldn't believe!

  4. This was so refreshing. Archaeology and a lot of the classical anthropology fields tend to be seething with males and not a whole lot of females! Then there was the Time Team debacle. (sigh) I backed out of a career pursuing archaeo-anthropology because all the males (only one female in the entire department) thought the specialisation I had chosen was "a bit odd". Now I write. Which I love too. Fair dues with your career and feck the conservatives. The stream of your evolution all lends itself to a fantastic memoir!
    Ps. I love your name- it's my daughter's name too! 😛

    • That's so interesting because where I am, archaeology is massively female heavy, especially at postgraduate level (although less so at lectureship level) In commercial archaeology it's probably more 50-50. I'm not sure why there are so many female PhD students at the moment, but I think it's a general trend in academia to be honest. I was able to continue in my slightly unusual PhD topic because I sought out supervisors who where interested at a different university to the one I was at for my MA – but this isn't always possible of course. So glad you liked my piece! It's come out of many years of working this stuff all out!

      • I agree, in York most of the archaeologists I know are female and, while I was told this would diminish as I climbed the academic ladder, I think actually my generation decided not to just get a degree then work in the City/join grad schemes, so there were recently/are a lot more female MA/MSc students (we're still less represented in the science side of arch though but I think that's a reflection of an imbalance at A-level choices) who are/have progressed into PhDs and onwards. Personally, I did a PGCE and went into chemistry teaching for now, so I could save for my MA/MSc since archaeology is notoriously underfunded.

    • YES. When I was in college (~2003) one of the anthropology professors actually used "what is causing the feminization of anthropology" as an example question in class. And not as an example of a bullshit question. It was awful.

  5. Love this! History degree, but I work in construction, I feel you with the early mornings and the weather, and often the only female on site. The facilities! or lack there of!

    • I hear ya with the lack of facilities, haha! Thankfully on the project that I work on I'm in charge of ordering in the portaloos, so that gets organised first!

      • Sorry – stupid American here, but… portaloos! *grinning*

        (not that the American version "portapotties" is less funny, I'm just more used to it)

  6. "I have begun to realize that, unlike when I was a rebellious teenager, I can like what I want to like and be who I want to be without having to wear who I am on the outside."

    THIS ALL DAY LONG

  7. Love this piece. I think this has been discussed on OBH before, but I too am finding that the older I get the less concerned I am with "easily identifiable subcultural markers". I wore crazy clothes and had short, spiky, crazy rainbow hair for most of my late teens through my late twenties- now my hair is long, brown, and straight and I wear jeans and a tshirt almost every day. 21-year-old me would have been horrified at the prospect of "blending in", but I see it more as "going undercover", haha! I find that the less I try to herald my subcultural identity to the rest of the world, the more open I feel towards new experiences and people. Not all the interesting people are advertising it, you know!

    Thanks for giving an insight into your career, too! It's not something I ever considered for myself but it is fascinating!

    • '21-year-old me would have been horrified at the prospect of "blending in", but I see it more as "going undercover", haha! I find that the less I try to herald my subcultural identity to the rest of the world, the more open I feel towards new experiences and people'

      TOTALLY! I especially have this with music. You would not believe how snobbish I was about my metal and punk as a teenager. Now that I honestly don't mind if people can look at me and see my subcultural identity, I find I have allowed myself to listen to anything and everything, and that I like a whole lot of stuff I used to turn my nose up at.

      • I completely identify with this. I was recently promoted as a branch manager in my library system in central Illinois. For my own comfort level I have "gone undercover" and I love that the people around me have no idea how offbeat I really am!

    • I find myself having the opposite experience. I was very concerned about fitting in and blending in high school and college. I always appreciated and envied people who stood out, but I just couldn't bring myself to break out. The older I get, the fewer fucks I give about others' opinions and the reactions of strangers. I'm also able to pick out which new trends will work on me and which to just ignore. My hair is crazier, I have more piercings, and wilder clothing than I ever did in my 20's. Maybe it's because I've branched out and am finally meeting and making friends with real people that have wildly different subcultures, and I want them to know that hey, me too!

  8. many people end up working like this for a few years after their degree, and then move on into other more stable jobs

    Yep, this is me.

    The thing about archaeology — and a small survey of colleagues and friends confirms this — is that it's not just a job. It defines you.

    Yep, also me.

    So put those two together, and I'm having an identity crisis as we speak. I've only been out of it for a year and a half, and the first year or so I was so glad to be gone, but now? Identity crisis.

    • My take on this is that you're always an archaeologist – the great thing about archaeology is that you can carry on volunteering on projects and joining in on activities at museums, and you never lose the knowledge which you can impart to others who are dying to know about it! In the UK we have the Young Archaeologists Club, and they are desperate for volunteers. With lots of other jobs you wouldn't be able to do it in your spare time, or even want to. Archaeology can be a holiday as well as a job! (I have seriously done this).

      • Yeah, I actually had another foray out of archaeology a few years back; my office job required two unpaid weeks off per year. Guess what I did with mine? (seriously, both years I worked there)

  9. Thank you so much for this article. I was a late-bloomer for identity, I spent my teens trying to blend in as I lived in a small town, then it took me a while to really get into my subculture in my 20s. Before I knew it (age 22) I began my work in therapy, and by 26 was working as a therapist in prisons, and now as a psychologist with children. The psychology professions BEATS OUT OF YOU any difference, and insists you must look as "plain" as possible for the focus to remain on the client.

    Because I hadn't had much time really figuring out and enjoying who I was, I often feel as though I still (at almost 31) don't really have a good handle on my identity. Couple this with a husband who thinks that my crazy piercings and goth-style look should be left in my early 20s (like his was), and I still really struggle sometimes with knowing who I am.

    Work sucks, yo.

  10. I love hearing about other people's careers, especially those that come with an identity attached to it. I don't just work at a zoo, I AM a zookeeper. And even if I leave the field, it will still be with me, and define how I see the world. It sucks sometimes that the "best" careers are the ones that don't pay very well or are physically demanding, putting a shelf life on how long must of us can keep it up.

    • It's probably not a coincidence that the "best" careers have low pay (and/or bad conditions).

      I read a (kind of depressing) article recently about how workers can be exploited when their job is part of their identity. It's helpful for the management to promote a culture of people who do their job "because they love it", because then workers are less likely to leave, because leaving takes away part of their identity. This is a real problem in academia, for example.

      Basically, it's great to love our jobs, but they are still work! And we should insist on being treated fairly, even if our job is cool.

    • @Evee: I think I speak for all of us when I say that I would love a guest post!! That just sounds like fun on a bun! (To hear about your job.)

      • So I have a friend who works at a zoo, and he was bragging on Facebook that he saw his first armadillo poop.
        And I realized. I want to know what all the poops look like.
        But my follow-up realization was… what an age we live in that we can communicate and learn directly from people who are so far outside our individual realms of experience and perspectives. Whoa.
        Love this post and I want more. 🙂

  11. I too am an archaeologist, successfully self employed for 6+ years, president of my state's professional organization, and I am one of the most heavily tattooed women I know, and probably one of the most heavily tattooed arcs where I live (with the next tat scheduled in a few weeks). At age 44, at this point in my career I happily & freely display my body art around colleagues & clients, generally only covering it when meeting new clients & colleagues for the first time. I LOVE what I do (yes, absolutely it defines me too!) & I love being old enough & far enough along in my career to just be me. Tats and all. Nice article.

  12. Great post, Lex! You've articulated several things about career identity that I've been pondering for a while. As an instrument-maker (luthier) turned music-tech researcher turned arts-education nonprofit founder, all of my career fields form key parts of my identity. (Also, I'm told those are lots of other people's dream jobs.) So, I feel guilty for considering a switch to regular old project management, in order to afford grown-up stuff like repairs to our 17th-century cottage, more trips to visit the ageing parents, or a new puppy.

    Seeing your thoughts about "conforming" and careers written plainly on-screen helped me gain some perspective. Thanks!

    PS– If you don't mind me asking, where's your postdoc? I'm just south of London in Surrey, but I do research at Queen's in Belfast.

  13. What a great post! Who knew there were so many archaeologists out there?! I did my undergrad degree in archaeology too. I loved it, and although my career has taken me elsewhere, I still find my background in archaeology really useful. What Lex said about transferable skills is so true. I think it's made me especially careful about assessing evidence and looking at things in context, not in isolation.

  14. Oh, I love this. Archaeology is my dream job. It was my dream job when I was a kid, but when I hit fractions and developed math anxiety I was encouraged (shoved really) away from science and towards writing. By the time I figured out I actually was smart enough to become an archaeologist, my body was too worn out to handle the "hard physical labor" aspect of it. (I once described it as digging ditches, really slowly.) I do as much volunteer archaeology as I am able, and have found that in the places I've been nobody seems to balk at my offbeat appearance.

    I get what you're saying exactly about feeling that as you get older and more confident you feel less like you have to wear your personality on your sleeve appearance-wise. I'm a heavily tattooed person, which is never going away. But I'm also a little too old for some of the fashions I used to favor, and too lazy for others. 🙂 The people who know me know what kind of person I am…and as an antique dealer, I've found that sometimes a nice high-coverage sweatshirt gets me into the little old lady's house to look at her treasures long enough for my personality to win her over so that she does not care what I look like. If that makes sense.

  15. Great post Lex,
    I can relate to the feeling of not wanting to have your appearance overshadow your being taken seriously. I am a non-conservative in a conservative career- nursing. I am however heavily tattooed and while its becoming more accepted in American society, I still cover them. Why? Because my priorities have shifted. I am not as interested in advertising what my outside interests are to everyone. When I was much younger, in my 20's it was important to be "in your face" about my beliefs and values. Now, at 40, it seems less interesting for me to do that. I value being taken seroiusly as a nurse. Its my lifelong career and livelyhood. Fashion is secondary. Outside of work is another story. Perhaps Im becoming an old fart afterall. Lex, Im envious you have such a cool career. You will evolve along with it.

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