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.