As an anthropologist, I’m accustomed to answering people’s questions about what it is that I do:
Do you study spiders? No, I leave the arthropods (spiders) to the entomologists.
Have you dug up any interesting fossils lately? Well…. umm, no. That’s palaeontology, and whilst some of the people I work with might be unkindly described as ‘fossils’, they’re most certainly alive.
Anthropology is, of course, the study of human cultures. In my case, it’s working with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory to help protect their sacred sites.
Of course, most people probably assume that anthropologists know what archaeologists do in the field, and vice versa, as the disciplines share a lot of similarities.
In reality, this isn’t quite the truth – which is exactly what I discovered at a recent Flinders University field school on archaeological field methods at Redbanks (near Mallala).
1. It’s Not About the Digging
I thought I’d be carefully excavating artefacts in neatly squared trenches with all manner of natty little trowels and brushes.
I was sadly mistaken.
Most archaeology in Australia involves field surveys, which means you’re looking for artefacts on the ground: lots of walking, surveying, measuring, flagging and recording artefacts in the database at night.
2.You Will Be Mistaken for a Surveyor
Theodolites. Dumpy levels. Red and white sticks.
Archaeologists use all of these – and more.
People driving past your field site WILL mistake you for a surveyor.
After several days of holding up a red and white stick and making sure it’s level, you will mistake yourself for a surveyor, too.
3. Archaeologists Love Gadgets
Studying archaeology gives me a whole new excuse to buy more gadgets!
There’s callipers, portable desks, prismatic compasses, weather-proof notebooks, brushes, scales…
…and at last a real excuse to buy an iPad for work!
4. No Snakes, But…
Indiana Jones always seems to find snakes. During 11 years of outback fieldwork, I’ve rarely encountered snakes.
Beetles, ants, flies and spiders, however, are everywhere:
Do NOT forget the Aeroguard!
5. Flagging, Tagging and Bagging
Despite the Hollywood stereotypes, archaeology has plenty of repetitive-but-necessary tasks.
Like flagging, collecting and recording more than a thousand glass fragments, broken pieces of ceramic and and clay bricks.
Whilst we didn’t uncover any buried treasures, I did walk away learning something that’s true for both archaeology and anthropology: always expect the unexpected.