Letter to a Young Archaeologist, June 2022

Ben Gearey

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Dear Young Archaeologist

What is archaeology? What do archaeologists 'do'? What makes an archaeologist? Do you 'have' to possess a worn down trowel and (eventually) worn down knees? What do I think? 

Indulge me with a short anecdote to answer my own questions, in part at least. Some years ago (more years than I care to count…). I was filmed for a popular TV archaeology programme. One of the short sequences that made the final cut involved yours truly taking some sediment samples from a trench whilst one of the regular archaeologists on the show looked on and asked questions. The two minutes or so ended with a jokey reference to 'real archaeology' - seemingly defined as the physical business of the excavation of stone walls and big holes in the ground, rather than the analysis of the newly collected samples in the laboratory. 

There was no serious intended criticism of the value of the latter (I’m almost entirely sure…) but the 'joke' was telling: archaeology is often equated with digging, physical labour, the unique experience of the discovery of artefacts, damp soil, dirty hands. This is a key part of archaeology for sure, but it isn't the only way to engage with and understand the past. You can 'be' an archaeologist without necessarily spending endless days down to earth. Perhaps you are not able to work outside all day in all weathers or maybe that just doesn't appeal so much?  Perhaps your interest lies towards the sciences? Do these things mean you cannot be a 'proper' archaeologist? No. There are various different avenues open to you. 

This is the one I followed (there are many others, as previous letters have discussed): the samples I recovered that TV day were for analysis of microscopic pollen grains (palynology), once dispersed by living plants and preserved in ancient soil sealed beneath the stones of a prehistoric monument. Another colleague was collecting samples from other trenches for the investigation of charred plant remains (archaeobotany) and her particular specialism, the study of fragments of beetles (palaeoentomology).  The field we work in is known as 'environmental archaeology', the investigation and understanding of past environments (‘palaeoenvironments’), and in particular how people have shaped, and in turn been shaped by, the plants, animals and landscapes that formed part of their world. Where do we 'find' these past environments? Always in fragmentary form, pollen grains and other microfossils, as well as macrofossils, charred seeds, animal bones, partial and often degraded by the march of time, but a remarkable jigsaw waiting to be reassembled, although inevitably one lacking all the pieces…

The practice of environmental archaeology still begins in the trench, the collection of samples from layers of soil and sediment formed by human occupation and activity. But the main business takes place in the laboratory, where the trowel and creaky knees are replaced by time spent looking down a microscope and (without good posture…) perhaps a creaky back! This work requires patience, imagination and curiosity, but the rewards can be just as great as the discovery of a rare artefact: pollen grains shed from an ear of wheat, planted in the earliest years of the arable farming in the Neolithic, from the herbs that spread into woodland clearings as prehistoric peoples began to clear woodland for agriculture and settlement. The data produced by environmental archaeologists has led to huge leaps forward in our understanding of the impact of human beings on the earth and climate systems through time. 

So - to return to my earlier question: what do archaeologists do? What do you think? I hope this short letter has perhaps given you some food for thought. Next time you’re out in a park or walking in the countryside, look at the landscape around you: the product of thousands of years of human activity, destruction of woodland, agriculture, soil erosion, burning, industry, pollution: there are few places left that we can really call ‘natural’ or ‘undisturbed’.  If you’re in a town or city, think of the houses, factories and general detritus of modern humanity: how could we ever tell the story of the world around us, without understanding how generations of people have changed the environment? As we confront global warming and ecological crisis, we need to understand the entangled patterns of cultural and natural change that are the collaborative results of all archaeological work. We need more people, from different backgrounds and places, to move such work into our future.

Yours in hope,


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