Everyone knows the flamboyant side of archaeology. The digging, the troweling, the muddy pants and Indiana Jones hats. That’s the part that everyone sees first, and for good measure. Archaeology wouldn’t be half as exciting or mysterious if it weren’t for the deep pits in the ground and the funny looking equipment. And let’s be honest, there would be no lab work to do if nothing were coming out of the ground. But in my opinion, it’s what happens after the dirty work that really defines an excavation. When you’re assigned to post-ex, moans and groans ensue. Everyone loves being out in a cutting, hoping to discover the coolest find of the day, so being resigned to working under a tent, washing bones and registering bags after bags of finds can sometimes seem dull. But I’ve grown to love working in the lab this last week, and here’s why:
1. You get to see, examine, and catalog everything that’s been excavated
And I do mean everything. When you’re troweling away in a cutting (the marked area of space where an excavation will take place), anything you find gets placed into a tray that’s taken to post-ex at the end of the day. The trays are labeled with the cutting number, the feature number, initials of the person in charge, and the date. These pieces of information are crucial for being able to correctly label and store the artifacts after they’ve been processed, and are part of a huge cataloging system that ensures no one mixes up animal and human bones, and no bits of medieval pottery get lost among piles and piles of rusted nails. The next morning, lab techs take each of the finds trays and assign them a special number that is recorded into a larger register and then later bagged and stored in their appropriate place. That means you get to sort gorgeous pieces of glazed pottery, a ginormous animal mandible with teeth still in tact, and a perfectly preserved ivory stylus from all across the entire dig site. You are the first line of defense for what stays and what goes, and you’re in charge of determining how best to classify the finds and divide them up according to as many possible factors as you can. Even though you’re not the one bringing it up from the dirt, you’re the one getting personal with the artifacts by washing them, bagging them, and making sure they’re properly tucked away into the right bin.
2. You make everyone’s life easier by doing the jobs they don’t want to do
Post-ex is a labor of love. It takes a special type of person to really, truly enjoy marking checked boxes on a register sheet, making sure disarticulated human bone is properly logged into the blue binder and not the pink binder, and writing what seems like a million different pieces of information onto the world’s smallest ziplock bag. It’s not a glamorous job, but it’s one that everyone else absolutely hates doing, so if you love it, you’re in. The other day, both of the post-ex supervisors were gone, so I was left (loosely) in charge of making sure that the previous day’s work was completed and that as many finds were registered as possible without bothering anyone more than the socially acceptable amount of times. Knowing where everything is in the cabin, which sheets to fill out, how to sort finds vs. samples, and breaking down the science of routine so you become basically a lab work machine was so satisfying. Feeling confident in my ability to properly log and store items that were crucial to the understanding of the medieval layer of the excavation, knowing that I was helping to do arguably the most important work on the site, and that some of the items I’d registered and bagged would be shipped off to the National Museum was such a gratifying feeling. See here, my roommate Cara, expressing her thanks that she doesn’t have to wash anymore animal bones because she knows I’ll do it for her.
3. You have an excuse to stay inside (i.e. warm and dry) when it’s cold and raining without looking lazy
Let’s face it. No one likes being outside in the rain. And you know what’s worse than being outside in the rain? Digging in the dirt while it’s raining. When you work in the lab, you have the perfect excuse to stay inside in the nice cabin with a roof and continue on with your day while all of your friends and colleagues are miserable and getting drenched. In Ireland especially, the sky can be clear and sunny, yet pouring with rain. Today alone between 9am and 2pm, we had to stop excavations three separate times due to intermittent downpours. Guess who stayed dry because she was inside doing digital post-ex work importing excavation photos on Excel? Me. See also: the girl who didn’t go home completely soaked and muddy. Post-ex is the best of both worlds because you still get to be outside all day under the big marquis tent, so you don’t get that same cooped up feeling like with an office job, but you’re also protected from unpredictable and unpleasant weather when the time comes. Who says you need waterproof pants to be an archaeologist?
4. You look really professional when all of your equipment is laid out
This one’s a bit vain. But one great thing about working on the Blackfriary site is that it’s a community heritage project and a public space, so people living in Trim and people vacationing in Ireland are free to peruse the site at any time, even while we’re working. We have at least one person come and walk their dog on site every day, and since I’ve been here, have entertained multiple groups of people eager for the chance to see a real live archaeological excavation up close. Because we’re very transparent with our work and our work space, many of the visitors like to ask what we’re doing and come over to check out the finds. When you have everything working in a system, all your registry binders, stacked finds trays, and bones drying on a bakers tray after being washed, it just adds to the experience. Part of archaeology is making it as accessible as possible to the people who are most connected to it: the community. We want them to be excited about their heritage and about the work that we’re doing, so being able to show how the process works and how we go about treating the items that we find respectfully and carefully is just a bonus.
These are just a few of the reasons why I’ve loved working in the lab. There’s something about being able to make everyone’s day smoother, to be the one to put everything in its proper place, and to make sure that the record is correct for future scholars that’s so gratifying. At the end of the day, we post-ex champions can go home knowing that, no matter what Hollywood may say, the ‘boring’ lab work is just as important as the actual digging. Next week I’m on bio archaeology, working with recently excavated burials and (hopefully) fully articulated skeletal remains.