Regular readers of my books or blog will know my characters are often archaeologists who I describe as ‘living the archaeological lifestyle’. That’s an awful phrase – I know editors would demand changes if it appeared in a novel. So, this post will describe what I mean. It’s also timely, as two of my forthcoming books – ‘Snuff’ and ‘Dana’s Children’ are at least partially set on digs.
I’ve been a member of archaeology societies and worked on local sites at weekends. My first (and sadly only) experience of a big, large-scale excavation was during my undergraduate course, where I had the pleasure of helping uncover Whithorn in southern Scotland. This dig is the one mirrored in my work. Out of respect for ex-colleagues I’ve never written anything auto/biographical, although I have been tempted to do something with my ‘solo adventure’ that led to a lifelong fear of cows!
So, what is a dig like?
Well, first of all, the physical discomfort. Most digs are on the tightest possible budget, meaning luxury is out of the question. I assume my dig was broadly typical, in that it rented empty houses and invited diggers to bring their own bedding and sleep too many to a room, even up to relatively senior level. The ‘home comfort’ was a couple of tatty sofas which couldn’t hold everyone, so there were a lot of sore knees and rumps from sitting on bare floorboards.
Food was generally stew thrown together by whichever couple of undergraduates were on cooking rota, which made the quality ‘variable’. Meals probably wouldn’t pass today’s Health and Safety laws, but I don’t remember any food poisoning. I’d never cooked anything in my life - fortunately my fellow chef was both competent and patient.
Our remote farmhouse was off mains so there was never enough hot water. I can’t begin to imagine the aroma we must have taken into ‘The Grapes’ with us!
But, the good atmosphere more than made up. I don’t remember anyone complaining about the conditions – even me, and I particularly like my comforts.
The work itself probably goes without saying. I knew enough about archaeology to be aware of what I was letting myself in for, although the proportion of time doing manual labour like lugging wheelbarrows full of earth, as opposed to digging up treasure hoards (I exaggerate) became a bit of a surprise. But, that’s part of the learning process. However, there was no work pressure at all at ‘digger’ level, which added to the relaxed atmosphere.
I suppose the most important element of ‘the archaeological lifestyle’ – or indeed any lifestyle - is culture. Archaeology undergraduate courses often insist students spend at least two weeks on a dig, so big excavations tend to be full of transitory students who move on after a fortnight. (I was unusual in throwing myself in at the deep end by volunteering for longer.) That results in short, sharp and shallow but intense friendships. Goodbyes are often emotional and genuine with bear hugs and handshakes, which demonstrates how close people became in only a couple of weeks.
Although I spent a lot of time with my fellow diggers, I rarely got to know much more than their name, university, and home town. I didn’t have much idea who had boy/girlfriends for example. No-one asked me anything personal either – in the tight-knit environment everything external seemed to get left behind. That didn’t matter because being stuck with people twenty-four hours a day means everyone makes an effort to get on and muck in – which leads to a good, friendly atmosphere. I also think in the house I stayed in, we were particularly lucky with the personalities.
A mix of youngsters with free evenings and no formal rules could be an explosive one, but with everyone needing to fit in the rules necessarily became unwritten ‘social norms’ (as the family anthropologist calls them) and were generally followed. The few who strayed from the boundaries stood out like a sore thumb and generally found the dig an unhappy experience, I think. They also give the writer a source of conflict.
The constant comings and goings lead to short term relationships, so there is more than a splattering of casual sex (and drugs) on offer. This darker element provides obvious fiction possibilities. Neither have ever been my scene and I kept both at arm’s length, but my ego allows me to report turning down an offer from a cute brunette. (What was I thinking? I was unattached and turned down a cute brunette!)
With mobile phones and social media, isolation is less of an issue now. Whithorn is remote, and the only communication beyond the village was the single telephone box. This added to the inward-looking intensity and focus on the dig environment. I think readily-available communications probably take something away from the modern archaeologist’s experience.
Inevitably, with so many people involved, things go wrong and emotions spill over. With no real friends or experienced advice it’s possible for youngsters – and even the older heads - to flounder. From the writer’s viewpoint that provides yet more possibilities for writers. Problems don’t happen often though, and field archaeologists in my stories run away with their emotions, have crises, and break the ‘social norms’ more than is usual on a real life dig!
Anyway, I got home feeling I’d experienced the good, the bad and the ugly, and that I’d lived a lifetime’s worth of every possible emotion. And boy, was I desperate to do it again next year!
So, I hope I’ve given an outline of what some of my characters experience, and so a little of what shapes them. I also hope my affection for field archaeology and its culture comes over in my writing.
Acknowledgement: Thank you for loads of good times to those I stayed at Palmallet farmhouse with.