It’s National Archaeology Week, also coincidentally International Museum Day. I get told that archaeology is boring regularly yet when I tell people what I study, there’s a bit of a mystique thanks to Indy, Lara, Daniel and my great love, River Song. We are seen as capable adventures and sometimes we delude ourselves into the invincibility trap, which is why today I’m writing from bed rather than on North Terrace at the museums along there. I’ll be posting some museum specific posts before Sunday.
This brings me to archaeology, what is it we actually do? Archaeologies probably should be the proper plural but at the very base definition of what archaeologists do, we observe and record the way humans behave when they interact with each other, artefacts they use and the environments they occupy. Technically we study material culture or things!
We have several archaeology programs at my university, Flinders University of South Australia; the three biggest programmes being the maritime, indigenous and cultural heritage management. We have a small forensic program, some anthropology and an award winning innovative archaeologist nicknamed, Dr Space Junk (Alice Gorman).
I’m currently doing an odd mix of archaeology and culture heritage tourism since when I started my archaeology degree, I was healthy and young twenty something. I’ve had to adapt when I found myself differently dis/Abled later in my mid 20s and thirties figuring out what to do next. I took a literature degree at UNE (later with English 2.1 honours in literary vampires) and a double major BA with Palaeoanthropology & archaeology and English. This wasn’t as mad as it sounds as an English literature degree was an asset in a course that involves as much writing, recording and investigating as specific technical skills learned when practicing in the field as archaeology does.
In 2013, I came back to Flinders University and choose the Master of Archaeology program because one of the key traits of an archaeologist is adaptability and inventiveness on top of genuine curiosity. There is also the willingness to do some strange things like figuring out how to buy the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney a Dalek for the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who last year or work how much a voodoo doll replica is worth by looking for them on Etsy of all places because genuine voodoo dolls aren’t easy to come by let alone the replicas .
In my journey as an archaeology student, if you can’t fit into the structure, you can give up or you can try it all and find out what you are good at, what your passion is and what leverage you have. Then you find those mentors and teachers that will help you and let you fill out an accession form a model of Dalek. My defining moment was in Biodiversity Week in 2014 when I discovered “science communication” through the art of the award winning, Professor Flint (Michael Mills of Heaps Good Productions). I was also taking a tourism course at the time on the art of interpretation (the act of creating accessible information that appeals to and communicates with tourists at places like museums, parks and historical/heritage locations) like West Terrace Cemetery or the SA Museum. I connected the two subject areas and decided I wanted to do tourism units, so I talked to my lecturers who are very supportive of me about arranging my tourism electives to be in the archaeology curriculum and where I was headed career wise.
After the Professor Flint interview for the journal of our student archaeology club, I decided I belonged with the science communication network rather than practicing and consulting archaeologists because I felt people needed to understand why we do science, tourism and history in plain language and how it was important to their daily lives. This was something I can achieve with my capabilities and limitations of my dis/Ability.
This then blog which was going to be primarily cultural heritage tourism extended into a pet project about the culture industries in Adelaide where I’m supporting local and Australian acts at the Adelaide Fringe, arts festivals and in the creative industries because SA has the potential to be a cultural capital of Oz all year around. According to some people, the Fringe either got too big or small and this came from me going out to blog an event, randomly make a serendipitous friend on social media and now my range of subjects expanded into the arts (I grew up in an artistic environment). I get to do all the things I love and it’s all still cultural anthropology and modern material culture archaeology!
Monday night, I joined the Meet the Archaeology Students in presenting for Archaeology Week. Below is my interpretive display about life as archaeology student and other horror stories. I honestly thought people would be more excited by the access to tools like trowels and use social media to promote the event, but my reception seemed cold so I guess that is a failed exercise in interpretation and I’ve learned it would have been better aimed at kids who love props. The thing is, it was a hard audience to read and my lecture presentation style is mostly more relaxed and informal rather than the very technical and fascinating talks given by the other students on actual research they’d conducted. But there was no reason given why we are relevant and what problems our research solves which is what I failed to do. At least my display looked nifty!
After I interviewed the science communicator, Michael Mills (aka Professor Flint of Dinosaurs Down Under fame), I then tried my hand at editing the archaeology society journal as a short contributions editor after writing a book review on Hillforts (because I’m actually a palaeoanthropology student technically). And as a short piece writer, I found I’d much prefer to be writing local history events but my ideas weren’t suitable for the archaeology society blog, so I started Lonely Archaeologist on Facebook and then WordPress, branching out from places like the SA Museum or Harry Potter marathon at the State Library into the 2015-16 Fringe season.
I was hardly on home territory but it expanded my understanding of tourism as I learned on job as “media”. Right now I’m writing about burlesque and cabaret to go with my history of dance appreciation for June and July with the Burlesque and Cabaret festivals coming in the winter. It’s good to know where your strengths and weaknesses are as a writer and presenter, I seem to appeal to a much younger demographic as I found out a few weeks ago at SAM’s Night Lab event with my stint as the Flour Girl for a grindstone demo. That story is coming I promise! There will be bread and mayhem!
What now? At present I’m struggling with some cultural heritage legislation in an archaeology assignment because of ill health but doing a great job about my tourism assignment on Montenegro presentation because I’m better at tourism and can do presentations delirious (true story involving pirates and cannons) because I do a lot of local stuff and have public speaking longer than I remember.
However, I still love archaeology and an opportunity came along to write a paper on popular culture archaeologists beyond Indy and Lara, well within the realm of my English Honours comparative literature skillsbase, I’d put in an abstract with low hopes of being accepted. Surprisingly, I was actually contacted by the editors for further information and yesterday with the help of my mentor, I’ve submitted to a second journal. I might be published. I might not but I tried and that’s where you get the experience to produce better proposals by trying and trying again.
That’s an incredible feeling when your passions converge and there’s just that possibility of success as well as learning from failures like at ‘Meet the Archaeology Students’. So I’m taking some advice from ‘The Martian’ that Matt Damon says to his students at the end of the film, you just keep on solving each problem as it comes up and hope you survive and you’ll hopefully find your way home.
Clara Rose Santilli