Archaeology: Expectations Versus Reality

I thought we could do with a bit of light-hearted reflection this week, so this blog post is going to be about stepping into archaeology: expectations versus reality of working in the field of commercial archaeology.

For many of us, archaeology has been a field of fascination since we were very young. There is nothing more exciting than reading about the discovery of a lost city, nothing more mysterious than the lives of people who haven’t been around for thousands of years. What did they do? What did their homes look like? Did they also have to complete homework assignments, and did they too try to cheat off their friends’ work? These questions drove me as a child. There were endless archaeological sites across the world to occupy my mind – Petra in Jordan, Pompeii and Herculaneum, Troy, Machu Picchu, Skara Brae. These came to me as enormous storyboards with sporadic puzzle pieces that one could fit together as many times and in as many different ways as they wanted to. Any blanks in this colourful canvas were filled in by equally colourful depictions of archaeology in the media (often involving aliens, treasure hunting, and the destruction of an astonishing number of fictional archaeological sites). We’ve all seen them – Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, The Mummy versus Tom Cruise (actually, I haven’t seen that one). There is even a found-footage “horror-adventure” movie based around a team of archaeologists in Egypt (Cloverfield 36: this time it’s personal) which I’m sure is great. Movie night, anyone? And of course, who could forget the TV show Time Team, probably the most accurate depiction of (presumably well-funded) archaeological research digs. But it didn’t stop there, in fact it didn’t even start there. My earliest introduction to archaeology and a fascination with lost cities began with video games.

Cluefinders 3rd Grade: The Mystery of Mathra” which taught me nothing about ancient civilisations but plenty about maths and English in the setting of a lost civilisation. They must have all been math whizzes if they needed that many fractions to unlock their doors. Image: Cluefinders Fandom. 

In fact, a worldwide fascination with lost civilisations meant that there was an abundance of games set in ancient abandoned cities – and yet not one of them let me excavate or analyse any of the data. Very disappointing. More modern games about ‘archaeology’ and lost civilisations (for me, personally, Uncharted and Tomb Raider) follow the popular adventure archaeologist/treasure hunter narrative that we have seen in so many Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider movies. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve helped Nathan Drake and Lara Croft save the world – who knew the past could be so dangerous! Who knew there were so many dastardly organisations out there trying to destroy the world- oh, wait, never mind.

A fairly typical day for an archaeologist; Lara Croft gets ready for a long day on site – essential tools only. Image: 

Figure 3. Extreme buildings archaeology: Nathan Drake and his associates plan out the best way to properly record these suspiciously well preserved 17th century wooden buildings in the thick of the jungle on a fictional island near Madagascar. The precarious nature of these types of buildings means you have to be well prepared; a quick glance at this picture shows some serious safety breaches. Where are their hardhats and high vis?! Image: reddit

The next step was an obvious one, it was time to accrue tens of thousands of dollars of debt and get my own consulting company. I’m joking – I just went to university.

Ain’t that the truth… Image: memedriod. 

It was here I began to get a more grounded idea of what archaeology was really like, and the sorts of things looked at by modern archaeologists. Most importantly I learned what archaeology could tell us about the history of our own Aotearoa, early Polynesian settlement of the islands, and of Māori history. Every day I learnt something that I didn’t know I didn’t know, and expanded or completely turned the tables on things I thought I did know. I learnt that the difficulty of your multichoice and essay questions relied entirely on who your lecturer was, and that the best way to get amongst other archaeologists and archaeology students was to join them for drinks at the pub. It must be said, however, that university did very little to prepare me for actually working as an archaeologist, although we did have at least one lecture concerning the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014 (or so I’ve been told.

The key difference between working in commercial archaeology and my university education, is that we were essentially trained by research archaeologists to become research archaeologists. By this of course, I mean neat 1×1 m excavation squares with string lines, careful stratigraphic drawings and excavating down in 50 mm spits, recording the scene thoroughly at each level, and in some cases, thoroughly and systematically GPS’ing the precise location of every single artefact. On my field school, which took place at a Māori silcrete quarry site, this was a tremendous undertaking, although there is something to be said about how satisfying that level of intensive recording can be. Of course, there are many significant situations in which this approach is still important and used, although these can essentially be narrowed down to ‘well-funded research archaeology digs.’ Some of the most useful techniques our field school taught us was to never get separated from your lunch (trust me on this one), to take plentiful, clear and detailed notes, to write clear information on all bags, and how to survive on 3-6 hours of sleep.

Here you can observe an archaeologist in their natural setting, a green field where they doubtless have been encamped for the night. When observed awake at this time of the evening, an archaeologist can often be found inebriated, and preparing for an early start to the next day. Image: picuki. 

Overall, going to university with the aim of working in commercial archaeology gets a solid A+ for providing a crucial and truly indispensable understanding of New Zealand history and the sort of archaeology you might encounter, but honestly a B- from a practical perspective. Nevertheless, my time at university did give me a number of expectations for what working in this field would end up being like. These can be organised into three broad categories; work outfits, travelling for work, and fieldwork.

Work Outfits

Expectation: The classic archaeology look is professional and a little bit hardcore. Dressed in shades of tan brown or green, usually with a cowboy hat or hardhat (which either way looks like it came straight out of Indiana Jones or The Mummy), the archaeologist looks like they are ready to simultaneously traipse through a desert, a jungle, or navigate a complicated cave system. The archaeologist will have a glowing and even tan. The archaeologists tool kit includes a small water bottle, several types of trowel, detail brushes, and measuring tapes.

Runescape provides a clear outline for a successful archaeological work outfit. You might have noticed the medals adorning his right shoulder – it is important for all who encounter an archaeologist to know their achievements at a glance. I’m personally still working out how to fit my degree onto a badge, but when I do it’s over for you bitches. Image: artstation. 

Reality: You are covered in dirt and mud. Even if you haven’t lifted a finger you are still covered in a fine layer of dust and dirt. Your eyebrows are seemingly permanently four shades darker and are four times more sand than hair. When you have to reapply sunblock, you spread the dirt more evenly across your face; you might not have an even tan (or a tan at all) but at least no one else can tell. In winter this is a lost cause. You are dirty. Everyone is dirty. The tan or green coloured pants are just designed to blend in with the dirt. You are one with the soil. Your work boots are your most valuable asset – they are the most comfortable shoes you own, and they make you feel powerful. You are powerful dirt. You wear high vis at all times; you must be careful with this as wearing high vis for extended periods of time may result in psychological difficulty wearing normal clothes at other times. You have at least two different high vis vests and at least two different high vis coats. You own a pair of wet-weather pants but never think to put them on before going out into wet weather. You own four pairs of safety glasses and all of them have scratches in the middle of the lenses which make it impossible to see, either into the trench or at the ground in front of your own two feet.

Dirty archaeologists: The Dangers of Sieving. Directed and produced by Archaeologists Inc. Image: R. Adam.

We questioned some local archaeologists on the scene. Despite the conditions, one archaeologist when asked said “I’ve never felt more alive.” Back to you in the studio Glenn. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

Travelling for Work:

Expectation: An archaeologist travels as part of a small herd. Good companionship is plentiful, alongside campfires, suspiciously well-equipped tents, and a good supply of food and alcohol.

Reality: You live out of a suitcase; this is more annoying than you had anticipated. You always forget at least one vital item. Friendship is tested continuously while you attempt to team-draw a strat; no one can decide what should and shouldn’t be included as a layer, tensions are high.


Expectation: An archaeologist is built for fieldwork, and nothing gives them more joy. This involves painstakingly careful 1×1 m square excavations and carefully brushing down artefacts with small brushes. Often situated in a cave for maximum drama. An archaeologists field book is full of detailed notes, maps, and drawings, deciphering of puzzles, clues from earlier in the cave which may later help them open the secret door at the other end of the cave system once they have defeated the forty gun-toting bad guys who somehow made it into the cave first. An archaeologist has impressive arm strength and somehow becomes fitter just by product of being an archaeologist. Always finishes early on a Friday.

Reality: Your field book is full of scribbled notes and maps that you are SURE are oriented north (surely?!), and that word definitely says uh… dandy gnome… no wait-that doesn’t make sense. It’s not exactly puzzle-solving, but interpreting this stratigraphy definitely comes close, and re-interpreting the stratigraphy from the notes in your field book can definitely be classed as puzzle solving. You often helpfully take photos of things but without any notes or follow-up context photos. This is inevitably not as helpful as you thought it would be.

Ancient symbols recovered from an archaeologist’s field notebook. Some interpretation is required. This does not count as useful contextual information. Image: R. Adam. 

You definitely get to brush down artefacts with small brushes sometimes, but you are very rarely working in a cave. There’s also a lot of sand, honestly there is so much bloody sand. You introduce yourself to contractors as ‘your archaeologist for the day’ in order to ‘keep it fresh’ because you are ‘fun’ and ‘cool.’ You spend most of your time watching diggers and then feeling important when you try to make them stop (and then you feel like a school teacher when they don’t see you waving your hand and you have to tap the bucket with your scale stick). A truly shocking amount of time is spent waiting on construction sites thinking about your life choices. You arrived on site when they said they would be digging. Every 20 minutes they say they will definitely dig very soon. You have been waiting for four hours now. Your field method includes confusing diagrams in your notebook with extremely disproportionate and not-to-scale maps of the area of works and where your archaeological feature was encountered.

Gandalf learns first-hand the perils of a poorly labelled site map. The greater the time between recording features and writing the report, the greater your confusion when revisiting notes and photos. Good luck Gandalf, I don’t know which way is north either. Image: Reddit. 

Exercise is inconsistent – most of the time you simply stand and watch the digger, occasionally crouching to take a photo or investigate something. When you do have to excavate a feature, it is likely the most digging you’ve done for months. Because of this excavating makes your arms, legs, and butt sore for days. Cursed Fridays; never respond to a callout after 2 pm on a Friday unless you are fully prepared to be on site until at least 6 pm.

The phone rings. It’s 2pm on a Friday. They say they’re just digging a small section. They say it’s only going to take an hour. They’re lying. Image: TrollArchaeology

At the end of the day I think it is fair to say that we are all glad not to be cursed or to be fighting mummies in Egypt, and that it’s probably for the best that we don’t have to carry around guns and fight people (most of the time). I think we’d all rather be carefully brushing artefacts down or watching diggers carefully scraping away clean soil rather than running from suspiciously circular boulders, and most of the time we get to go home at the end of the day, which is definitely preferable to being trapped in a tomb or underground cavern.

It might not be as glamourous or dangerous as the movies and games make it out to be, or as finely tuned as we were taught at university, but recording and preserving the history of New Zealand (or whichever country you are working in, like Canada?? Hi Canada!) is an important and rewarding job. To bring this blog full circle, I am happy to be contributing to the great storyboard of New Zealand history, providing puzzle pieces and filling in blanks where we can. To this day I am still learning things I never knew I never knew, and no matter how long or dirty the day, that’s what makes it worth it.

Rebecca Adam

1 thought on “Archaeology: Expectations Versus Reality

  1. Dear Rebecca,
    As you led me into the intricaseas (much better misspelt), along the path of unforgotteness, through terrifying exploits of desperation and perspiration, onwards ever onwards down into the bowels of unclean places of hiddenness and mysticismic marvel, I encountered a freedom most rare (but well done nontheless).
    You dear lady in this wonderfully full encounter have untwined me from this miserable dark cold rainy dreary day, into the brilliant warmly glowing whit that can only be encountered through travellers of enchantment such as your good self.
    You have put a radiant smile upon my aged face, a glow of happiness-of-heart, and an almost audible chuckle in my inner self. Thankyou so much for such a delightful sojourn. Please don’t ever stop enjoying life. Your shared positive attitude, experiences and reporting skills thereof bring cheer that otherwise may never have seen the light of day.
    Loved all of this great read. Plus the bonus piccies. 🙂

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