Selfies with the Dead

I have been trying to resolve a debate within myself since early 2016 – when I first started handling human skeletal remains as a part of my coursework. I’m passionate about what I do and love being able to inspire that same passion in others but I don’t feel as if I can show people 100% what I do. To date my favourite assessment has involved working on a differential diagnosis of a skeleton – a middle aged man from the middle ages. We examined the lesions of the skeleton and used it to try to reconstruct what ailments and conditions this individual faced during his lifetime. But this was not something that I shared online. In my mind, I had no right to publish photos of this individual.

Sometimes when I’m scrolling through my various social medias I find photos of people looking thoughtfully into the eyes (or eye sockets rather) of a specimen. Or just a shot of skeletal remains with a funny caption. And I don’t want to sound preachy or judgemental about people that do this because I can definitely understand the temptation – what we study and do is amazing. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think so too. Not only is it a grey area but there’s a fair few dozens shades of grey within that. When I see a photo of someone excavating and the bones are in situ I don’t have the same reaction that I do when it’s more of a contrived and set up shot some place else. But where do we draw the line between sharing our lives and the exploitation of those that can never give consent to be represented in these images?

I’m of two minds about this issue – selfies with the dead. And I suppose what I mean by selfies with the dead are the very posed photographs, think an Alas, poor Yorick dramatic recreation (not necessarily the candid shots taken in the field) that then get uploaded to ones social media account(s).  On one hand there is a definite ick factor to some of these photos. My knee jerk reaction is to liken them to photos fishermen take with their ‘catch of the day’ – you know the ones, beaming with pride while they hold up their catch, usually highlighting it’s size, rarity or specialness in other ways. It is something to bolster their status. A prize to highlight their adeptness and ability. And that’s what I first think of when I see someone posing with (not working on) skeletal remains. To me there’s a feeling of exploitation that I have trouble coming to terms with – and while I honestly doubt this is the intent of the poster it’s still a valid concern. I don’t know how I would feel if years from now my remains were used to score a flurry of Instagram likes or a standout Facebook profile picture. My skull would probably reanimate and I’d try to take a good chomp out of  them.

A lot of archaeology is story telling. It’s putting the evidence together and making a narrative out of it. But do we need to place ourselves within the same lens? If you want to tell that persons story or even just show ‘Hey, this was SOMEONE’ then why do you need to insert yourself into that? If you must document it then let them be the protagonist in their own story and not be the supporting cast in yours.

On the other hand, and to play Devil’s advocate, there is another way to interpret these photos that is much less nefarious in nature. Researchers and institutions can use them to peak interest in their research projects, which can lead to more funding. Academics and professionals have invested so much time and money to get these opportunities to work with remains that they undoubtedly would take pride in their work and want to share with family and friends what they do. Or like me, they’re passionate about what they do and what better way to spread that enthusiasm then with eye-catching photos? Is it all too different from a hair dresser showing off their work? Or a chef showcasing a tiramisu? I mean, in terms of ‘Here’s what a day in my office looks like’ they’re not too dissimilar but working with human remains always complicates things. And that’s inescapable.

Ultimately, I can somewhat understand why people take these photographs. It can bring a lot of attention to your role – perhaps inspire the next generation of archaeologists. It can bring attention (and possibly funding) to your research area. And it can be a window into your life that friends, family and Internet Strangers might otherwise have no insight on. But, for me, it just doesn’t feel appropriate to pose alongside remains I’ve been given the honour to work with and more so, I just don’t want to. I want to tell their story, not use theirs to benefit my Snapchat story.

Day Two: Googong, NSW

Day two was a much better day. Both in terms of finds and in terms of not turning into a 5 ft 1 Zooper Dooper. I even managed to get a coffee on the way to campus. I had this archaeology thing DOWN.

I got to site with a bit of a better handle on what to do. I grabbed my kit and hunkered down again ready to help finish off a square that another student had been working on the day prior.

We felt pretty optimistic about that square. Nearby other volunteers were finding nails, door hinges with nails still in them and post holes. But it was kind of like minesweeper. Except the bombs were hand cramps from digging up roots and the flags were nails and sheet metal. The supervisors would stand back, size up what squares had yielded anything of worth and try to visualise where the next find might be. It was something I would try to do myself – imagining what was underneath. It was a lot easier with those charcoal layers – seeing it (likely) extend into the next square and end halfway through your current one. The first square was a bit eh. We found a nail and little pieces of sheet metal but it was the next square where I started getting a bit of a high and would be chasing it all day.

It was not long into my next square until I had struck gold. No, not real gold. You would’ve heard about it by now if I had. But something that wasn’t an old nail or heavily fragmented sheet metal. I found barbed wire.

img_5711

And look, I’ll level with you here. This was my first substantial find so there was a split second where I thought ‘Wow. I should commemorate this somehow’ and considered getting a barbed wire tattoo. There would finally be someone on this earth that had a justification for a barbed wire tattoo that wasn’t ‘Dunno. Schoolies?’. I could be that person.

I probably won’t be that person. (You’re welcome, Mum).

Still it was exhilarating. It wasn’t something out of left field considering we were on a farm site but it was different from what other squares had offered. I was keen to finish this section off and see what the next would hold, because as I was soon to find out the best was yet to come.

enlight2

Yes, I was the first person on site to find glass. I first stumbled upon a fragment maybe 3cm long towards the upper left hand side corner of my square. It didn’t look like your standard bottle of Becks (see what I did there?). You could see little bubbles in the glass and it looked like it had some kind of lettering or branding on it but it was too fragmented to make out any thing other than an ‘O’. Then moments later I found a smaller fragment that looked like part of the bottom. My partner co-excavating that square wasn’t as lucky. Which made it even more satisfying because, like I said before, I’m an awful and flawed person.

As my find was right on the edge of the square I suspected we’d find more glass on the connecting square. It seemed unlikely that in the middle of the suspected, now just about confirmed, building to only have 2 relatively small fragments. And I was right.

God, I love being right.

As soon as I started digging I found more glass. This glass was the same colour as the other fragments but were much larger. I had found a body.

The body of a glass bottle. Just let me have this okay. Close enough.

enlight3

And yeah, I honestly got that excited about a shattered glass bottle. That’s the funny thing about archaeology, for me anyway. It doesn’t matter what you find it’s just that you find something – and sometimes not even that. The days I was there we as a group found: nails, barbed wire, hinges, a singular glass bottle and a section of charcoal. And from that we tried to create a narrative. And that was part of the fun. ‘Well, we have charcoal here and some of the bottle is burnt so maybe it was a shed that burned down.’. But who knows? We could be way off the mark.

I wasn’t able to come back to the site though – sometimes work gets in the way, so I don’t know what else they found there. Most of the media attention was being paid the school house being excavated down the hill. Still, although shorter than I would’ve liked (also how I describe myself) it was an experience that was rewarding and reaffirming that I’m on the right track.

Also, manual labour and hypothermia aside who wouldn’t want to spend a day or two with this as their office? 

Day One: Googong, NSW

June 6th will forever be a date that holds great importance to me. And no, not because of D-Day (which in hindsight as someone who has spent her entire adult life bouncing around between different history and archaeology degrees this probably should be the case)  but because I am an entirely flawed, selfish and narcissistic human being it is because June 6th, 2017 was the day of my very first excavation.

The site we were excavating was a school house used by local farmers that was believed to be in use from the late 19th century to early 20th. The day before I got to the site they had already found slate pencils and started work on another suspected structure a little bit further up – this one, where I spent my time digging, had everyone scratching their heads as to what it may have been. By the end of my second, and unfortunately, last day on site, we were starting to suspect it was a shed that had burnt down. Though there were rumours of it being an old outhouse – yes, archaeology really is glamorous.

To get to site a shuttle bus left my university campus as 7am. Bright and early. Well, not really bright as the sun wasn’t even up yet. Now, for me to get to campus before 7am meant waking up at 5.30am. A time that I had spent the past 26 years of my life denying existed – but I can now officially report that it does exist, in case anyone else out there is also skeptical. But I did it. I got out of bed and slipped on what I thought would be MORE than enough layers to keep me warm and snug and was out the door. I bypassed my usual café, prioritising being early over being caffeinated (my second mistake for the day, the first will be revealed shortly).

When I got to the site I quickly realised how over confident and under prepared I really was. We were getting a run down on potential risks and hazards. Namely red back spiders and hypothermia. I nodded along emphatically but not voluntarily. The reason I say not voluntarily is because I’m sure a lot of nodding was actually just a result of my shivering (This was the aforementioned first mistake, turns out thermals would’ve been a good idea). Lucky for me I looked quite pitiful so a lecturer gave me a spare jumper and gloves – sure, I still had little feeling in my toes but I was ready to get to work!

I was handed a trowel, a dustpan and a bucket and set upon excavating one of the squares divvied up on the grid plan. First we had to clear the top soil. This was easy! It’s loose and soft and just waiting to be scooped up. I felt like I was getting a good rhythm going – until we found roots. Pretty much half of my first square was littered in roots. Just when you think you’ve got a good cluster out you find another that was being concealed by some soil. I would say one square took us about 3 hours and that’s primarily because of the roots.

img_5444

We would remove the top soil and dig down until we noticed the context changing. This meant, in our case, when the soil was changing to a harder and compact clay. Keeping track and ‘sticking’ to the same context is SUPER important for helping to place your finds (if you have any) so when you’re digging you need to be looking out for any changes in soil colour, texture etc; My first square didn’t provide any finds. I used some of the scooped up soil to run a pH test (it never strayed from 5/5.5) and then compared another sample with a mussel chart to get a description of the soil that was a bit more useful than ‘brown’ – also, you’d be surprised with how many ways there are to describe dirt, it’s just about it’s own language.

img_5443

We sifted bucket loads of dirt that day. You would empty out your bucket on this giant square, metal sieve and just shake the life (or in some cases on site: sheet metal) out of it. Very good outlet for tension. But I was worried that I, a 5 ft 2 woman with the upper body strength of a new-born foal, would break it. I didn’t, it was fine. I just inhaled a lot of dirt. Wore a lot of it too.

And that was pretty much my first day:

Dig, dig, dig.

Curse at whatever deity put so many roots here.

Dig, dig, dig,

Test pH of soil and debate for a few minutes minutes whether it was a 5 or a 5.5.

Take out frustration from not finding anything out at the sieve.

Record everything possible (even if you don’t find any artefacts) and start again.

But I loved it. There’s something very relaxing about knowing exactly what you need to be doing and just getting on with it – especially in a beautiful country landscape. Maybe it’s a novelty that will wear off but even seeing soil changes was exciting to me because I wasn’t just writing another essay I was actually doing something.

img_5446

My second day would yield many more finds but I went home on the 6th of June, 2017 knowing that I had finally gotten out there and done something. My arms ached from hacking at roots. My body was still thawing out from the last hour of recording and excavating in the rain. But I was content and eager to get back out in the field….

Breaking Ground

My entire work day consists of trying to make small talk with people that don’t want to speak to me. Hell, they don’t even want to be in my store half of the time (unlike me, who doesn’t want to be in my store all of the time). Most times the fact that I’m a student comes up and they politely ask ‘Oh, what do you study?’. Likely, expecting me to say something like IT since I sell phones for a living but instead I say ‘I study archaeology. So it’s very relevant to what I do here. Maybe one day I’ll dig up a Nokia’ They laugh and then pause.

They always pause.

They take a moment and then say one of the following: “What’s left to find?”, “Yeah but what are you actually going to do” or my personal favourite “So, you’re into dinosaurs?”. My answer to what I’m “actually” going to do is always changing depending on what lecture I’ve had that week. To be honest, I don’t think they’re listening anyway. But the conversation continues because the computer is slow and what could be worse than sitting in silence with a stranger? So now they ask ‘What got you into that?’ and the truth is I don’t know. As a kid I would sneak down at night to watch documentaries about Ancient Egypt, in Year 12 Ancient History was the only class I would actually go to and then between high school and university when I started a hairdressing apprenticeship I would get pulled aside by the manager because I had been talking to too many clients about the Emperors of Rome. The past was always going to be in my future.

Now, for one last question – why am I telling you this? Well, while I was madly catching up on lectures prior to my first exam I listened to one where the speaker stressed the importance of writing or journalling as a part of our training because a big part of archaeology is communication. And clearly, talking about history and the work I’m doing is something that tickles me in all the right places – so it only seemed fitting to give it a crack. So that’s what this is. A journal of my experiences, musings and ramblings while I try to get experience and try even harder to graduate. I mean, it has to happen sometime right?

Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 19.17.11