An Ode to Fieldwork
Although professional discourse often dissuades us from thinking that archaeology and conservation share any similarities, ECU’s recent conservation field school in Israel showed me that both of these specialties have the same, ultimate goal. We want artifacts to be expertly handled and preserved so that researchers in the present and the future can glean all possible knowledge from objects which others might see as trash, or land which others might see as a development opportunity. Archaeologists and conservators want the history of objects to mean something to the public. We want adequate storage for the multitudes of cultural objects connected to self-identity, and we want the story of our past to continue developing, so that we can feel connected to our ancestors (or learn from their mistakes). We want the opportunity to travel– to learn from others whose perspectives might offer new insights into our own individual and professional growth. But most of all we want artifacts to get the respect and attention they deserve, both in the field and in the lab.
Photograph 1. Dome of the Rock seen from the Jaffa Gate Hostel
The conservation field school in Israel was what all successful field schools are: one part good planning and three parts good luck. No matter what you expect from a field school going in, you should always mostly expect the unexpected. Working in the field, in both archaeology and conservation, requires you to become comfortable with flexibility. A constantly changing environment, a limited amount of tools (or budget), and a variety of artifact materials make work especially exciting, while play is no less of a shocking experience. There are new smells at every turn, colors you never thought imaginable blur your vision, you start waking up to the cultural sounds of a very distinct people. In other words, your senses are completely overwhelmed from start to finish, and your history starts to mingle with others’ histories. It’s common knowledge that for a traveler, you can never go home again. The explanation behind this is that everywhere becomes home.
Photograph 2. The Mediterranean as seen from Ashqelon
The biggest challenge for those first starting fieldwork is understanding that fieldwork is both mentally and physically strenuous. The climate is never perfect. Almost all landscapes have hills to climb. Artifacts are heavy. Shovels cause callouses, or in the case of a conservator, your neck and eyes hurt after scrutinizing one artifact for six hours. You are constantly thinking and researching and asking yourself, “What the hell is that?” And, yes, the first week makes you reconsider your career choice. But once you get over the shock of constantly being in motion or the nuisance of changing your schedule fifty times to accommodate new surprises, you start realizing that you love being exhausted at the end of the day. You love eating bugs for the first time and meeting people who are genuinely interested in what you do. I admit it, I personally like the chaos. Chaos breeds new experiences in a way that planned trips never can. Professionally, chaos creates the perfect venue to meet new, exciting people. In Israel, we had a chance to learn from wonderful archaeologists and conservators alike. And, although they might not agree that we met amidst chaos, there were certainly plenty of loose artifacts to invoke the idea that we were all heading in the right direction.
Photograph 3. Chelsea Freeland, Samantha Sheffield, and author holding up the arch of Ashqelon
Israel was an ideal place for an archaeologist’s first fieldschool with a conservation focus. I saw more artifacts in one place than I have ever seen in my life. Israel’s history is so deeply rooted in archaeology that its cultural attributes are highly valued, and, therefore, most artifacts are either on display or being conserved by the Israel Antiquities Authority (henceforth referred to as the IAA). The IAA sees every artifact from both private and public archaeological sites pass through their office. Every prehistoric pottery sherd, every Roman glass piece, every waterlogged coin is conserved by a specialist and put in storage. This is incredibly different from American archaeology, in which artifacts are not required to be conserved by a central party, and so are spread out among universities and researchers across the country. There are benefits and downsides to both systems, but in both countries artifacts play a central role in politically-charged conversation. In other words, archaeology and conservation are relevant fields, and they remind us that people do care about their history and what is becoming of their material heritage.
Photograph 4. The Negev Desert
If you choose to go into archaeology or conservation, remember that we all want the same things. We love artifacts and the reconstruction of the people behind those artifacts. We want to represent cultures fully and accurately, while still embodying their humanity. If you want to be in archaeology or conservation, my advice is to love fieldwork for what it is. You probably have an addiction to adventure, and, even though you will complain, even your worst days in the field will be productive and inspiring. How else can a professional know they have reached the pinnacle of their career unless they have had the experience of cleaning one artifact for four hours and then having a colleague (or professor) lean over them and say calmly, “Have you started cleaning that yet?”
Photograph 5. Author sitting next to Petrie’s old archaeological tunnels in the Negev
Note: All photos are by the author and should not be reproduced without the author’s permission.