So, today is the Day of Archaeology, a day in which archaeologists write about their day in hopes of telling people what their/our lives are like. I’ve done these for the past two years, so I though I’d contribute this year, too. Trouble is, if we’re talking about what I did today… it wasn’t archaeology.
Well, I wasn’t digging… or report-writing… or processing artifacts. I wasn’t doing any of these because I was steam-cleaning carpets.
This is, actually, archaeologically-related, carpet-cleaning, though. Let me explain. My boss recently took a transfer to our office up in Fayetteville [Arkansas… that should be obvious since I work for the Arkansas Archeological Survey]. He leaves behind many friends and colleagues as well as a charming 1930s Craftsman house, which I’ll be renting for a while. My wife and I spent the day doing the carpets and other work in preparation for moving in. It’ll be a nice place, and it has a certain historical continuity, as my boss’s predecessor, Dr. Frank Schambach, owned it at one point, so it’ll have three archaeological occupants in a row. While that’s vaguely archaeologically-inflected, that’s not the point I want to make.
The point I want to make is that today is illustrative of the professional nomadism that archaeology demands of its practitioners. It’s a fun job, don’t get me wrong, but it’s basically impossible to be an archaeologist and stay at home… in many senses. Mostly, no one stays near their home town. Frank Schambach was from upstate New York. Jamie Brandon, the oft-mentioned and recently-departed boss, is from Eva, Tennessee. My colleagues in-state are from Wisconsin, Missouri, Florida, Texas, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Michigan (plus a few other places). My grad school (in Virginia and Nebraska) colleagues are from Texas, Florida, South Dakota, Minnesota, Maine, etc. There were a tiny handful who were from the state where we worked or studied, and they had to make a deliberate effort to stay home, as they were all talented people who could have gone elsewhere.
Even though they may have grown up in one place, most of these folks have been all over the States, if not the world, getting educated and doing fieldwork.
This professional nomadism has several effects. First, yes, we get to see a lot of the world, which is good in an ad-hoc anthropological sense, in that most folks have a measure of lived experience in different regional trends. Having been to school in everything from sturdy small towns in the Midwest to effete east coast colonial capitols, and now living in small rural towns in the South, I’ve seen a lot of different ways American communities operate, and met a lot of people with very different outlooks on the world. Being the scion of Philadelphians and Iowans, raised in Texas, Norway, and Colorado, and married into a family of Minnesotans, this builds on my own upbringing.
In a less-positive sense, though, most of my colleagues and I are perpetual outsiders to the communities in which we live, brought in to offer our skills and experience to communities in which we rarely have a lived connection to. This basically requires us to have to construct lives de novo in our new homes, building circles of friends and figuring out local politics and culture(s). We often have to do this every few years, particularly in grad school, as constant moves require hitting the reset button. Over time, our closest friends wind up being other archaeologists, whom we may only see once a year, but we see them at least once a year, unlike local friends in towns we move away from. It’s a weirdly isolating kind of existence in some ways. When you factor in that the time on the road takes you away from any spouse or significant other, things get lonelier. I at least get to see my wife when I get home. I have colleagues who, due to career demands, live apart from their spouses. Like, the he’s-in-Arkansas-and-she’s-in-Florida kind of living apart.
So, cleaning carpets in my boss’s former house is an index of the fact that he has made yet another move. His departure means that we’ll be hiring a replacement, which may well entail someone else pulling up stakes and starting a new life in Magnolia. It begins again, perhaps.
I admit that this is a fairly common experience in academia, though in seems like archaeologists are particularly subject to this kind of itinerant lifestyle given the crappy job market at any time but particularly since 2008, and the fact that our data is out there, not in a test tube. I offer this not to bemoan the lifestyle. I chose it and my wife has very obligingly gone along with it, and I wouldn’t trade the friends I’ve gained through it for any in the world. Still, there’s a bit of high lonesome that the prospective archaeologist should be aware is out there…