It’s often important for archaeologists to point out that movies like the Indiana Jones franchise provide very poor examples of our craft. Frankly, I can’t imagine why anyone thinks being shot at by Nazis, chased by giant boulders, or having your face melted off by a supernatural artifact sounds like a good day at work*. But a very different archaeology stereotype has us digging with toothpicks and toothbrushes, barely removing an inch of dust for our efforts. Your face has time to melt from boredom! Luckily, real life archaeology is more stimulating than the latter, but safer than the former.
In 2006, I participated in a project in French Guiana, an overseas French territory in South America. We dug on the site of a colonial plantation established in 1668 by Jesuit Priests. The Jesuits were major land owners in French Guiana, and took full advantage of the slave trade. Over 1000 slaves worked on their five plantations, many of whom were of African descent, but others were natives of South America, and some were even convicts from France. The combination of inhumane treatment, hard labor in equatorial heat, and tropical diseases made this an undoubtedly terrible place. By about 1740, the Loyola plantation produced more sugar, coffee, and cocoa on its 1000 or so hectares of land than the rest of the colony put together.
Our project involved the unearthing of what remained of the sugar mill. Delicate techniques were not appropriate for removing the massive amounts of mud, dirt, and rocks covering the stone foundations. The extreme heat and humidity meant the mud at the surface was full of putrid wood, squirming insects, and rotting god knows what else. But since the shovels got stuck in that thick biomess, the job began with us removing it with our bare hands.
It didn’t take me too long to realize that this project wasn’t going to involve much complex thinking…maybe later, when we had found what we were looking for. Occasionally, archaeology is more action than intellect, and it seemed that with all the strength of my impressive 5”2 100lb frame, I had been hired for grunt work. There was once a three-day stretch when the only tools I used were a pick-axe and wheel-barrel.
I thought I had managed to escape the stereotype of the weak and small, overly feminine blonde woman that had pursued me my whole life. Yet I had to push myself harder than ever, because that stereotype was never far behind. I stopped counting how many times I was referred to as “the blonde.” Any act of kindness towards me was because I was “blonde,” not because I was a pleasant person who perhaps deserved to be treated nicely. Did they not see my dark roots? I stopped being a true blonde as a teenager, but I guess my choice of hair-dye must have affected the fundamental nature of my personality. Oh wait…hair color never affects the fundamental nature of one’s personality. Apparently, being among scientists –you know, those people who claim to adhere to fact and logic?– does not save you from unfair judgment.
Nor does science always mean precise data and high-tech instrumentation. And sometimes, as a petite archaeologist, you spend a week wedged inside of an ancient oven digging out rocks, because you are the only person who fits in that space. And yet you still get called a princess because you dared to wear mascara after washing off the dirt from the hard day’s work. Maybe sometimes archaeology is like Indiana Jones, exciting and kind of sexist.
*Indiana Jones movies may portray poor archaeology, but that doesn’t stop me from loving them as movies!