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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - December/January 2003
Archaeology in Scotland
by John Bendiks


When asked what I do for a living I reply blandly that I’m a field archaeologist and people nearly always respond sincerely, though equally as blandly with ‘That’s interesting’.

I can see that their perception of what I do is roughly as follows. I have a well-paid job directing minions at a leisurely excavation in some idyllic setting, sometimes discussing the fascinating site and the mysteries it contains whilst seated under a parasol sipping a martini. When I do deign to work I gently scrape away loose earth with a trowel which falls away like dry flour from ‘wonderful things’ such as Celtic burials or gold coins. After work I retire to the nearest five-star hotel where I bore my fellow guests with tales of my adventures that day.

I usually leave people to carry on thinking this way as trying to tell them differently is akin to telling children that Santa Claus does not exist. The reality is often very, very different, however, so I feel it is my duty to inform anyone who is thinking of coming to study or work in archaeology in Scotland about a few of the pitfalls.

I am a field archaeologist who works in rescue archaeology. This means that the local authorities have finally realised that Scotland has a rich history (what a surprise!), and so developers and landowners must now employ archaeologists to excavate their land on any site that shows potential before any development commences. When we arrive on site we are therefore seen as the enemy. We are holding back the important work - and the developers have to pay for it! Concerned citizens (known as ‘nutters’) also often object to us digging up ‘their’ history and have been known to vandalise our equipment or even threaten us.

Costs must be kept down as we work in a highly competitive environment and so tenders for costs invariably only take account of the time taken to dig trenches and not to deal with any archaeology contained within them. When archaeology is found (as is often the case) we often have to barter for more time and money, which pleases the developers no end.

Again to save money there are often only around four of us in a team (just like the S.A.S), working hard with picks and shovels or directing mechanical diggers. This takes considerable experience if any archaeology is not to be removed in a large toothed bucket, especially when it must be understood that archaeology in Scotland is often very enigmatic. The soil is usually very acidic and tends to destroys organic material much more quickly than in nice sunny countries. As a result of this what we are often left with are hazy shadows in the ground. These need time and consideration to interpret, and time is a commodity in short supply on site.

The biggest enemy related to time is the weather. I have been on digs in Scotland with foreign students who down tools and leave site at the first sight of rain appear. This is not practicable in Scotland. If we did not dig in the rain, wind and snow we would never get any work done. We do, on occasion, leave site during very extreme conditions but when we return to site conditions are often very bad. We have to stand in pools of freezing water and dig thick mud in dirty, wet clothes that gave up any pretence at being waterproof a long time ago. One colleague of mine no longer wears waterproofs as he says his skin is waterproof!

When the sun does break through it often brings another problem with it – midges. These pinhead-sized mosquitoes descend too devour us. A recent study has stated that in infested areas of the Highlands the midge can amount to half a million insects per two square meter area - all waiting to feed voraciously on any exposed skin. It often makes me wonder about the wisdom of wearing the kilt – especially without under garments.

Finally, for all this hard work, and for the four years of hard work obtaining the good degrees we need to dig so expertly, we are paid wages that would make a third-rate potato picker laugh. We spend long periods away from our homes, often in sub-standard accommodation, sharing a bedroom with some drunken, smelly, hippy type person with few social graces. So why do archaeology?

When good sites are found; the sun is out; the midges are in; and we have time to enjoy our work, without doubt archaeology is the best, the most pleasant and the most interesting job on earth. The excitement of coming across anything that has remained hidden from view for hundreds, or even thousands of years that may expand our knowledge is wonderful and the thrill of excavating these artifacts is hard to match - except in winter when the job is always awful!


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