‘I’m not here to cook – I’m here to dig!’ Part Two

I’ve been involved in big residential research field projects. By big, I don’t mean 50, I mean over 80 and at one point close to 200. I cut my teeth on excavations in Scotland and joined the Stonehenge Riverside Project when it started in 2004. Before that, my first training excavations had a wonderful site cook. She was able to fulfil a nurturing role, train the younger students to cook and instil a sense of team-work in all but the most truculent students. She had many years of experience organising the catering for the Windmill Hill project and the site director was enormously pleased to have her. She ‘also’ had a PhD in Archaeology.

She had agreed to do that role for two years, and after that stopped. It was only after she had gone that I realised how much she taught me. The role of site manager/caretaker/cook, is an absolute lynchpin within the fieldwork team. If that role is not filled properly, the wheels can come off a project very quickly. On a project with 20 students or less, most things can be fudged in a dig of 3 weeks or less. But more and/or for longer is effectively a campaign, a village, a temporary camp and living space. The dig is work and family, it is your life 24/7.

This side of archaeological projects (or any field projects) is almost always forgotten, as when done well it looks effortless. That is the last thing it is. I have never been a site cook, but I have stepped in and been a substitute in various situations, and during the 2008 wet summer in Wiltshire, was working almost full time on campsite matters, and going in the field to troubleshoot on some of the however many trenches over 8 field locations at other times. That season nearly broke us all, but the campsite part was particularly tough. Imagine filling a supermarket trolley with 40 loaves of bread and 40 pints of milk, checking out, unloading into the van and taking the trolley back in for another load. And then checking out, unloading and going in a third time. Daily. It was epic.

Aside from that, on projects I’ve noticed a student/participant multiplier. In my experience on excavation you can be reasonably certain that out of any group of 30, there is one person who is operating on the fringes of acceptable behaviour; there will be one trip to a doctor or A&E, and one person will have some sort of debilitating emotional crisis (illness of a family member/break up of relationship etc). It’s simply a matter of luck where the responsibility for dealing with this falls; the fieldwork crucible can be very hot. Sometimes students in the field are with their close friends and you may not know anything was wrong until the end of the dig. Sometimes people can accommodate those with nearly unacceptable behaviour and the group, if it has strong cohesion, can simply work around so-and-so who is a ‘bit funny’. However, it is a lottery. Sometimes things that would be fine in other places get blown out of proportion. Sometimes the group cohesion goes too far and people on the fringes can get bullied. I’ve been on excavations where a student has simply left without a word. If you have 2 x 30 people, this doubles. You see? By the time you get to 180 people, you have a statistical likelihood of 6 people being on the fringes, 6 trips to A&E and 6 people with crises. Sometimes of course, these issues affect staff too, even you. The person who steers the campsite through these potential pitfalls, is magnificent. In my experience, every site director has had complete and total support for the site cook, as their relationship is entirely dependent on mutual respect and understanding in an often, fast changing environment. It works best as a trusting, close-knit, intuitive team.

So I have mixed feelings about Sally Binford’s comment. In days gone by, when women were expected to be in the home, and that kind of work was not valued as a contribution, it must have been a call to arms. It was a rejection of the idea of a woman’s place being in the kitchen and home, and the fact that women could contribute intellectually in a ‘man’s’ workplace. Historically too, many archaeology couples did exactly that, the wives would support their husbands in the field. But you know what? Some still do. I know at least two couples where the highly trained clever wife takes on this role for her husband’s excavation as a team effort. Perhaps they enjoy it, or know that by doing so their lives will be better though not having a disgruntled husband (OH/partner etc) back after the season. I recently helped set up camp on my husband’s excavation because it was the right thing to do in the particular circumstances. I’m not less of archaeologist by doing so, am I? I also know of at least two men who are either site cook, or who regularly pick up the domestic issues on sites. I’ve worked with one man whose personal and pastoral focus to the learning process was simply awe inspiring, like a student-whisperer.

So – does Sally’s comment inadvertently devalue perhaps the most important role on an excavation, whether performed by a male or female? That, in fact, excavating and organising a workforce 8am-6pm requires fewer skills than the site cook, who creates a village, feeds and nurtures people away from their normal environments and helps them deal with their lives and learn new life skills for the other 14 hours of the day? The person who makes sure the whole site doesn’t get food poisoning/norovirus/impetigo. That provides biscuits/loo roll/plasters/a spare sleeping bag/waterproof trousers/tampons. Who can be discrete and get you to A&E/give you a day off/give you a tissue and an old Mills & Boon.

I’m torn. Sally was fighting to be in the field as an intellectual equal. I think that battle, while not always acknowledged (Part 1), has been won. But we don’t need to reject and demonise the nurturing role and incredible range of skills required to be ‘site cook’. Archaeological field projects require a massive investment and wide range of personal skills. All roles are critical and anyone who takes time out of their lives, and puts in the immense effort to care for distracted, smelly and dirty archaeologists while they dig, should be rewarded with a huge amounts of love and respect. I don’t think we need to reject the role of cook, rather accept that in the past acknowledging the pastoral and mundane part of fieldwork was neglected, and is as important as the ground-breaking research that it accompanies.

This is for the women who taught me so much about the shadow side of excavation – Julia, Jen and with a flourishing bow, Karen. They might only appear in publication acknowledgements but be in no doubt that none of it could have happened without them.


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