Haptics and the Physicality of Archaeology

A gust of wind whipped the context sheet from under my hand, leaving a long, thin, bloody line across the back of my thumb. I sighed, but it only added to the current tally of open wounds on my hands–four. Most are small, little nicks on my knuckles from troweling over rocks and happily there aren’t any opened blisters. I’ve had a particularly stubborn cut on the back of my other thumb that refuses to heal–I cleaned and bandaged it immediately, but it seems like no matter what I do I have a dirty, shredded rag instead of a bandage at the end of the day and a bright red line of infection around the wound.

My knuckles are already thick, but they seize a bit sometimes, especially my right forefinger, my “troweling finger”, which has an awkward bend common to archaeologists. One of my friends here told me that he wakes sometimes with his fingers hooked and has to bend them back into place. My knees creak and pop and I have bruises along my shins from kneeling on rocks–we don’t have desks on site and we often have to crouch on our knees over our paperwork to protected from the wind, or rain, or sun.

Sometimes when I kneel, troweling across the 40/60 salty, silty sand I think I can actually feel the ground leeching the water from my body–the heels of my palms and my fingertips are chafed, dry and callused. Last time I was in Doha I went to a fancy shopping center that carried fine silk and linen dresses–my fingers rasped and caught as I touched them. The haptics of class, I suppose.

Most academic archaeologists have never spent more than a month or two at a time digging, indeed many professional archaeologists are the same–who can pay for long excavation seasons in this economy anyway? We aren’t doing the hardest excavation in archaeology; trowels in sand cannot compare to shovels in clay, even on the windiest of days. Working with your hands is a fairly romantic notion these days, and it’s one of the things I love about archaeology, dirty bandages and all.

But we know we can’t do it forever. The knees go. The back goes. Problems with eyes, hands, even the skin can remove us from our profession. I had a few pre-cancerous lesions burnt off of my face a couple of years ago, accompanied by a stern warning by the dermatologist to stay out of the sun as much as possible. And I’m certainly one of the lucky ones. I know at least a dozen people who have had to change careers after a physical malady.

The visual in archaeology is often emphasized in academic circles, with occasional nods toward the other senses adding to “a sense of place.” We awaken our senses, what does it feel/taste/smell like to be on an archaeological project? How can we share that with others? I’m writing about some of that in my dissertation, but now “being in the field” is becoming so normal that it is hard to remember to share. Sometimes I’d rather deaden my senses, something that can be difficult in a country where alcohol is mostly illegal. I wonder if reflexivity is easier when performing a rarified, vacation-like excavation after a year of teaching. The lived experience of archaeological investigation and engagement with place can be exhausting.

It’s the weekend–I think I’ll go back to bed.

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