Question Monday: A Picture’s Worth A Thousand Words

In my CURIOSITIES Waiting on Wednesday post, KrysteyBelle asked “Where was the picture on the right side taken?

If I can keep this to a thousand words, I’ll be really impressed.

Short answer: The picture was taken in Jordan, where I have spent my summers since 2004 working as an archaeologist at a site called Khirbat al-Mudayna* on the Wadi ath-Thamad, south of Madaba. I began as a student but am now senior staff (though currently I’m on a hiatus of sorts). That photo was taken by one of my students in 2008, and remains one of my favourite pictures of me ever taken.

Longer answer: I went to university for Near Eastern Archaeology and then did my MSc in Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation. My specialties are human remains recovery and defensive architecture. Originally, The Plan was to get a PhD and become a university professor, but then the Recession happened. Recessions are, generally speaking, a bad time to be an archaeologist. They are a REALLY bad time to be an academic archaeologist. I gave non-academic archaeology a whirl and discovered it wasn’t for me, and now I’m waiting it out. But I’ve always been bad at waiting, so I started writing instead, and here we all are.

The thing I love about archaeology is that it is everything. All the time. There’s science and math and engineering, there are puzzles and reason, there’s art and drafting, there’s the human experience, and there’s history. I absolutely adore it. Archaeology has a tendency to attract people who are a bit, um, well, unconventional**, and the end result is a dynamic, quasi-egalitarian academic discipline, filled with people who just want to know all the things***.

Because of archaeology’s reputation, many people think it is more glamorous than it really is. Leonard Woolley, for example, really WAS a spy for the British. He made maps, after all, and that was profoundly useful during the Middle Eastern and North African conflicts of WWII. Gertrude Bell (under some pressure, it is important to note), basically designed the entire Middle East as we know it today. Agatha Christie met Max Mallowen on the Orient Express, and once he charmed her into marrying him (OMG, poem!),  they proceeded to have all kinds of wacky adventures.

I’m no stranger to adventure myself. I’m pretty sure my tour of pyramids was illegal. I’ve slept under the stars in Wadi Rum. I’ve attended weddings by accident (and once on purpose – much less awkward). I’ve had nervous bus trips. I’ve stood on a hill and looked at Syria and Israel. I’ve been pointed at with a Very Large Gun.

But none of that is archaeology. Archaeology is hard, hot, heavy work. Archaeology is getting it right the first time, every time, because you only have one shot. Archaeology is spending three days meticulously clearing a tomb only to open it up and discover that it’s empty. Archaeology is six weeks in the field and 46 in the library.  Archaeology is a mountain of student debt and nothing that makes me particularly employable.

Sometimes, though. Sometimes. Sometimes it’s a child’s skull cradled in your lap on the bumpy bus ride back to town. Sometimes it’s a doorway, exactly where you wanted the doorway to be. Sometimes it’s a pot, intact, on a floor where no one else has stood for two and a half thousand years. Sometimes it’s a row of watchtowers, stretching out along the horizon. Sometimes it’s something you can’t explain. Sometimes it’s something that you can.

And I love it. I get up at 4AM and spend hours in the desert because I love it. I go back, year after year, because I love it. I’ve put in hours and days and weeks, unpaid, because I love it. I dream, all year round, of going back, because I love it.

Archaeology is in my soul. Don’t get me wrong, I love writing. Writing is fun. And as I start to realize that writing is going to be more of a career than I had expected, I am discovering that writing is still fun when it becomes work. But archaeology has always been work for me, and it has always been fun****.

For a very long time, that made me very sad, because for a variety of reasons I had to put archaeology away. But I’m patient. I can wait. And I’ve realized that while I’m waiting, I am STILL an archaeologist. So now, in addition to saying “I’m an archaeologist”, I also get to say “I’m a writer.” And that’s pretty great. Also, it worked for Agatha Christie, and she is pretty darn fantastic.

At it’s heart, archaeology is the study of people and the things that people have made. And I love it because it shows me, over and over again, that we are pretty brilliant, most of the time, and that we have amazing capabilities.  So that picture of me is my favourite, because it is a picture of me being an archaeologist. It was taken when I was working*****. It was taken when I was happy. And someday, I hope to add to that collection.


DON’T FORGET! The CURIOSITIES comes out on AUGUST 1, and you can preorder!




*Literally “the ruins of the town”. It’s what you call something when you don’t know it’s ancient name. Accordingly, there are at least six in Jordan alone.
**Not getting into here, but let’s just say that every time I need to write a “quirky” character, I do not have to stretch very far to find them!
***And, often, DRINK all the things.
****Okay, so maybe not pottery chronology. But pretty much everything else.
*****Actually, I have no idea what I am DOING in this picture, but that’s neither here nor there.


3 responses to “Question Monday: A Picture’s Worth A Thousand Words

  1. I love everything about this post. EVERYTHING. I remember fantasizing for hours at a time what it would be like digging in the sand with a toothbrush while the sun was burning my shoulders and possibly there were big guns waiting over the next hill. Only difference? I was looking for giant monster fossils. And probably in China.

    It is just so cool that you’ve done both of these things, and someday I will tie you down and Learn All The Things about recovering human remains.

    • I get a lot of inspiration from Jenny Lynn Barnes, actually, because she is both An Academic and a Writer (and also a bit “closer to home” than Agatha Christie!).

      I did think about dinosaurs for a while (elementary school), but they don’t MAKE things, and it’s the THINGS that really blow my mind.

      Someday I will tie you down and Learn All The Things about recovering human remains.

      That can probably be arranged. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Question Monday: A Picture's Worth A Thousand Words | Emily Kate ... | Women Who DaredWomen Who Dared

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