Have you ever played ‘101 ways to kill Lara Croft’? Sure you have, if you’ve ever played any game in the Tomb Raider series that is. In my last post I attempted to establish how much my work as an Archaeologist differs from that of my fictional gaming counterparts. This time I’m going to discuss how quite often my life as a Field Archaeologist did very much resemble a videogame.
Working as a professional Archaeologist can sometimes feel like a very bad and extremely hard action adventure game. Honestly I don’t know if it’s just me, perhaps I’m just more accident prone than most. But it does make me laugh how at times my exploits in the field did feel like being trapped in a real life videogame. I’ll warn you now though, there may be a bit of swearing. I may be an Archaeologist, but I am certainly no lady!
So without much further ado I give you How to (almost) kill an Archaeologist IRL. Don’t worry, no Archaeologist was actually killed and we’ll respawn after every ‘Game Over’:
Crushed - We live and work in a rural county so it’s no surprise to come across the odd tractor. Just don’t follow one in your work van too closely. It may stop. Then start to reverse at the same time as your own engine stalls. Above those bloody loud diesel engines tractor drivers cannot hear you scream. And you know it’s all going wrong when your colleague opens the door and abandons you!
Neither can anyone hear you above the sound of heavy plant, those massive machines that drive across construction sites. I once yelled in vain at one of our project officers who strolled across site oblivious to the giant machinery that was heading his way. He never knew just how close he came to being crushed by one of those things.
Buried alive –It’s a bit of an occupational hazard this one, what with all that digging. Just don’t stand on the edge of a trench, it may collapse (and it is not good excavation etiquette to ruin somebody’s perfectly cleaned section)! Don’t stand in a sandy trench as it’s being shored up either, it may remind you why it needs shoring. On one monitoring job I witnessed the seemingly insane practice of fella in a cage lowered into a massive pipe trench as they were laying a new water main. It’s crazy, I tell you! The risk assessment for that job must have been mental:
Risk of being buried by gravel as it is poured into the cage while you are still in it – HIGH
Risk of injury as cage is dragged through the new pipe trench by a machine while you are still in it – HIGH
Risk of me actually identifying any archaeology while this method is used – EXTREMELY LOW.
I’ve made my point.
Electrocuted –While digging up live electricity cables are a definite risk, we have handheld CAT scanners to help us detect those buggers. The cables strung high across the countryside are there for all to see however so you’ve got no excuse for missing those. Don’t walk underneath one with a metal four meter survey pole, fully extended and slung over your shoulder. Just don’t.
Poisoned – A bit of a nasty one is this. The old bottles that you find in post-Med and more modern deposits could have anything in them. It could even be arsenic. Always wear gloves while washing out old bottles. But perhaps the worst poisoning of all is asbestos. It was often used for cladding pipes and should definitely be avoided. It’s expensive to remove safely too. Whilst working on one job we exposed pipe covered in dubious looking stuff. One of my colleagues commented that it looked like asbestos to him. They closed the site down. Permanently.
Infected – As an Archaeologist working in the commercial sector you rarely get to choose where you dig. One job involved working at a local slaughter house which was having an extension. Not only did I have to endure the screams of animals being led to slaughter every day I also picked up a rather nasty eye infection. Probably from the extremely disgusting toilets they had us use. It taught me to always take some hand sanitizer and try not to touch your eyes. Don’t believe the stories you hear about archaeologists being infected by bodies of plague victims however, that’s absolute rot (excuse the pun)!
Chased by animals – One of the scariest moments I had was looking up out of a trench in a field one day and seeing two huge dogs hurtling towards me. And when I say huge, they were f******* humongous. One was an Irish Wolfhound, the other a Bull Mastiff. As it turns out on that occasion the farmer assured me that they were only ‘playing’ but holy f***, would you take the chance? I ran for my life!
On another occasion we were treated to the amazing display of two young stags rutting in the next field. It was an incredible sight. I do not recommend standing up out of the pit you are digging and holding your arms up in the air like two large antlers. They stopped and looked at my very unwise colleague. It was funny looking back on it, but gored to death by horny deer is not the way I would like to go. Try not to challenge them.
“You fell from a great height 25,000DMG” – In the days before modern amenities those medieval folk were fond of digging wells and pits for all manner of reasons. Falling down a previously undiscovered well whilst working on an urban site is most definitely a potential hazard. They are everywhere. Luckily they didn’t tend to put spikes in the bottom of these pits so such additions in video games are just the designers being evil. There was that time however, that I fell into a trench and landed on my arse, narrowly missing one of our own grid pegs. Ooooo, now that would have been a bit painful.
Struck by lightning– When a thunderstorm hits, it is probably unwise to shelter under an upturned wheelbarrow. Don’t be caught outside with one of those aforementioned survey poles and don’t go sit in a metal box that serves as a site hut either. The car is a far safer place, at least they are grounded. On one site the lightning did strike in the very next field, so that was a little too close for comfort. Admittedly, this is a hazard for anyone working in the great outdoors, not just us Archaeologists.
“FOS ROH DAH” –The wind is by far my most hated extreme weather that I’ve had to contend with. I’m happy to dig in the rain, you can only get so wet, but the wind makes everything we do difficult. Luckily we don’t have to deal with tornadoes in this country but sometimes the wind is so strong that even going to the toilet on site can be dangerous. On one occasion we had to go in groups of three, two to hold the porta-loo up while one of you was in it. The same storm was so strong it blew a shovel, yes a f****** shovel, clean away and a colleague in Cambridge reportedly broke a leg when it lifted the hut he was in and threw it across the site like something out of the Wizard of Oz. True story, or so I am told.
Frozen Solid – Falling into cold water and coming up encased in a large block of ice is a fun visual way of dying in videogames, while not realistic, it can certainly feel like that working in extreme cold conditions. Archaeologists are well used to dressing for the weather. The trick to keeping warm in extreme cold is layers. I think my record is five including the waterproof high visibility clothing. The hardest thing is getting up on a cold dark morning for a day’s digging in the snow. One morning a colleague just couldn’t be arsed to so she just dressed on top of her pyjamas and came to site. That’s full of so much win in my book. Who gives a monkey’s what you look like as long as you are warm?!
Shot at – Yes even in the UK there is a danger of occasionally being shot at. Sometimes it may be a perfectly innocent mistake, many farmers can be a bit trigger happy especially during hunting season, and it can just feel like they were aiming at you. But one colleague has related to me the time he was working on a disused military site that was often used for police training. He claims they hit him with a rubber bullet on purpose. He popped up out of his trench only to have one ping off his hard hat. Not cool guys, not cool.
Hit by falling masonry – The work we do is often referred to as ‘rescue archaeology’. There is nothing more disconcerting than working in a building knowing that at any moment it could fall on your head. By far one of the most interesting sites that I have ever had the pleasure of working on was a medieval church. Thanks to a recent redevelopment in the city it had found itself in a spot of trouble. The entire development was subsiding and threatening to take this astonishing building with it. It was our job to dig several meters down by hand inside the church so that the engineers could underpin the east end. My experiences on this job could fill a whole other blog post, including my very own Howard Carter moment when I had the privilege of breaking into a tomb (eek!), but my strongest memory of that site is the engineers frequently measuring the width of the large crack that ran up the wall and across the ceiling. It was moving at a rate of a millimetre a day. One morning they halted all work on site and told us to get out now!. We just had to down tools and run, only returning to the site a few days later after they’d placed temporary struts inside to hold the building up. Yikes.
Sometimes though we question the need to wear a hard hat on sites where there appears to be no danger of anything falling on our heads. Then I remember the times I walked out of a site hut wearing just a sun hat with a low visor and cracked my head on a piece of scaffolding so hard that my vision blurred and my teeth rattled. And also when I had my very own comedy moment of stepping on a garden hoe, only for it to spring up and smack me in the face, unfortunately cracking the only pair of glasses I currently had. Dammit.
Sometimes it feels like the world has gone health and safety mad. Sometimes it’s nice just to come home, put your feet up and play a nice safe videogame.