Three Things Wednesday: Study Season

This summer’s work at Polis in Cyprus has been a study season. This means that we spend our days in storerooms and at our laptops rather than in trenches or survey units.That said, over the past couple weeks, I got to thinking about our study season and the challenges and opportunities that come from traveling thousands of miles to stare at my laptop and sleep in an uncomfortable bed.

This will be the topic of my non-alliterative three things Wednesday:

Thing the First

Colloquially, archaeologists celebrate study seasons as somehow less intense and rigorous than field work, and this is certainly true on a physical level. I love that I’m not physically exhausted at the end of the day, but for some reason I still find that by 3 or 4 in the afternoon, I’m beat.

I’m finding that I’m exerting a huge amount of mental energy on analyzing the results of past field work and putting together our study of finds, notebooks, and various plans. Much of the basic analysis occurred in 2016-2019 and the plan for 2020 was to simple review and finalize it. Over the past two years, we also decided to take work that was destined for a relatively concise (10,000-15,000 word article) and expand it into 30,000 book section. As part of that process, we’re unpacking the reasoning behind small decisions which form the foundations for our arguments. This also prompted us to question our reasoning and review evidence at a highly granular level. In practice this involved reviewing every stratigraphic relationship, checking key artifact identifications and chronologies, and reconsidering the processes that created the site as it was excavated.

What I didn’t anticipate was how exhausting this kind of work would be.

Thing the Second

The other challenge that I’m facing this summer is that I went from juggling any number of projects: from teaching, to editing North Dakota Quarterly, doing college and community service, and fussing with various research projects. This kind of diffused attention allowed me to avoid some of the stress associated with burn out. When I got tired of doing one thing, I could switch my attention and do something else. It’s one of the great luxuries of academic life: we have multiple irons in the fire that allow us a range of opportunities and challenges.

Here on study season, I am focused on one thing. I go from being a fox to a hedgehog. And, it turns out, that being a hedgehog is especially exhausting not only because it involves a constantly (and relentless) level of concentration, but also because there are far fewer opportunities for taking a productive break. Even my beloved blog has fallen a bit to the wayside in the face of the insistent need to finish up projects here at Polis.

It never occurred to me that the structure of academia tends to reward foxes, but providing them with plenty of opportunities to recharge in productive ways. Even taking a morning off to catch up on emails or to grade papers is a relief when the alternative is grading or editing. The range of tasks available on a day-to-day basis ensures that even if I work long hours, there is enough diversity to ensure that I don’t get burned out or stuck in a rut.

This is not the case during a study season. Even moment I spend on something that does not require me to be here in Cyprus is a dollar ill spent.

Thing the Third

The biggest challenge facing us this season is “showing our work” and making the arguments, inferences, and conclusions that we have reached as transparent as possible. This means not only being explicit about our interpretations, but also preparing our data for publication. There is a lot of detailed work necessary to produce legible data for publication. Even just connecting various file types to one another (e.g. notebook pages, stratigraphic descriptions, tables associated with the bulk analysis of context pottery, inventoried pottery tables, and so on) is challenging and tedious.

It also requires attention to detail and a certain amount of concentration. More than that, I feel fatigued by our efforts to wade into the kind of fussy morass that archaeological thinking often produces and to bring order to this without obscuring the rough edges.

And maybe it is this kind of work, which involves making critical leaps, tracing inference in the data structure, and, at times, suspending skepticism, that is the most challenging and exhausting during a study season.

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